Sunday, February 18, 2018

Bishop Jack Iker's Message for Lent 2018

One of the contemporary heroes of orthodoxy among Anglican leaders is the Rt Rev’d Jack Iker, Third Bishop of Fort Worth. We continue to pray for Bishop Iker and his diocese as they witness to the Gospel and the Faith once delivered to the saints. The following is his Lent message for this year: 

The Pharisee said, “I thank thee, O God,
 that I am not like other men.”
 (Luke 18:11)

All of us have the tendency to compare ourselves to others – either favorably or unfavorably. It is a behavior that we learn at a very early age, and it remains with us as adults. It is a spirit of competition and rivalry. Am I smarter than he is? Am I more successful than she is? More popular, or better looking, or more whatever, than this or that person? Sometimes such comparisons lead to a sense of superiority – and sometimes to a feeling of inferiority. We’re better than some and worse than others.

This sort of comparison is what’s going on in the parable Jesus tells of the Pharisee and the tax collector, found in St. Luke 18:9-14. As the Pharisee prays in the temple, he looks down upon the sinful tax collector, praying at some distance away. He thanks God that he is more pious, more generous, and more obedient than other men are. He takes pride in himself, for he is better than others. But God is not impressed by his self-righteousness. Instead, God justifies the poor sinful man who recognizes his need for God’s forgiveness and mercy. “The tax collector, standing far off, would not even lift up his eyes to heaven, but beat his breast, saying, ‘God be merciful to me, a sinner!’” Jesus concludes the story saying, “I tell you, this man went down to his house justified rather than the other; for every one who exalts himself will be humbled, but he who humbles himself will be exalted.” Jesus reminds us of the clear biblical pattern: God lifts up the lowly and the humble, and He puts down the mighty and the proud.

What a contrast when you compare these two men who went to pray in the temple that day: One whose chest is puffed up with self-righteousness and pride, and the other who beats his breast with a sense of unworthiness and guilt. One who looks God straight in the eye and says, “I thank thee O God that I am not like other men – I’m special! I’m better!” And the other, eyes cast downward to the ground, who says simply, “God, be merciful to me, a sinner.”

Cross of ashesThe call of Lent is a reminder about comparisons. Ash Wednesday reminds us that rather than comparing ourselves to others, we are meant to compare ourselves to Jesus. He is the pattern and standard for our behavior and attitudes, for He is the perfect man, He is God Incarnate, and He alone is without sin. He is the one true model and example by which all other lives are measured. In Him, we see what God intends us to be like, for He is perfect love in action. Jesus is the measure for our self-evaluation and comparison. In Him we see what love looks like in interacting with others, and love is always the standard of God’s evaluation of you and me. 

In writing to the Church in Corinth, St. Paul is describing Jesus as he talks about the attributes of love. “Love is patient and kind; love is not jealous or boastful; it is not arrogant or rude. Love does not insist on its own way; it is not irritable or resentful; it does not rejoice at wrong, but rejoices in the right.” (I Cor. 13:4-6) That’s what Jesus is like – but what about us? How are we by comparison?

May God save us from smug self-righteousness that puffs up and makes us look down on others. May He give us humble and contrite hearts, that we may know His mercy and forgiveness. On this day of penitence, let us confess once again that we are too often the very opposite of the love we see in Jesus. For we are impatient and unkind; we are jealous and boastful; we have been arrogant and rude. We insist on our own way; we are irritable and resentful; we’ve rejoiced in the wrong and not in the right. Lord, have mercy on me, a sinner.

The Lenten season that begins with Ash Wednesday is meant to be a time for self-examination, a time to take a spiritual self-inventory, not for the purpose of comparing ourselves to others, but to Jesus. It begins when we ask God to help us see ourselves, not as others may see us, but as God in His mercy and love sees us. We need God’s help to see ourselves as we really are, not as what we so often pretend to be. And of course, God knows us better than we know ourselves – for He is the one “unto whom all hearts are open, all desires known, and from whom no secrets are hid.”

But this is where the good news of the Gospel enters in: Though God knows our faults and failures, still He loves us and reaches out to us in mercy. In spite of our sin-full-ness, He forgives us and reconciles us to Himself, by the blood of Jesus on the cross, who died to save sinners, like you and me. He sees the potential for good that is within us and draws out the best in us by the inner working of His Holy Spirit, “who can do infinitely more than we can ask or imagine.”  (Ephesians 3:20)

Let us pray.

Lord, during this season of Lent, make us humble and loving servants of your Kingdom. Help us to see the goodness in others and to love them as you love them. Take away from us pride and self-righteousness, and fill our hearts with a deeper love for Jesus and for others each day of our lives. Amen.

Wednesday, February 14, 2018

A crash course on the meaning of Lent

I have two things to share with you on this Ash Wednesday. The first is a REALLY good crash course on the meaning of Lent. Click on it. It goes for only a couple of minutes. But it is packed full of valuable insights.

The second is a brief reflection on Lent and the struggle we have to be real disciples of the Lord.

May you know the blessing of the Lord as you embark on Lent 2018.


