Saturday, December 31, 2011

Mary, Mother of God (and Happy New Year!)

Even during his Anglican years, John Henry Newman felt that the popular exhibitions of devotion that so scandalized Church of England visitors to the Continent - even with what he conceded might be corruptions of “excess” or “superstition” - were preferable to the arid indifference he found among English laity and clergy. After all, said Newman, these devotions to Our Lady derived from the real (versus notional) idea that she was the Mother of God

Nowhere does Newman express himself more beautifully on the true Christian attitude towards Our Lady than near the end of his famous “Letter to the Rev. E.B. Pusey, D.D., on his recent Eirenicon" (1866). In fact, some regard the following as the most brilliant passage in the whole of his work:

“Did not the All-wise know the human heart
when He took to Himself a Mother?
Did He not anticipate our emotion
at the sight of such an exaltation
in one so simple and so lowly?

"If He had not meant her
to exert that wonderful influence in His Church,
which she has in the event exerted,
I will use a bold word,
He it is who has perverted us.

"If she is not to attract our homage,
why did He make her solitary in her greatness
amid His vast creation?

"If it be idolatry in us
to let our affections respond to our faith,
He would not have made her what she is,
or He would not have told us
that He had so made her;
but, far from this,
He has sent His Prophet to announce to us,
‘A Virgin shall conceive and bear a Son,
and they shall call His name Emmanuel,’
and we have the same warrant
for hailing her as God’s Mother,
as we have for adoring Him as God.”

Mary, Mother of God ("Theotókos")

Because of the sad and time-consuming controversies in the Anglican world, and the apparent cooling of ecumenical dialogue, much of the work of ARCIC-II has gone unnoticed at the grass-roots level. This is particularly true of the final Agreed Statement of ARCIC-II published in 2005, Mary: Grace and Hope in Christ.

The document looks at Mary, firstly in Scripture, secondly in the early traditions of the Church before our divisions, thirdly in the specifically Anglican tradition of the last five hundred years, and it then explores the question of the “Marian dogmas.” ARCIC-II was concerned to break down old stereotypes. This is the reason for the emphasis in the document on salvation being “by grace alone.” In fact, the Agreed Statement relies heavily on an understanding of “prevenient grace” that is to be found in both traditions:

“The holiness which is our end in Christ (cf. 1 John 3:2-3) was seen, by unmerited grace, in Mary, who is the prototype of the hope of grace for humankind as a whole” (paragraph 59).


“Mary’s ‘Amen’ to God’s ‘Yes’ in Christ to her is thus both unique and a model for every disciple and for the life of the Church” (paragraph 64).

For me, one of the passages in the document that deserves widespread attention for both its thoroughness and brevity is that which deals with Mary as "Theotókos", "God-bearer" or "Mother of God."

As we celebrate the Solemnity of Mary, Mother of God, I share it with you (AND recommend that you read and reflect on the whole document, which can be found online HERE).

Christ and Mary in the Ancient Common Tradition

31. In the early Church, reflection on Mary served to interpret and safeguard the apostolic Tradition centred on Jesus Christ. Patristic testimony to Mary as 'God-bearer' (Theotókos) emerged from reflection on Scripture and the celebration of Christian feasts, but its development was due chiefly to the early Christological controversies. In the crucible of these controversies of the first five centuries, and their resolution in successive Ecumenical Councils, reflection on Mary's role in the Incarnation was integral to the articulation of orthodox faith in Jesus Christ, true God and true man.

32. In defence of Christ's true humanity, and against Docetism, the early Church emphasized Jesus' birth from Mary. He did not just 'appear' to be human; he did not descend from heaven in a 'heavenly body', nor when he was born did he simply 'pass through' his mother. Rather, Mary gave birth to her son of her own substance. For Ignatius of Antioch (†c.110) and Tertullian (†c.225), Jesus is fully human, because 'truly born' of Mary. In the words of the Nicaeo-Constantinopolitan Creed (381), "he was incarnate of the Holy Spirit and the Virgin Mary, and was made man." The definition of Chalcedon (451), reaffirming this creed, attests that Christ is "consubstantial with the Father according to the divinity and consubstantial with us according to the humanity." The Athanasian Creed confesses yet more concretely that he is "man, of the substance of his Mother." This Anglicans and Roman Catholics together affirm.

