Wednesday, November 30, 2011

Advent in a nutshell

One of the features of Advent in many parishes is the service of Lessons and Carols. We love all those familiar Old Testament readings which the early Christians (following the example of Jesus himself - Luke 24:27) understood as prophecies announcing the coming of God's Messiah.

Since the invention of printing and then the development of literacy skills across the whole population in western societies, we have got used to the idea that reading our Bibles at home individually is the primary way in which we hear God speak. This is not as it was for most of the Judeo-Christian sweep of history, in which the community "gathered around the Word" and experienced God in a corporate act of humble listening and waiting. In our culture the richness of the Scripture portions in the "Lessons and Carols" service, as well - of course - as the prophetic readings we hear at the Sunday Mass, renews for us this sense of hearing God together.

In his book Finding My Way Home, Henri Nouwen puts it this way:
"Our waiting is always shaped by alertness to the Word. It is waiting in the knowledge that someone wants to address us. The question is, are we home? Are we at our address, ready to respond to the doorbell? We need to wait together, to keep each other at home spiritually, so that when the Word comes it can become flesh in us. That is why the Book of God is always in the midst of those who gather. We read the Word so that the Word can become flesh and have a whole new life in us." (page 107)

Do you want to send your friends something that says it all in two minutes? Well, watch this YouTube clip. It is the very best!

Be patient till your wings are grown - Francis de Sales

Have you not known? Have you not heard?
The LORD is the everlasting God,
the Creator of the ends of the earth.

He does not faint or grow weary,
his understanding is unsearchable.
He gives power to the faint,
and to him who has no might he increases strength.

Even youths shall faint and be weary,
and young men shall fall exhausted;
but they who wait for the LORD shall renew their strength,
they shall mount up with wings like eagles,
they shall run and not be weary,
they shall walk and not faint.
(Isaiah 4:28-31)

Be patient till your wings are grown. I fear very much that you are too vehement and headlong in your wishes and attempts to fly. You see the beauty of spiritual light and good resolutions; you fancy that you have almost attained, and your ardor is redoubled; you rush forward, but in vain, for your master has chained you to your perch, or else it is that your wings are not grown; and this constant excitement exhausts your strength. You must indeed strive to fly, but gently, without growing eager or restless. You resign yourself, but it is always with a BUT; you want this and that, and you struggle to get it. A simple wish is no hindrance to resignation; but a palpitating heart, a flapping of wings, an agitated will, and endless, quick, restless movements are unquestionably caused by deficient resignation. Do you know what you must do? You must be willing not to fly, since your wings are not yet grown. Do not be so eager with your vain desires, do not even be eager in avoiding eagerness; go on quietly in your path - it is a good path.

Francis de Sales Biography And Works

Monday, November 28, 2011

Just "being"

For our Advent meditation, an excerpt from The Spiritual Life, the transcript of three talks given on the BBC in 1936 by well-known Anglican spiritual writer, Evelyn Underhill (1875-1941):

. . . when we lift our eyes from the crowded by-pass
to the eternal hills;
then, how much
the personal and practical things we have to deal with are enriched.
What meaning and coherence
comes into our scattered lives.
We mostly spend those lives conjugating three verbs:
to Want,
to Have,
to Do.

Craving, clutching, and fussing,
on the material, political, social, emotional, intellectual
—even on the religious — plane,
we are kept in perpetual unrest:
forgetting that none of these verbs
have any ultimate significance,
except so far as they are transcended by and included in,
the fundamental verb, to Be:
and that Being,
not wanting, having and doing,
is the essence of a spiritual life.

But now,
with this widening of the horizon,
our personal ups and downs, desires, cravings, efforts,
are seen in scale:
as small and transitory spiritual facts,
within a vast, abiding spiritual world,
and lit by a steady spiritual light.
And at once,
a new coherence comes into our existence,
a new tranquillity, and release.
Like a chalet in the Alps,
that homely existence gains atmosphere, dignity, significance
from the greatness of the sky above it
and the background of the everlasting hills . . .

From an Oratio of St Gregory Nazianzen

The Son of God himself, who is before all ages, the invisible, the incomprehensible, the bodiless, the beginning from the beginning, the light from the light, source of life and immortality, image of the archetype, immovable seal, unchangeable image, the Father’s definition and Word, he it is who came to his own image and took to himself flesh for the sake of our flesh. Then he united himself with an intelligent soul for my soul’s sake, purifying like by like. He took to himself all that is human, except sin. He was conceived by the Virgin who was first purified in body and soul by the Spirit. It was necessary both that childbearing be honoured and that virginity be honoured still more highly.

He came forth as God with what he had taken to himself. Out of two contraries, flesh and spirit, he made one. The Spirit conferred the godhead on the flesh that received it. He who enriches others becomes poor. He took to himself the poverty of my flesh so that I might obtain the riches of his godhead. Click HERE to continue reading . . .

An Advent treat - Bogoroditse Devo

This is the choir of Wells Cathedral singing Bogoroditse Devo from Rachmaninoff's Vespers

Raduisya, blagodatnaya Mariye,
Gospod s toboyu.
Blagoslovenna Ty v zhenakh,
i blagosloven plod chreva Tvoyego,
Yako Spasa rodila esi dush nashikh.