Life is so often a struggle. Part of that is the feeling of being overburdened - by our circumstances, by the results of poor decisions we have made, by the evil actions of others, and by the consequences of our own sin. 

When we struggle it is a blessing to know the strength, the protection, the joy and even the peace that Jesus gives us. And, of course, that is such a wonderful part of the Gospel. So when we are overwhelmed by our circumstances, and Ash Wednesday preachers encourage us to "embrace afresh the struggle towards holiness" we are sometimes tempted to roll our eyes. Our struggles are already overwhelming - why do we need more? 

I'll tell you why. In our baptism we signed up to a lifelong struggle against sin, the world and the devil. It's there in black and white in the order of service, reflecting what we read in the Bible. We became not only "members of Christ's flock", but also his "soldiers" engaged (on his side) in a spiritual struggle. Part of that is how we wrestle with the evil within us - an aspect of the ongoing renewal of our minds that is part and parcel of our transfiguration and transformation.

In the language of the Church, Lent is a "healing time", and as such it sometimes involves serious spiritual surgery - which like other forms of surgery can be really painful. But the Lord invites us to take seriously this "spiritual checkup" and come to terms with where we really are in our relationship with him and with the communities in which he has placed us, so as to experience afresh the power and wonder of our baptism in the great celebration of Easter. 

If we follow through with the Scripture readings set for the Lent season, we will find ourselves accompanying some of the great women and men of our Jewish/ Christian story who in spite of their sins, their failures and their struggles learned to walk with God. What God did in their lives, he's doing in ours. Sometimes he soothes us and consoles us. Other times he gets serious with his scalpel. He knows what he is doing, and all he asks of us is to trust him more, by embracing the spiritual struggle to be more like him.

John Wesley had more than his fair share of spiritual and emotional anguish. But he wrote these powerful words to encourage his preachers to be real disciples of Jesus. 

"The denying ourselves and the taking up our cross, in the full extent of the expression, is not a thing of small concern: It is not expedient only, as are some of the circumstantials of religion; but it is absolutely, indispensably necessary, either to our becoming or continuing his disciples. It is absolutely necessary, in the very nature of the thing, to our coming after him and following him; insomuch that, as far as we do not practise it, we are not his disciples. If we do not continually deny ourselves, we do not learn of him, but of other masters. If we do not take up our cross daily, we do not come after him, but after the world, or the prince of the world, or our own fleshly mind. If we are not walking in the way of the cross, we are not following him; we are not treading in his steps; but going back from, or at least wide of, him . . . Meditate upon [self denial] when you are in secret: Ponder it in your heart! Take care not only to understand it throughly, but to remember it to your lives' end! Cry unto the Strong for strength, that you may no sooner understand, than enter upon the practice of it. Delay not the time, but practise it immediately, from this very hour! Practise it universally, on every one of the thousand occasions which will occur in all circumstances of life! Practise it daily, without intermission, from the hour you first set your hand to the plough, and enduring therein to the end, till your spirit returns to God!"

- from John Wesley's sermon "Self Denial"

Sunday, February 11, 2018

Jesus touches the Leper and heals him

Today’s Gospel (Mark 1:40-45) is about Jesus reaching out his hand and touching a leper. 

In spite of the fact that we know of leper colonies in recent history, we often gloss over passages like this without really being impacted as we should.

We know that the leprosy spoken of was much wider than present-day leprosy. The term covered a range of contagious skin diseases, and it was regarded as the ultimate impurity. St Gregory of Nazianzus (329-374) tells us how things were. He says that leprosy ate away the flesh and bones to the extent that eventually the sufferers were unrecognizable. To identify themselves, they would say, “I am the child of that man; that woman there is my mother; my name is so and so; you were once my close friend.”

Gregory goes on to say: “They can no longer make themselves recognizable by their features, by what was formerly characteristic of their face. Gnawed by the disease, they have lost their fortune, their parents, even their bodies . . . A mother would like to embrace her child, but she dreads the flesh of that child as she dreads an enemy.” 

It was against the law for lepers to go into the cities, to use ordinary roads or to touch creeks, lakes and wells that others were likely to use. Leviticus 13:45-46 was still taken seriously by everyone! 

Gregory reminds us that what Jesus did for the leper in today’s Gospel would have caused a chill to run down the spines of his congregation. Deeply moved with love and compassion, he stretched out his hand, touched the leper, and healed him. (Touching the man with leprosy was completely unacceptable within that culture. Not only did Jesus risk contamination, he also "broke the law" by ignoring the boundary between the "mainstream" and those who no longer belonged.)

Of course, the loveliest thing is that Jesus didn’t see a leper at all. He saw one of God’s dear children in desperate need, and by stretching out his hand and touching the man, he released a torrent of healing love into his life.

In today’s second reading (1 Corinthians 10:31 - 11:1) the apostle Paul urges us to imitate Christ. That must include touching those whose lives are hurting and need healing.

So, throughout its history, the Church, for all of its faults (which admittedly are many!), has cared for the sick and dying in a way that has helped them know dignity and love "from conception to natural death." And not just in the sacramental and spiritual aspects of the healing ministry: it was the Church that first established hospitals and hospices!