33. In defence of his true divinity, the early Church emphasized Mary's virginal conception of Jesus Christ. According to the Fathers, his conception by the Holy Spirit testifies to Christ's divine origin and divine identity. The One born of Mary is the eternal Son of God. Eastern and Western Fathers - such as Justin (†c.150), Irenaeus (†c.202), Athanasius (†373), and Ambrose (†397) - expounded this New Testament teaching in terms of Genesis 3 (Mary is the antitype of 'virgin Eve') and Isaiah 7:14 (she fulfils the prophet's vision and gives birth to "God with us"). They appealed to the virginal conception to defend both the Lord's divinity and Mary's honour. As the Apostles' Creed confesses: Jesus Christ was "conceived by the Holy Spirit and born of the Virgin Mary." This Anglicans and Roman Catholics together affirm.

34. Mary's title Theotókos was formally invoked to safeguard the orthodox doctrine of the unity of Christ's person. This title had been in use in churches under the influence of Alexandria at least from the time of the Arian controversy. Since Jesus Christ is "true God from true God", as the Council of Nicaea (325) declared, these churches concluded that his mother, Mary, can rightly be called the 'God-bearer'. Churches under the influence of Antioch, however, conscious of the threat Apollinarianism posed to belief in the full humanity of Christ, did not immediately adopt this title. The debate between Cyril of Alexandria (†444) and Nestorius (†455), patriarch of Constantinople, who was formed in the Antiochene school, revealed that the real issue in the question of Mary's title was the unity of Christ's person. The ensuing Council of Ephesus (431) used Theotókos (literally 'God-bearer'; in Latin, Deipara) to affirm the oneness of Christ's person by identifying Mary as the Mother of God the Word incarnate.[6] The rule of faith on this matter takes more precise expression in the definition of Chalcedon: "One and the same Son ... was begotten from the Father before the ages as to the divinity and in the latter days for us and our salvation was born as to the humanity from Mary the Virgin Theotókos." In receiving the Council of Ephesus and the definition of Chalcedon, Anglicans and Roman Catholics together confess Mary as Theotókos.

The Celebration of Mary in the Ancient Common Traditions

35. In the early centuries, communion in Christ included a strong sense of the living presence of the saints as an integral part of the spiritual experience of the churches (Hebrews 12:1,22-24; Revelation 6:9-11; 7; 8:3-4). Within the 'cloud of witnesses', the Lord's mother came to be seen to have a special place. Themes developed from Scripture and in devotional reflection reveal a deep awareness of Mary's role in the redemption of humanity. Such themes include Mary as Eve's counterpart and as a type of the Church. The response of Christian people, reflecting on these themes, found devotional expression in both private and public prayer.

36. Exegetes delighted in drawing feminine imagery from the Scriptures to contemplate the significance both of the Church and Mary. Fathers as early as Justin Martyr (†c.150) and Irenaeus (†c.202), reflecting on texts like Genesis 3 and Luke 1:26-38, developed, alongside the antithesis of Adam/New Adam, that of Eve/New Eve. Just as Eve is associated with Adam in bringing about our defeat, so Mary is associated with her Son in the conquest of the ancient enemy (cf. Genesis 3:15, vide supra footnote 4): 'virgin' Eve's disobedience results in death; the virgin Mary's obedience opens the way to salvation. The New Eve shares in the New Adam's victory over sin and death.

37. The Fathers presented Mary the Virgin Mother as a model of holiness for consecrated virgins, and increasingly taught that she had remained 'Ever-Virgin'.[7] In their reflection, virginity was understood not only as physical integrity, but as an interior disposition of openness, obedience, and single-hearted fidelity to Christ which models Christian discipleship and issues in spiritual fruitfulness.

38. In this patristic understanding, Mary's virginity was closely related to her sanctity. Although some early exegetes thought that Mary was not wholly without sin,[8] Augustine (†430) witnessed to contemporary reluctance to speak of any sin in her.

We must except the holy Virgin Mary, concerning whom I wish to raise no question when it touches the subject of sins, out of honour to the Lord; for from him we know what abundance of grace for overcoming sin in every particular was conferred on her who had the merit to conceive and bear him who undoubtedly had no sin. (De natura et gratia 36.42).

