Thursday, March 1, 2018

Thomas Merton's prayer reflection on the Seven Deadly Sins


Trappist monk, Thomas Merton (1915–1968), was one of the best known Christian writers of the 20th century. One of his early books, New Seeds of Contemplation, has become a source of life giving inspiration for many people. Recently republished in 2007, much of this edition is available online HERE.

I share with you today, from that book, the following prayer. Part of Merton’s reflection on the Seven Deadly Sins, it is very appropriate for Lent:

Justify my soul, O God, but also from Your fountains fill my will with fire. 
Shine in my mind, although perhaps this means “be darkness to my experience,” 
but occupy my heart with Your tremendous Life. 

Let my eyes see nothing in the world but Your glory, 
and let my hands touch nothing that is not for Your service. 

Let my tongue taste no bread 
that does not strengthen me to praise Your great mercy. 

I will hear Your voice 
and I will hear all harmonies You have created, singing Your hymns. 

Sheep’s wool and cotton from the field shall warm me enough 
that I may live in Your service; 
I will give the rest to Your poor. 
Let me use all things for one sole reason: 
to find my joy in giving You glory.

Therefore keep me, above all things, from sin. 

Keep me from the death of deadly sin which puts hell in my soul. 

Keep me from the murder of lust that blinds and poisons my heart. 

Keep me from the sins that eat a man’s flesh with irresistible fire 
until he is devoured. 

Keep me from loving money in which is hatred, 
from avarice and ambition that suffocate my life. 

Keep me from the dead works of vanity 
and the thankless labour 
in which artists destroy themselves for pride and money and reputation, 
and saints are smothered under the avalanche of their own importunate zeal. 

Stanch in me the rank wound of covetousness 
and the hungers that exhaust my nature with their bleeding. 
Stamp out the serpent envy 
that stings love with poison and kills all joy.

Untie my hands and deliver my heart from sloth. 
Set me free from the laziness that goes about disguised as activity 
when activity is not required of me, 
and from the cowardice that does what is not demanded, 
in order to escape sacrifice.

But give me the strength that waits upon You 
in silence and peace. 
Give me humility in which alone is rest, 
and deliver me from pride which is the heaviest of burdens. 
And possess my whole heart and soul 
with the simplicity of love.

Occupy my whole life 
with the one thought and the one desire of love, 
that I may love not for the sake of merit, 
not for the sake of perfection, 
not for the sake of virtue, n
ot for the sake of sanctity, 
but for You alone.

For there is only one thing that can satisfy love and reward it, 
and that is You alone.

Friday, February 23, 2018

A link in the apostolic chain

Today we thank the Lord for the ministry and martyrdom of St Polycarp, Bishop of Smyrna, who was born (most likely) in 69 A.D., and died in 155 A.D. We ask this holy man to pray for us that we, like him, might be faithful in our witness to the Gospel of Jesus and the Faith once delivered to the saints, especially when such faithfulness entails sacrifice of one kind or another.

In his youth, Polycarp sat at the feet of the Apostle John from whom he learned the Faith. Furthermore, according to Irenaeus it was “by apostles in Asia” that he was appointed bishop of the Church in Smyrna, the second of the seven churches of Revelation (Revelation 2:8-11). It says in Revelation that the Lord knew their works and tribulation and poverty - although really they were rich! It goes on to predict a time of tribulation, as well as the reward of the crown of life for those who are faithful unto death.

The name Smyrna comes from the sweet smelling incense “myrrh.” The Church at Smyrna was indeed a sweet smelling sacrifice, offered completely to God, its members mercilessly fed to wild beasts or burned alive. The city came under Byzantine rule in the fourth century. This lasted until Seljuk Turks conquered it in the 11th century. Then in 1415, Smyrna became part of the Ottoman Empire. It is now the modern Turkish city of Izmir.

We know that Polycarp was regarded as a gentle, godly pastor, and a key mainstream leader within the Church of his day. Near the end of his life he travelled to Rome as spokesman of the Churches in Asia in order to discuss the proper date of Easter with Pope Anicetus. They parted friends, neither having persuaded the other, and the Pope - as a mark of deep respect - “conceded” Polycarp the celebration of the Eucharist in Rome (Eusebius v.23-5).