But, in spite of this, and in spite of all we read in the Gospels, it is sadly not unusual to hear of church people (and others, too) punishing their children for not being "up to scratch" by pushing them away, out of their lives.

Practising Christians must get across to their children - and others - that however wayward they might be, and whatever mistakes they might have made, and wherever they are on their faith journey, they are deeply loved with an everlasting love, and that no situation exists where healing cannot happen. The hand of Jesus is never out of reach. Church leaders also need to take this on board, especially those who, like some of the religious leaders in the time of Jesus, tend to be highly judgmental of others who have messed up their lives (i.e. as if we haven't ALL done that in one way or another!). 

Whenever Jesus came across the troubled, the abandoned, the sick, and those whose lives had been ruined even by their own sinfulness and bad decisions, he was moved, not by disgust, not by a compulsion to restore “order” for its own sake, but by compassion; and he reached out and touched them with his healing love. All who allowed him to touch their lives received a new beginning.

What a wonderful message of hope and redemption. Jesus is the same, yesterday, today and forever!

Friday, February 2, 2018

Father Stanton's Candlemas Sermon

Elsewhere on ths blog is the story of Father Arthur Stanton, who was for fifty years a curate at St. Albans, Holborn, London. He was also a greatly loved eccentric who combined the fulness of the Catholic faith with evangelical fervour. He is still remembered as wonderful priest, powerful preacher and caring pastor. He died at the age of seventy-four in March 1913. Father Stanton was once asked what he hoped might be carved on his tombstone. His answer was simple yet profound: “He preached Jesus and only Jesus.” 

The following is taken from Arthur Stanton, a Memoir, by G.W.E. Russell, published in 1917 (pages 134-137). It is an eyewitness report of Father Stanton’s sermon at the Candlemas High Mass in 1873:

“Father Stanton . . . gave out his text, which was from Malachi iii., part of the Scripture appointed for the Epistle of the Festival -  ‘The Lord Whom ye seek shall suddenly come to His Temple.’ He dwelt on the peculiar character of the Festival under its double aspect of the Purification of ‘our Blessed Lady,’ and the Presentation of our Lord in the Temple. It was, he said, like a last look at Christmas, over which was beginning to be cast the dark shadow of the Passion. The curtain was lifted for one moment and the spectacle showed us the power of Christian heroism. We saw our sweet and blessed Lady, carrying in her arms her Divine Son. It was, as he had said, a last lingering glance at Christmas, and a spectacle dear to every Catholic heart, that Mother with that Child at her breast. To-day she is passing, with St. Joseph, the foster-father, through the streets of Jerusalem. There are the dark shadows of the houses, and the glare of the Eastern sunshine, and the passers-by going to and fro. How often has she come before to the same place! Now, though a mother, she is ‘spotless as the driven snow.’ Father Stanton cleverly pressed this image into his service (- the snow fell heavily that day in London). 

“What thoughts must have been in her mind as she held in her arms her Son, the Everlasting God, the Prince of Peace! Yes, she bore the Eternal Son, as she ascended those steps. 

“In the Temple, how simple was the scene! An old man takes the Child, and a thrill of joy passes through his heart. He had waited for the Consolation of Israel. He speaks a few words;and then a woman stricken in years comes in. She utters her prophecy. She recognizes the Lord of lords in the Child. The offering is made, the purification is over, and they leave. Night closes, and the Temple-doors are shut. The Lord had suddenly come to His Temple. He Whom they yearned for had come. Heaven and earth had met together; God and man had met. The glory of the latter House had exceeded that of the former. The latter outshone its predecessor. The glory of the Temples had come. Only two persons recognized it. It had come - and gone. 

“The great thought of this festival is the superhuman manifestation of God to those who watch for Him. He was not recognized by the scribe who knew the law; by the Sanhedrim, the rulers, the learned, or the mighty. Two old people who had long been waiting were the only ones who knew Him. That Babe Who was set for the fall and rising again of many in Israel is the same yesterday, to-day, and for ever. Those who saw Him were ‘full of the Holy Ghost.’ To them it was revealed that they should see the Lord’s Christ; and a light greater than that of the sun came to their hearts. That old man saw what the wise could not see. He took up the Lord of life in his arms; and he felt that now he could depart in peace, for he had seen the Lord’s salvation. 

“‘Dear friends,’ said Father Stanton, ‘this realization of Jesus Christ is far beyond all learning, art, or science. There is given to those who seek it, a light above that of the sun. Christ communicates Himself in His Divine Personality as well as Essence. 

“ ‘Religion is unsatisfactory unless we can thus have personal intimacy with Christ. If we have but heard of Him through men and books. He only exerts a secondary power on us. Our conception of Him merely amounts to a moral certainty, as with any other great hero we read of in history. We have seen Him only through the shadow of ideas. We have not taken Him in our arms and gazed on Him with ineffable joy. 

“ ‘There is, you know it well, a special light, transcendent and transluminous. The converted man will say, “ I have read, and heard, and argued laboriously about Christ, but some day there came to me, at the comer of the street, or at my own fireside, or during some sermon, a mystic certainty about Him. The scales dropped from my eyes. I saw my Lord, as I had never seen Him before. I felt the power of salvation. I went back again to my books, and, as I read the old pages, a new light flashed upon me. New arguments came which I had never seen before; and Faith, got from that mystic light, confirmed them. I never can deny this, for to do so would be to deny the secret of my life.” 