Other Fathers from West and East, appealing to the angelic salutation (Luke 1:28) and Mary's response (Luke 1:38), support the view that Mary was filled with grace from her origin in anticipation of her unique vocation as Mother of the Lord. By the fifth century they hail her as a new creation: blameless, spotless, "holy in body and soul" (Theodotus of Ancyra, Homily 6,11: †before 446). By the sixth century, the title panaghia ('all-holy') can be found in the East.

39. Following the Christological debates at the councils of Ephesus and Chalcedon, devotion to Mary flourished. When the patriarch of Antioch refused Mary the title of Theotókos, Emperor Leo I (457-474) commanded the patriarch of Constantinople to insert this title into the eucharistic prayer throughout the East. By the sixth century, commemoration of Mary as 'God-bearer' had become universal in the eucharistic prayers of East and West (with the exception of the Assyrian Church of the East). Texts and images celebrating Mary's holiness were multiplied in liturgical poetry and songs, such as the Akathist, a hymn probably written soon after Chalcedon and still sung in the Eastern church. A tradition of praying with and praising Mary was thus gradually established. This has been associated since the fourth century, especially in the East, with asking for her protection.[9]

40. After the Council of Ephesus, churches began to be dedicated to Mary and feasts in her honour began to be celebrated on particular days in these churches. Prompted by popular piety and gradually adopted by local churches, feasts celebrating Mary's conception (December 8/9), birth (September 8), presentation (November 21), and dormition (August 15) mirrored the liturgical commemorations of events in the life of the Lord. They drew both on the canonical Scriptures and also on apocryphal accounts of Mary's early life and her 'falling asleep'. A feast of the conception of Mary can be dated in the East to the late seventh century, and was introduced into the Western church through southern England in the early eleventh century. It drew on popular devotion expressed in the second-century Protoevangelium of James, and paralleled the dominical feast of the Annunciation and the existing feast of the conception of John the Baptist. The feast of Mary's 'falling asleep' dates from the end of the sixth century, but was influenced by legendary narratives of the end of Mary's life already widely in circulation. In the West, the most influential of them are the Transitus Mariae. In the East the feast was known as the 'dormition', which implied her death but did not exclude her being taken into heaven. In the West the term used was 'assumption',which emphasized her being taken into heaven but did not exclude the possibility of her dying. Belief in her assumption was grounded in the promise of the resurrection of the dead and the recognition of Mary's dignity as Theotókos and 'Ever Virgin', coupled with the conviction that she who had borne Life should be associated to her Son's victory over death, and with the glorification of his Body, the Church.

Friday, December 30, 2011

Eucharistic devotion for Christmastide

The 2002 Christmas Crib at All Saints' Wickham Terrace, Brisbane,
with the High Altar and Tabernacle in the background

Before thine altar, O most Holy Child,
we kneel today.

So long ago the shepherds knelt before thy cradle.
And, even as they,
beholding their God
in the face of a little Child,
fell down and worshipped;
so we,
beholding thy sacred Presence
beneath the sacramental veil,
praise and adore our Lord and our God.

We give thee thanks
for thy great mercy.
O Holy Child,
we give thee thanks
for thy great humility.

For in the beginning was the Word,
and the Word was with God,
and the Word was God.
Hosanna in the highest!

And the Word was made flesh,
and dwelt among us;
And we have beheld his glory.

Word made Flesh
pray for us.

Emmanuel, God with us,
pray for us.

Wonderful Counsellor, the Mighty God
Grant us thy peace.

Thursday, December 29, 2011

Murder in the Cathedral

It was July 1998, and I was one of two Australians on the international Forward in Faith team working on the edge of the 1998 Lambeth Conference. One of the highlights of the month for me was being able to experience a wonderful production of T.S. Eliot's play, MURDER IN THE CATHEDRAL, by "Group 81" (a Canterbury based theatre company). In the context of the emotional and spiritual highs and lows of the Lambeth Conference itself, against the backdrop of the greatly troubled Anglican world, it is difficult to overstate the impact of "Murder in the Cathedral" on many of us, especially given the venue - the Crypt of the Cathedral itself!

Thomas Becket was born in London, studied in Paris, and became Chancellor to the King. When he was chosen to be Archbishop of Canterbury in 1162 he underwent a conversion experience and from being "a patron of play-actors and a follower of hounds" became a true "shepherd of souls." He absorbed himself in the duties of his new office, even defending the Church's rights against Henry II. For this he was exiled to France for six years. Upon his return he endured many trials and was murdered by command of the King.