Theotokos, Mary full of grace,
the Lord is with thee.
Blessed art thou among women,
and blessed is the fruit of thy womb,
for thou has borne the Saviour of our souls.

From a sermon by St Aelred of Rievaulx

Let us take a look at ourselves and our city. Our way of life is a strongly fortified city surrounded on all sides by sound observances which, like walls and towers, rise up to prevent our enemy from deceiving us and enticing us away from our Emperor’s army. What a wall poverty is! How well it defends us against the pride of the world, against harmful and ruinous vanities and superfluities. What a tower silence is! It repels the assaults of contention, quarrelling, dissension, and detraction. What about obedience, humility, cheap clothing? What about a restricted diet? They are walls, they are towers against vices, against the attacks of our enemies. In this city we declare ourselves, not Romans, but angelic beings. For these observances demonstrate that we belong to the fellowship of the angels and are not among the slaves of the Romans. When we make profession of this way of life the words of Isaiah are fulfilled: They shall beat their swords into ploughshares and their spears into sickles. Then he goes on: Nation shall not lift sword against nation nor ever again be trained for war. Click HERE to continue reading . . .

Friday, November 25, 2011

Are the Gospels unhistorical???

Long-time readers of this blog know that I like the work of the Centre for Public Christianity in Sydney, and keep an eye on their video clips. So today, because of the soundbites we often hear from liberal scholars and theologians, I have posted a short interview Simon Smart did with Professor Craig Keener on the genre, writing and historicity of the Gospels. More material of this kind is available from the Centre's web site.

Wednesday, November 23, 2011

Father, make us one . . . that the world may know . . .

This photograph (thank you, Josue Cornejo) was taken on 27th October during the Pope's Pilgrimage to Assisi. May the Holy Spirit be poured out afresh across all Christian communities, bringing renewal, unity and peace. (Except as otherwise noted, the prayers and petitions below are based on the writings of the Abbé Paul Couturier.)


For the bad examples in our conduct,
which have slowed down, diminished or destroyed
the effects of grace in the souls of others:
We ask you to forgive us, Lord.

For forgetting to offer prayer, frequent, friendly, fervent,
on behalf of our fellow Christians:
We ask you to forgive us, Lord.

Above the frontiers of language, race and nation,
through all our rich difference and diversity:
Unite us, Lord Jesus.

With Christians who are persecuted and in need,
with our migrant and refugee brothers and sisters
across the world and in our midst:
Unite us, Lord Jesus.

Above our ignorance, our prejudices,
or any unconscious hostility,
through better understanding and ever closer communion:
Unite us, Lord Jesus.

Above our different spiritual and theological traditions,
in one spirit, one Bread and one Body:
Unite us, Lord Jesus.

O God, for the increase of your glory:
Gather your scattered people.

O God, for the triumph of good and of truth:
Gather your scattered people.

O God, that there may be but one fold and one Shepherd:
Gather your scattered people.

O God, that justice and peace may finally reign in the world:
Gather your scattered people.

O God, to bring fullness of joy to the heart of your Son:
Gather your scattered people.

By your power, Lord,
gather together your scattered flock
under the one authority of your Son:
that the design of your love may be accomplished
and that the world may know you, the one true God,
and Jesus Christ, whom you have sent.

Lord Jesus Christ, we pray for unity,
unity among all who profess your name,
unity among people from every nation and every colour,
unity within our families.
- let not the winds of alienation extinguish their fires of love-,
unity within our hearts
- let us not turn, divided or rejected, enemies to ourselves.
Envelop us in your seamless robe,
the one and whole garment of unity
in which you suffered for us.
(The Prayer for Unity of the Dioceses of Brugge, Lincoln and Nottingham)

Lord Jesus,
who prayed that we might all be one,
we pray to you for the unity of Christians,
according to your will, according to your means.
May your Spirit enable us
to experience the suffering caused by division,
to see our sin,
and to hope beyond all hope.

Monday, November 21, 2011

The Presentation of Mary

It seems thousands of years removed from us, but it was not so very long ago that life was marked out by religious feasts. Although everyone went to church, not everyone, of course, knew the exact contents of each celebration. For many, perhaps even the majority, the feast was above all an opportunity to get a good sleep, eat well, drink and relax. And nevertheless, I think that each person felt, if not fully consciously, that something transcendent and radiant broke into life with each feast, bringing an encounter with a world of different realities, a reminder of something forgotten, of something drowned out by the routine, emptiness and weariness of daily life.

Consider the very names of the feasts: Entrance into the Temple, Nativity, Epiphany, Presentation, Transfiguration. These words alone, in their solemnity, their unrelatedness to daily life and their mysterious beauty awakened some forgotten memory, invited, pointed to something. The feast was a kind of longing sigh for a lost but beckoning beauty, a sigh for some other way of living.

Our modern world, however, has become monotonous and feastless. Even our secular holidays are unable to hide this settling ash of sadness and hopelessness, for the essence of celebration is this breaking in, this experience of being caught up into a different reality, into a world of spiritual beauty and light. If, however, this reality does not exist, if fundamentally there is nothing to celebrate, then no manner of artificial uplift will be capable of creating a feast.