“ ‘No one can say that Jesus is the Christ, but by the Holy Ghost. You may say you think so; the Child might be God. But to see it with the light of the superhuman day is another thing. Far different to know that the Lord Whom you have looked for has suddenly come to His Temple. Then you may say  -  

‘Oh! my sweet Jesus, come to me 
My longing heart’s desire ; 
With tears of love I’ve wept for Thee, 
Thee doth my soul require. 

‘A thousand times I’ve yearned for Thee 
Jesu ! when wilt Thou come ? 
When will Thy Presence gladden me. 
And make in me a home?‘ 

‘If the Revelation of Christ is not so, if it depends on knowledge or reading, where is the Sacred Democracy of the Faith? It would be an oligarchy of genius. How could the little child make the Sign of the Cross? How could the poor man be lifted up from the dunghill? Jesus Christ Himself seemed to burst into enthusiasm when He thought of this, saying: “I thank Thee, O Father, Lord of Heaven and Earth, that Thou hast hid these things from the wise and prudent, and hast revealed them unto babes.” 

“ ‘Of course, the great question is. Have all these people conscious communion with God; this mystic knowledge of things about which we hear so much and see so little? Yes. Wherever God has created life, He has given certain powers, going out beyond the organism of the life itself. Plants have powers which seem to trench on animalism. The vine throws out its tendrils for support, and roots pierce down to a congenial soil. Animals show powers which seem beyond instinct. We speak of the sagacity of the dog and the cunning of the fox. So in the higher life of man, there are strange instincts. There are impressions we cannot account for; there are moments when we seem to stand out beyond ourselves. We feel intelligences within us which we cannot explain - such as prognostications and presentiments. 

“‘When God makes His faithful ones partakers of Himself, He gives them a certainty far greater than that which is arrived at by logic and science. We can see this in the lives of the Saints, in the annals of the Church. People lead lives of extraordinary faith, which neither they nor you can account for. “By the Grace of God I am what I am,” is all they can say. 

“‘But, you will still ask, Is it likely I shall ever feel like this? I have heard of conscious conversion and intercourse with God, but it seems far above my head. I never felt it, though I have practised religion for years. I cannot put my hand on a particular day of my life, and say, “On that day I became converted.” How is it I cannot do as others? Do not be distressed. Go on waiting for the Consolation of Israel. Do you not see that they in the Temple had been doing so? That old man had been promised that he should see the Lord’s Christ. He waited patiently, “full of the Holy Ghost,” and at last the Lord suddenly came to His Temple. He did depart in peace. 

‘”So, too, that old woman; she had long fasted and prayed. Day and night, Scripture says, she had waited for the Consolation. It had not come, but day after day, and night after night she still went on — still fasted and prayed. “In eternity time struck the hour,” and Jesus Christ came. She had not waited in vain; and henceforth she could talk of nothing else to those others who were waiting too. And have you not felt this? You groan and pray to see God: to press Him to your heart and feel Him yours. You want to grasp what lies behind all your Prayers, Communions, and Confessions. You want religion to be a personal affection for Christ, something you can never let go. It shall come to you: when or how I cannot tell; but it shall come. Perhaps it may be at the end of your life, when the shadows of this world pass away, and the morning breaks over the everlasting hills. You shall see the King in His beauty. Whom you had tried to follow at such a distance off. Then will you say, “O God, Thou art my God. Jesus Christ, Thou didst come to earth for me.” And you will be able to add, “Lord, now lettest Thou Thy servant depart in peace: for mine eyes have seen Thy salvation.” ‘ “

Monday, January 29, 2018

Charles King & Martyr Propers (Trad)

(Click on these to enlarge)

Sunday, January 7, 2018

Epiphany - the golden light

The Epiphany of the Lord - 6th January, the Twelfth Day of Christmas - is often undervalued by Western Christians as part of the “quiet recovery period” following Christmas (especially in places like Australia when it is in the middle of the summer holidays with many people away and church life sinking to its lowest ebb). 

But Epiphany is important, as it emphasises the manifestation of Jesus to the whole world. The observance began in the Eastern Churches in the 200’s AD, where it was (and is) primarily a celebration of the Lord’s baptism in the Jordan River. That was a revelation of Jesus as the Second Person of the Trinity, with the Holy Spirit descending on him in the form of a dove, and the voice of the Father from heaven declaring, “This is my beloved son, listen to him” (Mark 9:7). The Western Church appropriated for this Feast the arrival of the Magi to worship Jesus as the sign of his identity as Saviour and King of all peoples, Gentiles as well as Jews.  (The other great Epiphany sign is the marriage feast in Cana of Galilee where Jesus “revealed his glory” by transforming water into wine.)

A number of customs grew up around the celebration of Epiphany. A very good adaptation of these for modern conditions can be found HERE and HERE.