The following is from T.S. Eliot's play. It is the Christmas Day sermon preached by Becket before his martyrdom. Eliot at his best:

"Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace, good will toward men." The fourteenth verse of the second chapter of the Gospel according to Saint Luke. In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost. Amen.

Dear children of God, my sermon this morning will be a very short one. I wish only that you should ponder and meditate on the deep meaning and mystery of our masses of Christmas Day. For whenever Mass is said, we re-enact the Passion and Death of Our Lord; and on this Christmas Day we do this in celebration of His Birth. So that at the same moment we rejoice in His coming for the salvation of men, and offer again to God His Body and Blood in sacrifice, oblation, and satisfaction for the sins of the whole world. It was in this same night that has just passed, that a multitude of the heavenly host appeared before the shepherds at Bethlehem, saying, "Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace, good will toward men"; at this same time of all the year that we celebrate at once the Birth of Our Lord and His Passion and Death upon the Cross. Beloved, as the World sees, this is to behave in a strange fashion. For who in the World will both mourn and rejoice at once and for the same reason? For either joy will be overcome by mourning or mourning will be cast out by joy; so that it is only in these our Christian mysteries that we can rejoice and mourn at once for the same reason. But think for a while on the meaning of this word "peace." Does it seem strange to you that the angels should have announced Peace, when ceaselessly the world has been stricken with War and the fear of War? Does it seem to you that the angelic voices were mistaken, and that the promise was a disappointment and a cheat?

Reflect now, how Our Lord Himself spoke of Peace. He said to His disciples: "My peace I leave with you, my peace I give unto you." Did He mean peace as we think of it: the kingdom of England at peace with its neighbors, the barons at peace with the King, the householder counting over his peaceful gains, the swept hearth, his best wine for a friend at the table, his wife singing to the children? Those men His disciples knew no such things: they went forth to journey afar, to suffer by land and sea, to know torture, imprisonment, disappointment, to suffer death by martyrdom. What then did He mean? If you ask that, remember that He said also, "Not as the world giveth, give I unto you." So then, He gave to his disciples peace, but not peace as the world gives.

Consider also one thing of which you have probably never thought. Not only do we at the feast of Christmas celebrate at once Our Lord's Birth and His Death: but on the next day we celebrate the martyrdom of his first martyr, the blessed Stephen. Is it an accident, do you think, that the day of the first martyr follows immediately the day of the Birth of Christ? By no means. Just as we rejoice and mourn at once, in the Birth and Passion of Our Lord; so also, in a smaller figure, we both rejoice and mourn in the death of martyrs. We mourn, for the sins of the world that has martyred them; we rejoice, that another soul is numbered among the Saints in Heaven, for the glory of God and for the salvation of men.

Beloved, we do not think of a martyr simply as a good Christian who has been killed because he is a Christian: for that would be solely to mourn. We do not think of him simply as a good Christian who has been elevated to the company of the Saints: for that would be simply to rejoice: and neither our mourning nor our rejoicing is as the world's is. A Christian martyrdom is no accident. Saints are not made by accident. Still less is a Christian martyrdom the effect of a man's will to become a Saint, as a man by willing and contriving may become a ruler of men. Ambition fortifies the will of man to become ruler over other men: it operates with deception, cajolery, and violence, it is the action of impurity upon impurity. Not so in Heaven. A martyr, a saint, is always made by the design of God, for His love of men, to warn them and to lead them, to bring them back to His ways. A martyrdom is never the design of man; for the true martyr is he who has become the instrument of God, who has lost his will in the will of God, not lost it but found it, for he has found freedom in submission to God. The martyr no longer desires anything for himself, not even the glory of martyrdom. So thus as on earth the Church mourns and rejoices at once, in a fashion that the world cannot understand; so in Heaven the Saints are most high, having made themselves most low, seeing themselves not as we see them, but in the light of the Godhead from which they draw their being.

I have spoken to you today, dear children of God, of the martyrs of the past, asking you to remember especially our martyr of Canterbury, the blessed Archbishop Elphege; because it is fitting, on Christ's birthday, to remember what is that peace which he brought; and because, dear children, I do not think that I shall ever preach to you again; and because it is possible that in a short time you may have yet another martyr, and that one perhaps not the last. I would have you keep in your hearts these words that I say, and think of them at another time. In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost. Amen.