Here we have the feast of the Entrance of the Mother of God into the Temple. Its subject is very simple: a little girl is brought by her parents to the temple in Jerusalem. There is nothing particularly remarkable about this, since at that time it was a generally accepted custom and many parents brought their children to the temple as a sign of bringing them into contact with God, of giving their lives ultimate purpose and meaning, of illumining them from within through the light of higher experience.

But on this occasion, as the service for the day recounts, they lead the child to the "Holy of Holies," to the place where no one except the priests are allowed to go, the mystical inner sanctum of the temple. The girl's name is Mary. She is the future mother of Jesus Christ, the one through whom, as Christians believe, God himself came into the world to join the human race, to share its life and reveal its divine content. Are these just fairy tales? Or is something given to us and disclosed here, something directly related to our life, which perhaps cannot be expressed in everyday human speech?

Here was this magnificent, massive, solemn temple, the glory of Jerusalem. And for centuries it was only there, behind those heavy walls, that a person could come into contact with God. Now, however, the priest takes Mary by the hand, leads her into the most sacred part of the Temple and we sing that "The most pure Temple of the Savior is led into the temple of the Lord." Later in the Gospels Christ said, "destroy this temple and in three days I will raise it up," but as the Evangelist added, "He spoke of the temple of His Body" (Jn 2: 19, 21).

The meaning of all these events, words and recollections is simple: from now on man himself becomes the temple. No stone temple, no altar, but man - his soul, body and life - is the sacred and divine heart of the world, its "holy of holies." One temple, Mary - living and human - is led into a temple made of stone, and from within brings to completion its significance and meaning.

With this event religion, and life even more so, undergoes a complete shift in balance. What now enters the world is a teaching that puts nothing higher than man, for God Himself takes on human form to reveal man's vocation and meaning as divine. From this moment onward man is free. Nothing stands over him, for the very world is his as a gift from God to fulfill his divine destiny.

From the moment the Virgin Mary entered "the Holy of Holies," life itself became the Temple. And when we celebrate her Entrance into the Temple, we celebrate man's divine meaning and the brightness of his high calling. These cannot be washed away or uprooted from human memory.

Sunday, November 20, 2011

A great hymn for Christ the King & wise words from Henri Nouen

One of my favourite collections of sayings is Henri Nouen's "BREAD FOR THE JOURNEY." I'm glad to see that it is available online HERE (i.e. - a free download.) I give you two passages that relate to today's readings:

How does the Church witness to Christ in the world? First and foremost by giving visibility to Jesus’ love for the poor and the weak. In a world so hungry for healing, forgiveness, reconciliation, and most of all unconditional love, the Church must alleviate that hunger through its ministry. Wherever we feed the hungry, clothe the naked, visit the lonely, listen to those who are rejected, and bring unity and peace to those who are divided, we proclaim the living Christ, whether we speak about him or not. It is important that whatever we do and wherever we go, we remain in the Name of Jesus, who sent us. Outside his Name our ministry will lose its divine energy. (6th November)

“Ministry is acting in the Name of Jesus. When all our actions are in the Name, they will bear fruit for eternal life. To act in the Name of Jesus, however, doesn’t mean to act as a representative of Jesus or his spokesperson. It means to act in an intimate communion with him. The Name is like a house, a tent, a dwelling. To act in the Name of Jesus, therefore, means to act from the place where we are united with Jesus in love. To the question “Where are you?” we should be able to answer, “I am in the Name.” Then, whatever we do cannot be other than ministry because it will always be Jesus himself who acts in and through us. The final question for all who minister is “Are you in the Name of Jesus?”" When we can say yes to that, all of our lives will be ministry.” (18th November)

Tuesday, November 15, 2011

The Meaning of the Rachmaninov Vespers

I came across this excellent article of Dr. M. R. Brett-Crowther by chance, and having always loved the Rachmaninov Vespers, decided to share it with you. Go HERE for some biographical background on Rachmaninov himself.

Vespers, the evening prayer service of the Orthodox Church, is the reason for Rachmaninov’s greatest achievement. True, the music is not the All Night Vigil Service (as the Russians call it) word for word, and the music is more symphonic than one would expect to hear in a church service. But there are many passages in which the traditional melodies of the Russian Orthodox Church may be heard; and the composer instances those for Gladsome Radiance (Melody of the Kiev Tradition); Nunc Dimittis (the same); Glory Be to God, Laud ye the Name of the Lord; Blessed art Thou, O Lord; Gloria in Excelsis; the two Hymns ‘Today Hath Salvation Come’ and ‘When Thou, O Lord, Hadst Arisen’ (all Melody of the Znamen Tradition); with finally Hymn to the Mother of God (Melody of the Greek Tradition). Out of 15 pieces, 9 deliberately evoke comparison with their original sources; and the last piece looks lovingly towards the mother tradition of the Russians – Greek Orthodoxy.