Polycarp vigorously defended the truly incarnational Catholic Faith against the fashionable gnostic sect of Valentinians - whose version of Christianity reminds us of many ideas we come across today! (As St Irenaeus wrote of this sect, “They create their own Scriptures, boasting that they possess more Gospels than there really are. Indeed, they have gone to such a degree of audacity, as to entitle their comparatively recent writing the Gospel of Truth though it agrees in nothing with the Gospels of the Apostles so that they have really no gospel which is not full of blasphemy.” - Against Heresies 3.9)

And, as if the Valentinians were not enough, Polycarp also had to defend the Faith against Marcion who denied that the God of the Old Testament was also the God of the New Testament. (In fact, many modern day Christians tend to be Marcionites in their approach to the Old Testament, a point driven home by Fr Aidan Nichols in his book on the Old Testament, “Lovely Like Jerusalem.”)

St Polycarp was a friend of Ignatius, Bishop of Antioch. When Ignatius was being taken under guard to Rome for his execution, he met Polycarp at Smyrna. Later, from Troas, Ignatius wrote Polycarp a letter which has survived. You can read it HERE. We also have the letter written by Polycarp to the Church at Philippi in Macedonia. It is HERE.

Polycarp was martyred, with twelve others, when he was 86 years old, during a time of persecution.

On Holy Saturday in 155 AD, he was carried before the proconsul and threatened with death in the fire if he would not renounce the Christian faith. The proconsul liked the old man and urged him, saying, “swear, and I will release you, - Curse Christ.” Polycarp answered, “eighty and six years have I served him, and he never once wronged me; how then shall I blaspheme my King, who has saved me?”

“When the pyre was ready, Polycarp removed his outer clothes and loosened his girdle. He even tried to take off his shoes, a thing which he never did before because the faithful used constantly to vie with one another to see who could touch his flesh first. Such was the honour in which he was held, even before his martyrdom, for the saintliness of his life. Immediately the irons with which the pyre was equipped were fastened round him, but when they tried to nail him as well, he said, “Let me be. He who gives me strength to endure the fire will also grant me to stay on the pyre unflinching even without your making sure of it with nails.’ So they did not nail him, but only tied him up.

“And so he was bound, putting his arms behind his back like a noble ram taken from a large flock for a sacrifice, a burnt offering acceptable to and made ready for God. Then he gazed up to heaven and said: “O Lord God Almighty, Father of your beloved and blessed child Jesus Christ, through whom we have received knowledge of you, God of the angels and the powers and of all creation, God of the whole race of the righteous who live in your sight; I bless you, for you have thought me worthy of this day and hour to share the cup of your Christ, as one of your martyrs, to rise again to eternal life in body and soul in the immortality of the Holy Spirit. May I be taken up today into your presence among your martyrs, as a rich and acceptable sacrifice, in the manner you have prepared and have revealed, and have now brought to fulfilment, for you are the God of truth, and in you is no deceit. And so also I praise you for all things; I bless you and glorify you through our eternal high priest in heaven, your beloved child, Jesus Christ, through whom be glory to you and to him and to the Holy Spirit, now and for the ages to come. Amen.”

(From The Letter of the Church at Smyrna on the Martyrdom of St Polycarp - translation from The Divine Office)

Apart from the glories of his ministry and martyrdom, St Polycarp is important as a link between the original Apostles and the Age of the Fathers. It is significant that his short Letter to the Philippians has 112 quotes and allusions to Scripture. Of these, only a dozen are from the Old Testament; the rest are from what would come to be called the New Testament. These are the New Testament books he quotes:

Matthew’s Gospel, Mark’s Gospel, Luke’s Gospel, Acts, 1 Corinthians, 2 Corinthians, Galatians, Ephesians, Philippians, 1 Thessalonians, 2 Thessalonians, 1 Timothy, 2 Timothy, Hebrews, 1 Peter, 1 John, 3 John.

Those who study the formation of the New Testament canon see this is an important indication that although considerable debate took place in the life of the Church on the fixing of the outer limits of the canon - a process that really took until 397 A.D. - the Apostolic writings were already “canonical” during the ministry of one who learned the Faith from the Apostles. (By the way, it is significant that Irenaeus - who had been a student of Polycarp - quotes from 21 of the 27 books of the New Testament, and probably alludes to three others.)

St Polycarp is also important as a link with those who affirm specifically “Catholic” beliefs about the ministry and the sacraments.