Wednesday, December 28, 2011

The Incarnation itself as 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 compartmentalise the aspects of the person and work of Christ so as to isolate them from each other.

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)

Tuesday, December 27, 2011

Her Majesty - an Evangelist

If you haven't seen the Queen's Christmas Message yet, I recommend that you watch it. This year, without doubt, Her Majesty outshone all our Church leaders:

". . . Although we are capable of great acts of kindness, history teaches us that we sometimes need saving from ourselves - from our recklessness or our greed.

"God sent into the world a unique person - neither a philosopher nor a general, important though they are, but a Saviour, with the power to forgive . . ."

The entire text is HERE

Monday, December 26, 2011

Those bloody days after Christmas

The martyrdom of St Stephen

It is not unusual for priests who celebrate Mass every day to find the Octave of Christmas a chilling reality, for, while most of the people are enjoying a well deserved holiday break with their families, we and a handful of stalwarts are back at the altar immersed in a remarkably bloody week.

Today we honour St Stephen, the first Christian Martyr. He was the deacon, full of the Holy Spirit and full of love for the people, who was stoned to death for his witness to Jesus. (Not forgetting, of course, the 10th century Duke Wenceslaus who went out “on the feast of Stephen,” and was martyred by his own brother.)

On Wednesday we have the Feast of the Holy Innocents, all those little boys under two years of age who were slaughtered by the deranged King Herod in his desperation to kill Jesus. I, personally, find it hard to stand at the altar on Holy Innocents’ Day and not hear the wails of the mothers, or see the blood running in the back streets of Bethlehem.

Then on Thursday we celebrate St Thomas Becket, the tough-nosed 12th century ecclesiastical bureaurocrat who became Archbishop, had a real conversion to the Lord, and was subsequently martyred in Canterbury Cathedral.

But we mustn’t think of all that suffering as something that contrasts with the essence of Christmas. It is the REAL world that God wants to save. It is REAL people - sinful, selfish, flawed in character, full of conplexes and contradictions - whom he wants to heal and restore. He loves us, sinful as we are, with all of our problems, and our propensity to hurt one another and cause pain.

This baby, God in human flesh, came to reveal the unconditional love with which we are loved. And that love cost him everything. He came to die for us.

From one end of the Bible to the other, the tapestry of God’s revelation is held together by a bloodied thread. Let’s never forget that. Jesus came to this world, ultimately to die, and – in the words of Balthasar - not just to die, but to experience the hell of God-forsakenness, before being resurrected from the abyss and exalted to the right hand of the Father WITH and FOR us, transforming all things – you and me included - with his suffering love. This is the mystery at the heart of our salvation; this is the mystery at the heart of the Church. This is the mystery that can reconcile families, communities and even nations if only we will stop pushing God away from us.

The blood of this strange week reminds us of the blood of the martyrs flowing down through the Christian centuries.

It reminds us, too, that even in our day, the most astonishing signs of the presence of Jesus are in the midst of extreme suffering. Nowhere is this more so than in Iraq, where Canon Andrew White, the (Anglican) Vicar of Baghdad, and his people are a healing and reconciling presence in that suffering city. You can do a google search and find all kinds of articles on the love of God incarnated in that ministry.

But perhaps the most moving is this 30 minute clip which gives us a bird’s eye view of the ministry of St George's Baghdad and Canon Andrew White.

If you would like to add that work to your regular intercessions, you could sign up to Canon Andrew White’s Facebook page.

During this week, our emotions are stretched between the polarities of the joy of the manger, the crib, the angels singing, memories of Christmasses past, family celebrations, the happiness of the children . . . and on the other hand the sobbing, tears and pain, not just of the martyrs, but of their loved ones, and all who suffer illness, loneliness, forsakenness and even despair. As we look forward to a new year, may all church communities – and each of us in our daily lives – allow the Lord Jesus to use us to touch and bless the bloodied world into which he came that first Christmas.

Hitchens called Mother Teresa "a fanatic, a fundamentalist, and a fraud," but her Order is praying for him

NEW DELHI (AFP) - India's Missionaries of Charity order said it would pray for British writer Christopher Hitchens' soul, despite his aggressive campaign against its Nobel prize-winning founder, Mother Teresa.