I have taken the following poem by Father Peter Mullen from the January 2013 issue of New Directions:


In the golden light of these gifts
Incense rises.
In those days when God was young
In the cowshed;
Then steward to that couple by the lake,
The water pots filled with water,
The water made wine.
Little boats on the Sea of Tiberius,
Like eighteenth-century virginals:
Simple: the sort of sketch Picasso would do
On his napkin to pay for his dinner.
Delicate crafts like musical instruments;
Old man Hermon over the lake,
And a meandering of currents down to Masada.
‘Will you come again, Jesus, and tell us that it’s true –
that it’s all true;
And we are not mere husks or empty shells
Cast upon that shore?’
There is life here,
I am under the velvet skin of it,
And the ointment with the purple,
The alabaster box and the woman’s tears.
I love, I think,
But I know not what I love:
Teach me, my God and King.
And when the twilight broods
Over Magdala and Cana,
Capernaum and the little house where once thou sayest, 
‘Whether is easier to say, ‘Thy sins be forgiven thee, or else, 
Arise, take up thy bed and walk’?’
It is the early spring now of thy healing
And the nervous flowers come with music:
I hear, O Sacred Head, and that
The duteous day now closeth.
I lie here in fear and ecstasy.
Remove, O Lord, the types and shadows,
The accursed figures of speech,
The lying similes.
Bring on the harpsichord boats and
The water pots of wine;
The golden light of the first gifts,
The sun, early, east of Jordan:
Frankincense –
And myrrh.

Friday, December 29, 2017

The Incarnation itself an act of Sacrifice (Michael Ramsey)

These beautiful words, from THE GOSPEL AND THE CATHOLIC CHURCH (p.21) by Michael Ramsey (1904-1988), the 100th Archbishop of Canterbury, remind us not to over-compartmentalise the aspects of the person and work of Christ

His selfhood is so laid down, that His power and authority centre in His humiliation. Such is the impression of the earthly life of Jesus. But this seIf-abandonment does not belong to that earthly life alone, for it is the expression in history of the self-giving of the eternal God. Saint Paul makes it clear that the first and great act of humiliation is the act whereby the Son of God is made man.

“Have this mind in you, which was also in Christ Jesus; who, being in the form of God, counted it not a prize to be on an equality with God, but emptied himself, taking the form of a servant, being made in the likeness of men; and being found in fashion as a man, he humbled himself, becoming obedient unto death, yea, the death of the cross.” (Phil. 2:5-7)

Thus, before the humiliations of the Messiah in His life and death upon earth, there is the divine self-emptying whereby He "came" and “was sent." For St. Paul the Incarnation is in itself an act of sacrifice than which none is greater; Christmas is as costly in self-giving as is Good Friday. Only the crucifixion is the deepest visible point of the divine self-giving which entered history at Bethlehem and which begins in heaven itself. "There was a Calvary above which was the mother of it all." #

# Here Ramsey quotes the Congregationalist P. T. Forsythe (1848-1921)

Monday, December 25, 2017

BY GRACE THINGS CAN BE BETTER - Archbishop Anthony Fisher's Christmas Homily

One of the truly great Christian leaders of our time is Anthony Fisher OP, Roman Catholic Archbishop of Sydney. In 1985 he entered the Dominicans, (the “Order of Preachers”), dedicated to preaching the Catholic faith in the context of a life of study, prayer and community. He studied for the priesthood in Melbourne, receiving an honours degree in Theology, having already received degrees in History and Law from the University of Sydney and practising law in a city firm. He gained a Doctorate in Bioethics at the University of Oxford, lectured at the Australian Catholic University and was an Adjunct Professor at The University of Notre Dame Australia. Archbishop Fisher has published extensively in bioethics and moral theology. He was the Foundation Director of the John Paul II Institute for Marriage and the Family in Melbourne, and served as Chaplain to the Parliament of Victoria. He became an Auxiliary Bishop in Sydney in 2003, Bishop of Parramatta in 2010, and Archbishop of Sydney in 2014.

Following is the homily Archbishop Fisher preached in St Mary's Cathedral, Sydney, on Christmas Day, 2017. It has been reproduced from the Sydney Catholic website.

Genealogy is all the rage. There are plenty of websites and search companies to help: some search birth and death, migration and marriage, council and electoral records for you; others even investigate your DNA. People construct family trees, join historical societies, organize big reunions. Europeans look for the blood of aristocrats or great historic figures in their veins, whereas Aussies hope to find a convict or bushranger in the family line! 

The first words of the New Testament are in fact “The genealogy of Jesus Christ, son of David, son of Abraham” and thereafter follows a long list of Jesus’ ancestors, often recited at the Christmas Masses before midnight (Mt 1:1-25). St Matthew sought thereby to highlight that the Baby born of Mary was indeed “of the Holy Spirit” but was also a real human being, with an extended family, history, culture and geography. His account picks and chooses a bit, as it traces 14 generations of ancestors between Abraham and David, when they became the royal family of Israel; 14 more until the exile, when they lost their position; and another 14 generations until kingship was definitively restored in Jesus Christ. Jesus is presented, then, as the cause and site for the reign of God. Make Him yours, make yourself His, as “God’s kingdom comes, on earth as it is in heaven”.