Rachmaninov wrote this music in 1916, when the future of Russia was about to become a prolonged, dehumanizing catastrophe, through the Revolution which Nicholas II and Alexandra by their appalling policies had made inevitable. Even Nicholas’ abdication was the result of his incompetence. But there is in Russian history, and in the heart of all Russians, a depth of sorrowful love, which receives catastrophe as a kind of revelation. At least, this is the general argument of Nicholas Berdyaev, one of Russian Orthodoxy’s greatest writers and advocates. As he says:

The mystery always remains; it is deepened by our knowledge. Knowledge destroys only false mysteries created by our own ignorance, but there are other mysteries which confront us when we reach the depth of knowledge. God is a mystery, and the knowledge of God is communicated in mystery (Apophatic Theology). Rational theology is false theology, for it denies the mystery that surrounds God.

All of this Berdyaev and the other Russians of the Emigration came to understand through the Revolution of 1917.

To think of Rachmaninov, who was a believing Russian Orthodox, picking up the trend of events and yearning by his music for a resolution of conflict through prayer, is inevitable. He gives to his bass line passages which Russian basses find normal. He gives to all the voices new levels of aspiration and new ways of reaching them. Yet because Rachmaninov writes with the knowledge of his tradition and with an apprehension that Russia will soon be destroyed, his use of the traditional melodies opens them up to other minds and gives them to a wider world. Those who value his symphonies for their romantic power, or who have ever suffered the intense tragedy of Tchaikovsky’s 4th , 5th and 6th symphonies will find all that here. But there is more. Go HERE to continue reading.

Ooops! I should have posted these clips before . . .

For those who are interested, here are two important videos made just after the consecration of the new Bishop of Ebbsfleet, the Rt Rev'd Jonathan Baker, and the new Bishop of Richborough, the Rt Rev'd Norman Banks. The first is the Archbishop of Canterbury; the second is a range of comments from among those to whom Bishop Baker will be ministering.

Mother Maria Skobtsova on the two types of love

Here is an extract from a lengthy essay by Mother Maria Skobtsova, TYPES OF RELIGIOUS LIVES, written in 1937 and discovered in 1996. The complete Russian text was published by the Paris-based journal, Vestnik. The copyright of the English text is jointly held by Vestnik and the translator, Fr. Alvian Smirensky. This extract is from IN COMMUNION, magazine of the Orthodox Peace Felowship, and is on their web site.

There are two types of love in the world: one that takes and one that gives. This is common to all types of love — not only towards man. Each person can love a friend, family, children, scholarship, art, motherland, one’s idea, oneself, and even God — from either of these two points of view. Even those types of love which by common acknowledgment are of the highest category can carry this dual character.

Take maternal love for example. A mother can often forget herself, sacrifice herself for her children. This does not as yet warrant recognition as Christian love for her children. One needs to ask the question: what is it that she loves in them? She may love her own reflection, her second youth, an expansion of her own “I” in other “I’s” which become separated from the rest of the world’s “we.” She may love her own flesh and blood that she sees in them, traits of her own character, reflections of her tastes, the continuation of the family. Then it becomes unclear where is the principal difference between the egotistical self-love and a seemingly sacrificial love for her children, between “I” and “we.” All this amounts to a passionate love of what is one’s own, which restricts one’s vision, forcing one to ignore the rest of the world, what is not one’s own.

Such a mother will imagine that the worthiness of her own child is incomparable with the worthiness of other children, that his mishaps and illnesses are more severe than those of others and finally, that at times the well-being and success of other children can be sacrificed for the sake of the well-being and success of one’s own. She will think that the whole world (herself included) are called to serve her child, feed him, quench his thirst, train him, make smooth all paths before him, deflect all obstacles and all rivals. This is a symptom of a passionate maternal love.

Only that maternal love is truly Christian which sees in her child a real image of God inherent not only in him but in all people, given to her in trust, as her responsibility, which she must develop and strengthen in him in preparation for the unavoidable life of sacrifice along the Christian path, for that cross-bearing challenge facing all Christians. With this kind of love the mother will be more aware of other children’s misfortunes, she will be more attentive towards their neglect. Her relationship with the rest of humanity will be in Christ as the result of the presence of Christian love in her heart. This, of course, is the most radical example.

There is no doubt that the love towards every being is divided into these two types. One may passionately love one’s motherland, working to make sure that she develops gloriously and victoriously, overcoming and destroying all her enemies. One can love her in the Christian manner, working to see that the image of Christ’s truth is more and more evident within her. One can passionately love knowledge and art, aiming to see oneself expressed in them, to be proud about them. Or one can love them, being conscious of one’s service, one’s responsibility for the exercise of God’s gifts in these spheres.

One can love one’s idea of life only because it is one’s own — and to oppose it, enviously and jealously, to all other ideas. Even in this one can see the gift granted to me by God in order for me to serve His eternal truth during my earthly sojourn. One can love life itself passionately and sacrificially. One can even reflect upon death in two ways. One can direct two ways of love towards God. One can see Him as the heavenly protector of mine or our earthly desires and passions. The other love will humbly and sacrificially offer one’s small human soul into His hands. Other than the appellation — love — other than external similarities, these two expressions of love have nothing in common.

In the light of this Christian love, what must be the ascetical challenge to man, what is this true asceticism which is inevitably called for by the very presence of spiritual life? Its measure is self-denying love for God and for our fellow man. But an asceticism which places one’s own soul in the center of things, looking for its salvation, shielding it away from the world, narrowly moving towards a spiritual egocentrism and fearing to diminish oneself even by withholding love — this is not Christian asceticism.