"We will pray for him and for his family," spokeswoman Sister Christie told AFP on Friday, upon hearing of Hitchens' death at the age of 62 after a battle against cancer of the oesophagus.

Asked whether Hitchens, an avowed atheist, would welcome such prayers, she declined to comment.

The iconoclastic Hitchens, who enjoyed great success as a columnist, was among the strongest critics of Roman Catholic saint-in-waiting Mother Teresa, calling her "a fanatic, a fundamentalist, and a fraud".

In his 1995 book "The Missionary Position" and a 1994 documentary called "Hell's Angel", Hitchens accused the nun of being a political opportunist who struck friendships with dictators and corrupt financiers in exchange for donations to her order.

Saturday, December 24, 2011

Some great quotes for Christmas Day

Let's go

". . . down to that littleness, down to all that
Crying and hunger, all that tiny flesh
And flickering spirit - down the great stars fall,
Here the huge kings bow.
Here the farmer sees his fragile lambs,
Here the wise man throws his books away.

"This manger is the universe's cradle,
This singing mother has the words of truth.
Here the ox and ass and sparrow stop,
Here the hopeless man breaks into trust.
God, you have made a victory for the lost.
Give us this daily Bread, this little Host."
- Elizabeth Jennings (1926 - 2001)

"The King of Angels
and Lord of heaven and earth
who in marvellous humility
and astounding poverty
lies in a manger."
- St Clare of Assisi (1194 – 1253)

"The Word in the bliss of the Godhead remains,
yet in flesh comes to suffer the keenest of pains;
he is that he was and for ever shall be,
but becomes that he was not, for you and for me."
- H. R. Bramley (1833-1917)

"The Word became Flesh and dwelt among us,
and we beheld his glory."
- St John the Apostle, in John 1:14

"Something that has existed from the beginning,
that we have heard,
and that we have seen with our own eyes;
that we have watched
and touched with our own hands:
the Word, who is life - this is our subject.
That life was made visible:
we saw it and we are giving our testimony,
telling you of the eternal life
which was with the Father
and has been made visible to us."
- St John the Apostle in 1 John 1:1-2

"He is little and weak,
that you may be great and strong;
He is bound in swaddling clothes,
that you may be unbound from the fetters of death;
He is on earth,
that you may be in heaven."
- St Ambrose of Milan (337? – 397)

"The Word was made man
in order that we might be made divine."
". . . he deified what he put on; and more than that,
he bestowed this gift on the race of men."
- St Athanasius of Alexandria (296? - 373)

"For you know the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ,
that though he was rich,
yet for our sakes he became poor,
so that by his poverty
you might become rich."
- St Paul, in 2 Corinthians 8:9

"'Tis mystery all: th'Immortal dies:
Who can explore His strange design?
In vain the firstborn seraph tries
To sound the depths of love divine.
'Tis mercy all! Let earth adore,
Let angel minds inquire no more.

"He left His Father's throne above
So free, so infinite His grace -
Emptied Himself of all but love,
And bled for Adam's helpless race:
'Tis mercy all, immense and free,
For O my God, it found out me!"
- Charles Wesley (1707 – 1788)

". . . the great mystery of the Incarnation
is that true man is in the God
whom no suffering can touch,
and true God in the human flesh
that is subject to pain and sorrow.
By this wonderful exchange
man gains glory through shame,
immortality through chastisement,
life through death.
For unless the Word of God were so firmly joined to our flesh
that the two natures could not be parted even in death,
we mortals would never be able to return to life.
But when the Lord became man and died for our sake,
death lost its everlasting hold over us;
through the nature that was undying in Jesus Christ,
the nature that was mortal was raised to life."
- Pope St Leo the Great (391? – 461)

"I have come that you might have life, life in all its fulness."
- Jesus, in John 10:10

Last year's "white Christmas"

Today I'm sharing with you a few photos I took last year during the only "white Christmas" I have ever experienced. The parish at St Luke's, Kingston Upon Thames really honour the coming of Jesus among us (as you can see).

All my friends at St Lukes . . . I'm thinking of you as we sweat it out Down Under!


It really did snow!