And so we meet the greats of Jewish history: Abraham, our Father in faith; the patriarchs Isaac and Jacob; the illustrious king David; Solomon the wise and Josiah the pious; the honourable Joseph and faithful Mary. Jesus is presented as the culmination of all that is best in our history, the patriarchs, prophets, priests, potentates and parents. It seems a rather European style of family tree, then, full of the great and good. Yet beneath the surface is a rather more Aussie-looking family gumtree: for Jesus’ tree is full of non-entities, and those whose names mean anything to us are a very mixed bunch indeed!

At the top of the tree are, of course, Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, later known as Israel. But Jacob, we know, conspired with his mother to trick his blind father and thus steal his place in the line from his brother Esau. He was conned in turn, taking the wrong girl for wife, and so fathered Judah. Judah was also tricked, in his case by his own daughter-in-law Tamar; having lost several husbands, most recently the infamous Onan, she played the harlot, lured Judah to her bed and so conceived Perez, her son and brother-in-law. Hearing his daughter-in-law was a pregnant lush, Judah ordered her execution, only to learn he was the father. So there’s a lot packed into an innocent-sounding line like “Isaac was the father of Jacob, Jacob the father of Judah and his brothers, Judah was the father of Perez and Zerah, Tamar being their mother.”

Drop a few lines down and we’re told “Salmon was the father of Boaz, Rahab being his mother. Boaz was the father of Obed, Ruth being his mother.” Again it sounds ordinary enough until we realize that grandma Rahab was another notorious prostitute who betrayed her own people to massacre. And as for Ruth, so determined was she to carry on the line that she slipped into Boaz’s bed though she was not his wife. But because the baby Obed was to be King David’s grandfather, all was forgiven as the family line wound its serpentine way towards Jesus. It seems that God can indeed “write straight with crooked lines”, working not just through the great and the good, but also despite and even through the not-so-good.

As the final report of the Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse recently revealed the shocking deeds of some clergy, religious and lay church-workers and inaction of some church leaders, we ache with shame and sorrow for the young people who were so terribly hurt; we rededicate ourselves to bringing such justice and healing to them as we can; and we resolve to do all in our power to ensure this is never repeated. But we are confronted yet again with the fact that there have been more-than-a-few rotten apples in our Church’s history, all the way back to Jesus and before, and more than a few failures of leadership. Ours is a family that needs periodic and radical renewal… a family that needs Christmas.

So much for Part One: Part Two of the genealogy turns out to be equally seedy. David is Jesus’ most famous ancestor, a shepherd-boy become king, poet-musician, slayer of giants, all-round great guy. But scratch the surface and you find a ruthless bandit who through various intrigues and murders secured power for his family. A voyeur, he had an affair with a married woman, murdered her husband, took her for his wife, and sired Solomon by her. Unsurprisingly, Solomon was no great example of “family values”: he took 700 princesses as wives and kept 300 commoners on the side as concubines!

No wonder he had so many descendants! But next in the line that stretches to Jesus is Rehoboam, a reprobate who introduced pagan rites and male prostitution into the Temple. The royal descendants continued thereafter as a most unseemly crew: idolaters, assassins, a mass murderer or two, even a wizard who engaged in child sacrifice, as well as more mundane examples of lust and ambition, greed and mismanagement… As our culture is riven by debates over life and love, and our politics all-too-often descends into fiasco, we might recall that God’s plan has often been worked out not just by the peace-loving and pure-hearted, but in polities and cultures muddled about values and led by the ruthless and irreligious…

So the line of Jesus carries forward, until we come at last to the sentimental story of Christmas, with angels, shepherds and kings, with fields, animals and manger, with mother, father and Babe (Luke 2:1-20). Yet even that romance is far from tidy: the mother is dogged by suspicion and snub; the angels sing of joy and peace even as Herod sets about killing the little children; the kings of earth shower gifts on the Babe, yet the family find no welcome at the inn and ultimately flee to Egypt. Their story echoes through the ages to our time, in which asylum-seekers, including desperate young men, pregnant women and newborn babies, still risk all in search of a safe inn. It resonates in the emotional complexities of Christmas for many, where families are hurting or bored, where someone is missed or would like to be. It resounds in our time in the terrorist killings of children this year in Manchester, Mogadishu and Manhattan, leaving populations grieving and terrified as in Bethlehem of old. And it echoes still today in Bethlehem, where high concrete security walls and check points confront residents and pilgrims alike… When I was there recently I saw a painting on the wall of a white peace dove wearing a flack-jacket and jailhouse graffiti saying “Make hummus not walls”.

The Christmas story, then, has everything. All human life is there, gathered around the cradle of a Child: light and dark, joys and heart-breaks, hopes and fears, angels and devils. And so the patriarchs are there beside the three kings, the nobodies and worse with the shepherds, all attending this Vigil in search of hope, good will, peace. If you are ever disappointed with your family, your country, your Church: that some lack faith or don’t practice what they preach; or if there’s mental illness, addiction or abuse, feuding, promiscuity or poor communication; if there’s financial stress or work stress, cooling passion or too much passion: whatever it is, rather than imagining you and yours are uniquely cursed, remember it was all there, and worse, in Jesus’ own family tree. Rather than the perfect, Jesus came to join a family just like yours; indeed, yours is the very family He connects with this Christmas.