What can be used to measure and define the types of human lives? What are their prototypes, their primary symbols, their boundaries? This is the way of Godmanhood, Christ’s path upon the earth. The Word became flesh, God became incarnate, born in a Bethlehem stable. This alone should have been fully sufficient to speak of the boundless, sacrificing, self-denying and self-disparaging love of Christ. Everything else is present in this. The Son of Man humbled His whole self, His whole divinity, His whole Divine nature and His whole Divine hypostasis beneath the arches of the Bethlehem cave. There are neither two Gods nor two Christs — one who abides in blessedness within the bosom of the Holy Trinity and another, who assumed the image of a servant. The Only Son of God, the Logos, became Man, lowering Himself to humanity. His later activity — preaching, miracles, prophesy, healing, enduring hunger and thirst, suffering Pilate’s judgement, going the way of the cross to Golgotha and death — all this is the path of His humbled humanity and along with Him the condescension of the Godhead to humanity.

What was Christ’s love like? Did it withhold anything? Did it take note of or measure its spiritual gifts? What did it regret, where was it ever stingy? Christ’s humanity was spit upon, struck, crucified. Christ’s Divinity was fully incarnate to the end in his spit-upon, battered, degraded and crucified Humanity. The Cross — an instrument of shameful death — became a symbol of self-denying love for the world. And at no time nor place — from Bethlehem to Golgotha, neither in sermons nor parables, neither in the miracles performed — did Christ ever give any indication allowing one to think that he does not completely and fully, sacrifice Himself for the world’s salvation, that He had some reservation, some Holy of Holiness which He would not want to nor need to offer. He offered His own Holy of Holies, His own Divinity, for the sins of the world, and this is precisely where lies His Divine and perfect love in its fullness.

This is the only conclusion we can come to from the whole of Christ’s earthly ministry. But can the power of such love be Divine because God, in offering Himself, remains God, that is, He does not empty himself, does not perish in this fearsome sacrificial dissipation? Human love cannot be completely determined by the laws of Divine love because along this path man can become devastated and lose sight of what is important: the salvation of his soul.

But here one need only to be attentive to what He taught us. He said: “If any man would come after me, let him deny himself, and take up his cross.” Self-denial is important, without which one cannot follow Him, without which there is no Christianity. Withhold nothing, lay aside not only material wealth but also spiritual wealth, changing everything into Christ’s love, taking it up as one’s cross. He also spoke — not about Himself and not about His perfect love, but about the love which human imperfection can assume. “Greater love has no man than the one who lays down his soul for his friends.” How miserly and greedy it is to understand the word “soul” here as “life.” Christ spoke here precisely about the soul, about giving up one’s inner life, about the complete and unconditional self-sacrifice as the example of the obligations of Christian love. Here again is no place for the harboring of one’s spiritual treasures, here everything is given up.

His disciples likewise followed in His path. This is quite clear, in an almost paradoxical expression by Apostle Paul: “I wanted to be estranged from Christ to see my brothers saved.” He said this, having stated that “It is no longer I who live but Christ who lives in me.” For him such an estrangement from Christ is an estrangement from life not only in the transient, worldly sense of the word, but from the eternal and incorruptible life of the age to come.

There are enough such examples to let us know where Christianity leads us. Truly, love here does not seek its own, even if this be the salvation of one’s own soul. This love takes everything from us, deprives us of everything, as if ravaging us. Where does it lead? To spiritual poverty. In the Beatitudes we are promised blessedness for being poor in spirit. This precept is so far removed from human understanding that some attempt to read the word “spirit” as a later interpolation and explain these words as a call for material poverty and a rejection of earthly benefits. Others almost fall into a fanaticism, understanding this as a call for intellectual poverty, a rejection of thought and of any kind of intellectual substance. How simply and clearly are these words interpreted in the context of other Evangelical texts. The poor in spirit is the one who lays down his soul for his friends, offering this spirit out of love, not withholding his spiritual treasures.

Monday, November 14, 2011

Mother Maria Skobtsova on Christ's love and the Eucharist

On January 18, 2004, the Holy Synod of the Ecumenical Patriarchate in Istanbul recognized Mother Maria Skobtsova (1891 - 1945) as a saint along with her son Yuri, the priest who worked closely with her, Fr. Dimitri Klépinin, and her close friend and collaborator Ilya Fondaminsky. All four died in German concentration camps.

For a short but excellent biography of Mother Maria, go HERE.

“In the sacrament of the Eucharist,
Christ gave Himself, His God-man’s Body, to the world,
or rather, He united the world with Himself
in the communion with his God-man’s Body.
He made it into Godmanhood.

"And it would sound almost blasphemous
if He had wanted to isolate some inner, deep Christ
who remained alien to this God-man’s sacrifice.
Christ’s love does not know how to measure and divide,
does not know how to spare itself.

"Neither did Christ teach the apostles
to be sparing and cautious in love –
and He could not have taught them that,
because He included them into the Body of Christ –
and thereby gave them up to be immolated for the world.