We just mentioned St Irenaeus who became Bishop of Lyons around 178 A.D. He was born around 130, only a century after the death of Jesus. When he was young there were still people around who had known the Apostles, heard them preach and studied with them, and who spoke and taught about them. Irenaeus writes:

Polycarp also was not only instructed by apostles, and conversed with many who had seen Christ, but was also, by apostles in Asia, appointed bishop of the Church in Smyrna, whom I also saw in my early youth, for he tarried [on earth] a very long time, and, when a very old man, gloriously and most nobly suffering martyrdom, departed this life, having always taught the things which he had learned from the apostles, and which the Church has handed down, and which alone are true. (Against Heresies, III.3.4)

Irenaeus learned many things from Polycarp. He writes:

“I remember the events of that time more clearly than those of recent years. For what boys learn, growing with their mind, becomes joined with it; so that I am able to describe the very place in which the blessed Polycarp sat as he discoursed, and his goings out and his comings in, and the manner of his life, and his physical appearance, and his discourses to the people, and the accounts which he gave of his intercourse with John and with the others who had seen the Lord. And as he remembered their words, and what he heard from them concerning the Lord, and concerning his miracles and his teaching, having received them from eyewitnesses of the ‘Word of life,’ (1 John 1:1) Polycarp related all things in harmony with the Scriptures.

“These things being told me by the mercy of God, I listened to them attentively, noting them down, not on paper, but in my heart. And continually, through God’s grace, I recall them faithfully. And I am able to bear witness before God that if that blessed and apostolic presbyter had heard any such thing [i.e. heresy], he would have cried out, and stopped his ears, and as was his custom, would have exclaimed, O good God, unto what times have you spared me that I should endure these things? And he would have fled from the place where, sitting or standing, he had heard such words.” (Eusebius 5.20.5-7)

The Apostle John, who outlived the rest of the Twelve, taught Polycarp, who - in turn - passed his teaching on. According to his testimony, Irenaeus received this same teaching from Polycarp, and also passed it on - an example of “capital T tradition” being guarded by the Apostolic Succession, for there it is . . . John, Polycarp, and Irenaeus . . . the early Church’s bishops in succession.

What did Irenaeus get from Polycarp? What did he pass on? One of his key teachings was to do with the Eucharist. His clear statement on this subject was necessitated by the Gnostic heresies, all of which were dualistic, seeing spirit as good, and matter as evil, or at least incapable of goodness. Many of them denied that Jesus had a real body, and therefore denied that the Eucharist is the body and blood of Jesus. How could God's presence be in any way associated with physical things like bread and wine? So . . . here is a passage from Irenaeus’ teaching on the Eucharist, which he heard from Polycarp, who learned it from John, who received it from Jesus:

1. When Christ visited us in His grace, He did not come to what did not belong to Him: also, by shedding His true blood for us, and exhibiting to us His true flesh in the Eucharist, He conferred upon our flesh the capacity of salvation . . .

2. But vain in every respect are they who despise the entire dispensation of God, and disallow the salvation of the flesh, and treat with contempt its regeneration, maintaining that it is not capable of incorruption. But if this indeed does not attain salvation, then neither did the Lord redeem us with His blood, nor is the cup of the Eucharist the communion of His blood, nor the bread which we break the communion of His body. For blood can only come from veins and flesh, and whatsoever else makes up the substance of man, such as the Word of God was actually made. By His own blood he redeemed us, as also His apostle declares, “In whom we have redemption through His blood, even the remission of sins.” And as we are His members, we are also nourished by means of the creation (and He Himself grants the creation to us, for He causes His sun to rise, and sends rain when He wills). He has acknowledged the cup (which is a part of the creation) as His own blood, from which He bedews our blood; and the bread (also a part of the creation) He has established as His own body, from which He gives increase to our bodies.

3. When, therefore, the mingled cup and the manufactured bread receives the Word of God, and the Eucharist of the blood and the body of Christ is made, from which things the substance of our flesh is increased and supported, how can they affirm that the flesh is incapable of receiving the gift of God, which is life eternal, which [flesh] is nourished from the body and blood of the Lord, and is a member of Him? even as the blessed Paul declares in his Epistle to the Ephesians, that “we are members of His body, of His flesh, and of His bones.” He does not speak these words of some spiritual and invisible man, for a spirit has not bones nor flesh; but [he refers to] that dispensation [by which the Lord became] an actual man, consisting of flesh, and nerves, and bones, that [flesh] which is nourished by the cup which is His blood, and receives increase from the bread which is His body. And just as a cutting from the vine planted in the ground fructifies in its season, or as a corn of wheat falling into the earth and becoming decomposed, rises with manifold increase by the Spirit of God, who contains all things, and then, through the wisdom of God, serves for the use of men, and having received the Word of God, becomes the Eucharist, which is the body and blood of Christ; so also our bodies, being nourished by it, and deposited in the earth, and suffering decomposition there, shall rise at their appointed time, the Word of God granting them resurrection to the glory of God, even the Father, who freely gives to this mortal immortality, and to this corruptible incorruption, because the strength of God is made perfect in weakness, in order that we may never become puffed up, as if we had life from ourselves, and exalted against God, our minds becoming ungrateful; but learning by experience that we possess eternal duration from the excelling power of this Being, not from our own nature, we may neither undervalue that glory which surrounds God as He is, nor be ignorant of our own nature, but that we may know what God can effect, and what benefits man receives, and thus never wander from the true comprehension of things as they are, that is, both with regard to God and with regard to man. 
(Against Heresies, Book V Ch II)