But Jesus joins you this Christmas not to say that sin and sadness are all there is, that human beings are doomed to be mired in such things, and the best He can offer is to stand beside you. No, God-made-Baby says that by grace things can be better: humanity can be united to divinity and transformed by it. A new page is turned today; a new start given. The genealogy of Jesus Christ, Son of David, Son of Abraham continues: for of Him was born the Church and onto that family are grafted all the baptised and our hopes for every person.

* * * * * * * * * * * *
Word of Thanks after the Mass of the Day of the Lord's Nativity St Mary's Cathedral, Sydney Thanks to all those who contributed to today’s beautiful celebration of the Lord’s Nativity, especially our deacons. Our Dean Fr Don Richardson, Master of Ceremonies Fr Emmanuel Seo, Precinct Manager Helen Morassut and Sacristan Chris Backhouse, and their teams of celebrants and confessors, acolytes and servers, extraordinary ministers and lectors, ushers, staff and volunteers, ensure that our liturgical and devotional life are worthy and our cathedral always welcoming. Our Director of Music, Thomas Wilson, and our wonderful choir and organists, let us glimpse the glory of God in the highest and the harmonies possible amongst people of good will. Many others assist in the daily life of this great cathedral and I thank them all.

Some of you are regulars here; others less frequent; some visitors from overseas, from other parishes, even from other faith traditions. Please know that you are always welcome in this basilica and the other churches of Sydney. The God whose family tree has room for everyone wants you to be grafted onto his family, especially through acts of worship and then action to make our world a more just and loving place.

On behalf of all of us at St Mary’s Cathedral I wish you and your loved ones every blessing of this holy season of Christmas and of the New Year of Grace 2018.

Wednesday, December 20, 2017

Saying "Yes" to God

For some years, the logo used by the Anglican Shrine of Our Lady of Walsingham had embedded in it the words, "Say Yes to God." It was in every Walsingham Review, and turned up on everything else they published.

As part of our preparation for the celebration of the birth of Jesus, the Church reflects today on the coming of the angel to Mary and Mary’s “Yes”. Saying “Yes” to God is sometimes very hard. We are apprehensive, fearful, and worried that stepping out in faith and obedience will have disastrous consequences, humanly speaking. Well, the bad news is that sometimes it does!  It can mean sacrifice, pain, misunderstanding, and cruel opposition from those closest to us, as Jesus himself predicted.

Mary uttered her "yes" at a cruel and difficult time in Middle Eastern history. St Luke’s Gospel tells us that Mary was “greatly troubled” at the angel’s greeting. But it also tells us that “the angel said to her, ‘Do not be afraid, Mary . . .’” It is a recurring pattern in the  Scriptures, that when a new epoch of salvation history is about to begin, God reveals himself in a special way, and this revelation is accompanied with an encouragement not to be afraid.

Mary is our hero. As Wordsworth put it, she is “Our sinful nature’s solitary boast.” She became the Mother of Jesus. She is our Sister in Christ. She is the Mother of all her Son’s people. We seek her intercession as we so often struggle in our response to God’s love. 

But, while we recognise Mary's unique role in the story of salvation, we don't see her as being APART from us and our experience of grace. Indeed, her life of saying "yes" to God is the primordial Christian life of discipleship. The Gospel account strongly emphasises that God's work in her life - the fulness of grace she had been given - did not mean that she was free from having to exercise sometimes trembling faith in God’s promises just as we do. She really WAS “greatly troubled.” 

There has been nearly two thousand years of Christian meditation of the way that her “Yes” to God, began the great reversal of all that had gone wrong through the “No” uttered by Eve, the mother of all the living.  From this angle Mary is known as the “second Eve” or the “new Eve”, the mother of all who have been brought to life by the dying and rising of her Son.

May each of us be moved to "Say yes to God" afresh, not just for ourselves, but so as to become - like Mary - channels of his healing love for others.

It is in connection with these thoughts that I share with you the amazing crayon and coloured pencil drawing at the top of this post. Originally drawn to illustrate a Christmas card, it is the work of Trappist Sister Grace Remington of the Sisters of the Mississippi Abbey. In 2005 Abbess Columba Guare of the same community wrote this poem to accompany the drawing. Mary addresses Eve with hope and gladness:

O Eve!
My mother, my daughter, life-giving Eve,
Do not be ashamed, do not grieve.
The former things have passed away,
Our God has brought us to a New Day.
See, I am with Child,
Through whom all will be reconciled.
O Eve! My sister, my friend,
We will rejoice together
Life without end.

Also capturing the immensity of our Lady's fiat is this passage from today's Office of Readings. It comes from a sermon of St Bernard (1090-1153):

"You have heard, O Virgin, that you will conceive and bear a son; you have heard that it will not be by man but by the Holy Spirit. The angel awaits an answer; it is time for him to return to God who sent him. We too are waiting, O Lady, for your word of compassion; the sentence of condemnation weighs heavily upon us.