"Here we need only learn and draw conclusions.
It might be said paradoxically
that in the sense of giving Himself to the world,
Christ was the most worldly of all the sons of Adam.
But we already know that what is of the world
does not give itself to the world.”

(From Mother Maria Skobtsova, Essential Writings, pp 78-79)

Saturday, November 12, 2011

N.T. Wright on Jesus

N.T. "Tom" Wright, Bishop of Durham from 2003 to 2010, and now Research Professor of New Testament and Early Christianity at the University of St Andrews in Scotland is widely respected ecumenically for his scholarship and in particular his historical apologetics. He was the Anglican observer and an invited speaker at the Roman Catholic Synod of Bishops in 2008 on "the Word of God." His home page is HERE. Some of Bishop Wright's views are controversial (especially his "new perspective" on St Paul and the doctrine of justification); but he is widely acclaimed for his presentation of the basics about Jesus in the face of a sceptical world.

Click HERE for the audio of a really good presentation of JESUS AND HISTORY

An interesting and worthwhile website

Two days ago a friend pointed me to a website from New Zealand because "some of the apologetic arguments are like yours"! Well, I've had a look through it, and am most impressed.

The site is MANDM, by Matthew and Madeleine Flannagan, both academics, and both adult converts to the Faith. They describe themselves as "Evangelicals with Reformed leanings." Many of their articles manage to break down quite difficult concepts in order to equip non-specialist ordinary people to think philosophically about God and Christianity, and so be better able to join in conversation with unconvinced friends.

Here is the concluding paragraph of an article, CONTRA MUNDUM: GOD, PROOF AND FAITH . . .

". . . some sceptics are inconsistent in their scepticism, they reject belief in God on the basis of certain claims or assumptions which, if true, are subject to the very objections and doubts they level against religion yet they do not question or doubt these assumptions. The second is that in any rational discussion one cannot avoid starting from presuppositions which are, in some sense, controversial; one starts with what one knows by faith and reasons from it to gain a comprehensive, coherent and accurate understanding of reality, to find answers to the fundamental and philosophical existential questions that we face. Sometimes our subsequent inquiry leads us to modify, abandon or revise the presuppositions we began with, other times our inquiry confirms it but the idea that every controversial, substantive claim one accepts needs to be proven in order to be rational is incoherent."

Thursday, November 10, 2011

Josephus and Jesus: a Christian forgery?

O.K. So, what did Josephus, the Jewish historian really say? Is the mention of Jesus in his writings a total Christian fabrication? For a brief, balanced and scholarly reply, listen to John Dickson of the Centre for Public Christianity interviewing Professor Chris Forbes of Sydney.

Dr Chris Forbes is a Senior Lecturer in Ancient History at Macquarie University, and Deputy Chairman of the Society for the Study of Early Christianity. His fields of research and teaching focus on New Testament history, Alexander the Great and Hellenistic history, Graeco-Roman History of Ideas and the intersection of early Christianity and Graeco-Roman culture.

Wednesday, November 9, 2011

The God Test: Why Really Everyone Believes

Rabbi Adam Jacobs is the Managing Director of the Aish Center in Manhattan. He was born and raised in New York and has lived in Boston and Jerusalem, where he received his rabbinic ordination. He completed his B.A. in music from Brandeis University and has a Masters of Jazz Performance from the New England Conservatory. He is a blogger for the Huffington Post’s religion section, and author of 128 Reflections: Judaism's Essential Wisdom on Personal Growth.

Try as I might, I continue to be startled by the mindset of the non-believer. It’s not so much that I can’t grasp the notion that someone could believe that there is no Creator and that there is no grand design to the universe, but rather that so many of their choices and thinking patterns seem to suggest that they believe something quite unlike that which they profess. Often, I’ve inquired of non-believers if it at all vexes them that nothing that they have ever done or will ever do will make the slightest difference to anyone on any level? After all, one random grouping of molecules interacting with another has no inherent meaning or value. I still await the brave soul (or neuron complex if you prefer) who will respond that I am quite correct; that no thought, deed, action or impulse is any more significant or meaningful than any other, that statements like “I would like to enslave all of humanity” and “I would like a chocolate bar” are functionally equivalent, and that their very own thoughts and words are intrinsically suspect as they are nothing more than some indiscriminate electro-chemical impulses. Until then, I will carry on believing that most “non-believers” actually believe a bit more than they generally let on, or are willing to admit to themselves. That, or that they have contented themselves to willfully act out fantasies that bear no relation to their purported worldview.

Let’s put this assumption to a test. How would you answer the following series of questions? I posit that if you are inclined to answer any of them from a non-materialist perspective then you might secretly suspect that there are grander cosmic forces at work than those discernible on a purely empiric level, or, possibly, that you are a victim of societal programming.

1. Would you be willing to sell your parent’s remains for dog food?

If you answered no, why? As there are finite resources available to us as we plod through our limited number of revolutions on this planet, wouldn’t it be in your interest to maximize them — especially considering that a non-functional carcass provides little to no personal or societal benefit (and is a little unpleasant)? If you suggest that it represents something that was important to you and therefore you are inclined to treat it with more respect I would ask, “so what?” Your notions of respect and importance are subjective, non-intellectual whims that in any case (as we’ve said) are in reality nothing more than tiny electrical blips in your skull and worth far less than cash.