Why am I giving you such a chunk of St Irenaeus on this feast of St Polycarp? I’ll tell you why. In my teenage years I made friends with people from across the spectrum of Christian traditions . . . good friends, sincere friends, some of whom did (and still do) shame me with the reality of their walk with God. Furthermore, I believe that many of those traditions have preserved aspects of the Gospel and even the Catholic Faith that have at times been overlooked by the Catholic Church. And it is obvious that the Holy Spirit still uses these traditions in different ways to bring people to know Jesus.

But at a time when I wanted to know the truth about the sacraments, I had to come to terms with the fact that to deny Catholic teaching meant accepting the Church up to 397 A.D. as being able reliably to tell me what constituted the Word of God (the canon of Scripture), and then using relatively novel (400 years old) interpretations of that Scripture to prove that the same Church was in error on just about everything else she demonstrably believed back then! For me it was clear: I could not logically accept the New Testament as the Word of God without also accepting the Real Presence of Jesus in the Eucharist, the sacrificial dimenson of the Eucharist, and the Apostolic Succession etc etc.

(By the way, it also became clear to me that the Anglican Tradition in its instinct is truly Catholic, for Canon 6 of the same 1571 Convocation that authorised the final form of the Thirty-nine Articles states:

“Preachers shall . . . see to it that they teach nothing in the way of a sermon, which they would have religiously held and believed by the people, save what is agreeable to the teaching of the Old or New Testament, and what the Catholic fathers and ancient bishops have collected from this selfsame doctrine . . . “

In other words, whatever else may be said about Anglican ambiguities and comprehensiveness, and the language of our formularies (and lots of things ARE said!), the intention of that Canon is quite clear: the clergy are to teach the mainstream things about the Eucharist that we find passed on by St Polycarp and others in that vital succession of the Church of the Apostles and early Fathers. And in our own time "Anglo-Catholics" bear a good deal of reproach for our determination still to witness to these foundational truths  

Another small digression . . . I must give you two more quotes from the same period. Writing between 80 A.D. and 110 A.D., St Ignatius, Bishop of Antioch (and, as we have seen, a friend of St Polycarp) calls the Blessed Sacrament:

“the flesh of our Saviour Jesus Christ, the flesh which suffered for our sins and which the Father, in His graciousness, raised from the dead.”
(To the Smyrnaeans VII.1)

St Justin Martyr says the same kind of thing a little later on - around 150 AD (i.e. still before St Polycarp, who learned the Faith from the Apostle John, had died):

“We do not consume the eucharistic bread and wine as if it were ordinary food and drink, for we have been taught that as Jesus Christ our Saviour became a man of flesh and blood by the power of the Word of God, so also the food that our flesh and blood assimilates for its nourishment becomes the Flesh and Blood of the incarnate Jesus by the power of His own words contained in the prayer of thanksgiving.”(Apology I.66)

Summing up, then . . . Irenaeus was taught by Polycarp, who was taught by John the Apostle - John who leaned against the breast of Jesus at the Last Supper, who stood by the cross with Mary, bore witness to the Resurrection, taught about Jesus being the Bread of Life (John 6), and celebrated many Masses in which he was convinced that the bread and wine really becomes the flesh and blood of Jesus, from which we receive his life for our own flesh, and which then leads to the resurrection of our bodies.

God of all creation,
it was your gracious will
that the holy bishop Polycarp
be numbered among the companyof the martyrs;
grant through his intercession
that we may share with him
the cup of Christ’s sufferings,
and so rise again to everlasting life.
We ask this through our Lord Jesus Christ, your Son,
who lives and reigns with you
in the unity of the Holy Spirit,
God for ever and ever.

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.