"The price of our salvation is offered to you. We shall be set free at once if you consent. In the eternal Word of God we all came to be, and behold, we die. In your brief response we are to be remade in order to be recalled to life.

"Tearful Adam with his sorrowing family begs this of you, O loving Virgin, in their exile from Paradise. Abraham begs it, David begs it. All the other holy patriarchs, your ancestors, ask it of you, as they dwell in the country of the shadow of death. This is what the whole earth waits for, prostrate at your feet. 

"It is right in doing so, for on your word depends comfort for the wretched, ransom for the captive, freedom for the condemned, indeed, salvation for all the sons of Adam, the whole of your race.

"Answer quickly, O Virgin. Reply in haste to the angel, or rather through the angel to the Lord. Answer with a word, receive the Word of God. Speak your own word, conceive the divine Word. Breathe a passing word, embrace the eternal Word.

"Why do you delay, why are you afraid? Believe, give praise, and receive. Let humility be bold, let modesty be confident. This is no time for virginal simplicity to forget prudence. In this matter alone, O prudent Virgin, do not fear to be presumptuous. Though modest silence is pleasing, dutiful speech is now more necessary. Open your heart to faith, O blessed Virgin, your lips to praise, your womb to the Creator. See, the desired of all nations is at your door, knocking to enter. If he should pass by because of your delay, in sorrow you would begin to seek him afresh, the One whom your soul loves. Arise, hasten, open. Arise in faith, hasten in devotion, open in praise and thanksgiving.

"Behold, the handmaid of the Lord, she says, be it done to me according to your word." 

Ex Homilíis sancti Bernárdi abbátis in Láudibus Vírginis Matris (Hom. 4, 8-9: Opera omnia, Edit. Cisterc. 4 [1966], 53-54)

Tuesday, December 19, 2017

Geoffrey Rowell on the Oxford Movement and the modern English celebration of Christmas

The title page of the first edition of A CHRISTMAS TALE, by Charles Dickens (1843)

This article, published in HISTORY TODAY on 21st December, 1993, was written by Geoffrey Rowell (1943-2017), who was at the time Fellow, Chaplain and Tutor in Theology at Keble College, Oxford. He eventually became the Church of England Bishop of Europe. Widely renowned as a specialist in 19th century Church history in general, and the Oxford Movement in particular, Geoffrey Rowell was a loving and orthodox bishop, and a member of The Society of St Wilfred and St Hilda. In this article he gives us a fascinating thumbnail sketch of the modern English observance of Christmas, emphasising the role of the Oxford Movement in its development.

The entire article is well worth reading. I share with you here just a few paragraphs on the special Christmas celebrations at Dr Pusey's church, St Saviour's Leeds:

Although Christmas was a time of festivity its church celebration in the nineteenth century owed much to the Oxford Movement. A significant feature of the concerns of the Tractarians was the revival and enrichment of the Prayer Book forms of service, and a proper observance of the seasons and festivals of the church calendar. It was no accident that John Keble's influential book of poems of 1827 entitled The Christian Year, providing verses and meditations on the Prayer Book services and on the Sundays and holy days observed by the Church of England. At St Saviour's, the church built by Dr Pusey in the slums of Leeds, a midnight Eucharist was celebrated on Christmas Eve in contrast to Leeds Parish Church where W.F. Hook had begun a mid- night Eucharist on New Year's Eve, as an Anglican response to Methodist watch-night services. J.H. Pollen, who served as a curate in the parish, wrote of the St Saviour's Christmas in 1849. The church was decked with boughs, banners and flowers:

". . . Large brass candelabra were placed before the altar full of lights; three tapers were put in the place of one in the sconces of the chancel; red hangings on the walls, a rich carpet on the floor, flowers on the altar screen, a white embroidered altar frontal.

". . . The Evensong was at nine with a meditative Sermon. At twelve, the Eucharist was celebrated and a Sermon preached on the mystery of the Incarnation. The Church was lighted, and before the Service the whole choir proceeded round the Church two and two, singing the hymn –

"Ye faithful, approach ye,
Joyfully triumphing,
O come ye, O come ye to Bethlehem."

(The unfamiliar opening of 'O come, all ye faithful', is from the translation of Adeste fideles made by Frederick Oakeley in 1841 for use at the Margaret Chapel in London.)

St Saviour’s also laid on a Christmas feast:

"Here was a vast tree fifteen feet high, all covered with lights, and hung with pictures, lolly-pops, 'spaice whistles', [i.e. barley-sugar whistles], ... On the steps at the end, a rough picture ... of a 'Presepio' (i.e. a nativity scene) was covered round with green boughs, and lighted up.

"Hostile observers were to misinterpret this picture as implying the worship of 'Adam and Eve' or 'Cain and Abel'. The 'Presepio', or nativity scene anticipates the Christmas 'crib', a custom going back to Francis of Assisi, which began to appear in English churches in the later nineteenth century. So accepted has this become that the word 'crib', which originally meant the 'manger' or 'rack' in a stable, and then a child's bed, is now used simply to refer to the representation in churches at Christmas of the birth of Christ at Bethlehem."

Bishop Geoffrey Rowell (1943-2017)

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.