Could it be that subconsciously you suspect that it’s just wrong to do it — wrong in a way that transcends your temporality? If not, and if you would sell your mother’s corpse so that it can be made into pet grub, congratulations: You are an authentic non-believer.

Another article of his you might enjoy is: A reasonable argument for God's existence

Communion Prayer of St Philoxenus of Mabbug (Syrian Orthodox)

Philoxenos of Mabbug (c. 440-523) was the metropolitan bishop of the eastern Roman province of Euphratensis from 485 to 519. He was a spiritual guide, theologian, exegete, patron of a revised Syriac New Testament, polemicist, would-be imperial counselor, and a prolific writer. He is the object of renewed interest among Church historians.

When you have extended your hands and taken the body, bow, and put your hands before your face, and worship the living Body whom you hold. Then speak with him in a low voice, and with your gaze resting upon him say to him:

I carry you, living God, who is incarnate in the bread,
and I embrace you in my palms, Lord of the worlds whom no world has contained.
You have circumscribed yourself in a fiery coal within a fleshly palm —
you Lord, who with your palm measured out the dust of the earth.
You are holy, God incarnate in my hands in a fiery coal which is a body.
See, I hold you, although there is nothing that contains you;
a bodily hand embraces you,
Lord of natures whom a fleshly womb embraced.
Within a womb you became a circumscribed body,
and now within a hand you appear to me as a small morsel.

As you have made me worthy to approach you and receive you
— and see, my hands embrace you confidently —
make me worthy, Lord, to eat you in a holy manner
and to taste the food of your body as a taste of your life.
Instead of the stomach, the body’s member,
may the womb of my intellect and the hand of my mind receive you.
May you be conceived in me as you were in the womb of the Virgin.
There you appeared as an infant,
and your hidden self was revealed to the world as corporeal fruit;
may you also appear in me here
and be revealed from me in fruits that are spiritual works
and just labors pleasing to your will.

And by your food may my desires be killed;
and by the drinking of your cup may my passions be quenched.
And instead of the members of my body,
may my thoughts receive strength from the nourishment of your body.
Like the manifest members of my body,
may my hidden thoughts be engaged in exercise and in running
and in works according to your living commands and your spiritual laws.

From the food of your body and the drinking of your blood
may I wax strong inwardly, and excel outwardly, and run diligently,
and to attain to the full stature of an interior human being.
May I become a perfect man,
mature in the intelligence residing in all my spiritual members,
my head being crowned with the crown of perfection of all of my behavior.
May I be a royal diadem in your hands,
as you promised me, O hidden God
whose manifestness I embrace in the perfection of your body.

Friday, November 4, 2011

He was everybody's "Father Austin"

Today is the tenth anniversary of the death of Father Austin Day. In thanksgiving for this man whose life led so many to the Lord, I share with you the tribute I preached as a sermon at High Mass (at All Saints' Wickham Terrace, Brisbane) on the Sunday after he died.

1926 - 2001

This photo of Father Austin was taken inside St John's Horsham in 1989
by the photographer of the Wimmera Mail-Times.

"God's in his heaven, Austin Day's at Christ Church, and all's right in the world."

So it was said for many years by Australian Anglo-Catholics, indicating the crucial role of both Christ Church St Laurence (set right in the midst of the Diocese of Sydney) and Father Austin Day whose ministry of spiritual direction and encouragement sustained the lives of countless priests and lay people right across Australia and beyond our shores. Father Austin, Rector of Christ Church from 1964 to 1996, died last Monday, following a difficult struggle with motor neuron disease.

I first met Father Austin when I was an impressionable teenager from Sydney's working class western suburbs. It was 1968. He had been at Christ Church less than four years, but was already making his own mark on the parish. The thing that struck me was how very cultured he was, how wide were his interests and reading, and at the same time how much he loved the Lord Jesus in a genuine and unfussy way. Go HERE to continue reading

Tuesday, November 1, 2011

All Souls' Day - Now pray we for our dead

The Place of Meeting, by T. Noyes Lewis,
published as a print shortly after World War I

Today we thank God that our faith journey into the infinity of his love does not end when we die . . . that our communion, our fellowship, our belonging to the one great community of love enveloping heaven and earth and blurring the boundary between them - the Holy Catholic Church - is not interrupted by the death of any of its members, who remain bound together in the love of Christ.

At Mass we pray "for those we love but no longer see," because we know that God's healing, sanctifying and transforming grace continues its work within them, preparing them for the vision of his heavenly glory . . . through no merit of theirs or ours, but only because of the "full, perfect, and sufficient sacrifice, oblation and satisfaction" of Jesus on the Cross, which avails for the salvation of us all.

Here are a few words from the Anglican tradition about praying for those who have died, followed by Joseph Ratzinger's explanation of purgatory as transformation through our encounter with the Lord.

HERBERT THORNDIKE (1598-1672) Canon of Westminster Abbey
“The practice of the Church in interceding for them at the Celebration of the Eucharist is so general and so ancient, that it cannot be thought to have come in upon imposture, but that the same aspersion will seem to take hold of the common Christianity.”

LANCELOT ANDREWES (1555-1626) Bishop of Winchester
"The Sacrifice of Christ's death is available for present, living and dead."

JOHN COSIN (1594-1672) Bishop of Durham who assisted in the 1662 revision of the Prayer Book
He said that refusing to pray for the departed implied that they were no longer part of the mystical Body of Christ, and that in the Eucharist we ”offer up the sacrifice of the Church unto God, to apply the effect of Christ's sacrifice unto the party deceased for his resurrection again at the last day, and for his receiving his perfect consummation of bliss, both in soul and body, in the Kingdom of Heaven."

C.S. LEWIS (1898-1963) Anglican layman
"Of course I pray for the dead. The action is so spontaneous, so all but inevitable, that only the most compulsive theological case against it would deter me. And I hardly know how the rest of my prayers would survive if those for the dead were forbidden. At our age, the majority of those we love best are dead. What sort of intercourse with God could I have if what I love best were unmentionable to him? . . . Our souls demand Purgatory, don’t they? Would it not break the heart if God said to us, ‘It is true, my son, that your breath smells and your rags drip with mud and slime, but we are charitable here and no one will upbraid you with these things, nor draw away from you. Enter into the joy’? Should we not reply, ‘With submission, sir, and if there is no objection, I’d rather be cleaned first.’ ‘It may hurt, you know’ – ‘Even so, sir.’"

"Purgatory is not, as Tertullian thought, some kind of supra-worldly concentration camp where one is forced to undergo punishments in a more or less arbitrary fashion. Rather it is the inwardly necessary process of transformation in which a person becomes capable of Christ, capable of God [i.e., capable of full unity with Christ and God] and thus capable of unity with the whole communion of saints. Simply to look at people with any degree of realism at all is to grasp the necessity of such a process. It does not replace grace by works, but allows the former to achieve its full victory precisely as grace. What actually saves is the full assent of faith. But in most of us, that basic option is buried under a great deal of wood, hay and straw. Only with difficulty can it peer out from behind the latticework of an egoism we are powerless to pull down with our own hands. Man is the recipient of the divine mercy, yet this does not exonerate him from the need to be transformed. Encounter with the Lord is this transformation. It is the fire that burns away our dross and re-forms us to be vessels of eternal joy."
(Eschatology: Death and Eternal Life, page 229)


O Father of all,
we pray for those we love
but now no longer see.
Grant them thy peace;
let light perpetual shine upon them;
and in thy loving wisdom and almighty power
work in them the good purpose of thy perfect will.
Through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.

O God, whose mercies cannot be numbered: Accept our prayers on behalf of thy servants and handmaids departed this life and grant them light, joy and peace in the fellowship of Blessed Mary and all the Saints; through Jesus Christ thy Son our Lord, who liveth and reigneth with thee in the unity of the Holy Ghost, one God, world without end. Amen.

FROM THE EASTERN CHURCH (Russian Kontakion of the Departed)
Give rest, O Christ, to thy servant with thy Saints :
where sorrow and pain are no more;
neither sighing, but life everlasting.

Thou only art immortal, the Creator and Maker of man :
and we are mortal, formed of the earth,
and unto earth shall we return :
for so thou didst ordain, when thou createdst me, saying.
Dust thou art, and unto dust shalt thou return.
All we go down to the dust;
and, weeping o'er the grave we make our song :
alleluya, alleluya, alleluya.

Give rest, O Christ, to thy servant with thy Saints :
where sorrow and pain are no more;
neither sighing, but life everlasting.

Lord Jesus,
we come before you in sadness,
praying for the soul of our brother/sister N.,
who in darkness and confusion,
has taken his/her own life.
Place your loving arms around him/her,
that he/she may find healing, forgiveness and peace.
We pray, too, that you would comfort those who loved N.
and grieve his/her tragic death.
May they know the eternal God as their refuge,
their hiding place,
and their sure help in this time of trouble.
For you, Lord Jesus, suffered and died for us
and now live and reign with the Father,
in the unity of the Holy Spirit,
for ever and ever. Amen.

God our Father,
by your power we are brought to birth;
by your love we are redeemed in Christ;
by your providence you guide us,
and when we die you receive us to yourself.
In union with your Son Jesus Christ,
who conquered death by his dying and rising,
may N. rejoice in your kingdom,
where every tear is wiped away
and sorrow and pain are no more.
Help us who grieve N, to support one other
with our love and prayers.
We ask this in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, your Son,
who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit,
one God, for ever and ever. Amen.

HEALING & CLEANSING - Translated from the Swahili for the English Hymnal, 1906
Think, O Lord, in mercy on the souls of those
Who, in faith gone from us now in death repose.
Here 'mid stress and conflict toils can never cease;
There, the warfare ended, bid them rest in peace.

Often they were wounded in the deadly strife,
Heal them, good Physician with the balm of life.
Every taint of evil, frailty and decay,
Good and gracious Saviour, cleanse and purge away.

Rest eternal grant them, after weary fight:
Shed on them the radiance of thy heavenly light.
Lead them onward, upward, to the holy place,
Where thy Saints made perfect gaze upon thy face.