St Luke's Parish School had a Carol Service in the church

The parish Carol Service on the Sunday night before Christmas (with the Canbury Singers)

The children's Crib Service

The Christmas Crib set up at the All Souls' altar

The Vicar, Father Martin Hislop, at the Consecration during Midnight Mass

by Sir John Betjeman (1906 – 1984)

The bells of waiting Advent ring,
The Tortoise stove is lit again
And lamp-oil light across the night
Has caught the streaks of winter rain
In many a stained-glass window sheen
From Crimson Lake to Hookers Green.

The holly in the windy hedge
And round the Manor House the yew
Will soon be stripped to deck the ledge,
The altar, font and arch and pew,
So that the villagers can say
'The church looks nice' on Christmas Day.

Provincial Public Houses blaze,
Corporation tramcars clang,
On lighted tenements I gaze,
Where paper decorations hang,
And bunting in the red Town Hall
Says 'Merry Christmas to you all'.

And London shops on Christmas Eve
Are strung with silver bells and flowers
As hurrying clerks the City leave
To pigeon-haunted classic towers,
And marbled clouds go scudding by
The many-steepled London sky.

And girls in slacks remember Dad,
And oafish louts remember Mum,
And sleepless children's hearts are glad.
And Christmas-morning bells say 'Come!'
Even to shining ones who dwell
Safe in the Dorchester Hotel.

And is it true,
This most tremendous tale of all,
Seen in a stained-glass window's hue,
A Baby in an ox's stall ?
The Maker of the stars and sea
Become a Child on earth for me ?

And is it true ? For if it is,
No loving fingers tying strings
Around those tissued fripperies,
The sweet and silly Christmas things,
Bath salts and inexpensive scent
And hideous tie so kindly meant,

No love that in a family dwells,
No carolling in frosty air,
Nor all the steeple-shaking bells
Can with this single Truth compare -
That God was man in Palestine
And lives today in Bread and Wine.

Wednesday, December 21, 2011

Dickens and the Construction of Christmas - Bishop Geoffrey Rowell

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

This article, published in HISTORY TODAY on 21st December, 1993, was written by Geoffrey Rowell, who was at the time Fellow, Chaplain and Tutor in Theology at Keble College, Oxford. He is now the Church of England Bishop of Europe. Widely renowned as a specialist in 19th century Church history in general, and the Oxford Movement in particular, Bishop Rowell gives us a fascinating thumbnail sketch of the English observance of Christmas, emphasising the role of the Oxford Movement in its development.

The entire article is well worth reading. It is HERE. What follows is a few paragraphs on the special Christmas celebrations at Dr Pusey's church, St Saviour's Leeds:

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

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

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

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

(The unfamiliar opening of '0 come, all ye faithful', is from the translation of Adeste fideles made by Frederick Oakeley in 1841 for use at the Margaret Chapel in London.)

St Saviour’s also laid on a Christmas feast:

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

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

Monday, December 19, 2011

Dietrich Bonhoeffer: Waiting is an art

Dietrich Bonhoeffer (1906-1945) was a well-known and greatly loved Christian pastor, seminary teacher, and theologian who was imprisoned and eventually executed by the Nazis for his resistance to Hitler. Bonhoeffer was the author of the widely read classics: "The Cost of Discipleship", "Life Together, " and "Letters and Papers from Prison."

The following is from a letter Bonhoeffer wrote to his fiancee, Maria von Wedemeyer, from prison on December 13, 1943. It is in God Is in the Manger: Reflections on Advent and Christmas‬, published last year. It was translated by O.C. Dean, and edited by Jana Riess. Go HERE for more details or to purchase the book.

Celebrating Advent means being able to wait. Waiting is an art that our impatient age has forgotten. It wants to break open the ripe fruit when it has hardly finished planting the shoot. But all too often greedy eyes are only deceived; the fruit that seemed so precious is still green on the inside, and disrespectful hands ungratefully toss aside what has so disappointed them. Whoever does not know the austere blessedness of waiting—that is, of hopefully doing without—will never experience the full blessing of fulfillment.

Those who do not know how it feels to struggle anxiously with the deepest questions of life, of their life, and to patiently look forward with anticipation until the truth is revealed, cannot even dream of the splendour of the moment in which clarity is illuminated for them . . .

For the greatest, most profound, tenderest things in the world, we must wait. It happens not here in a storm but according to the divine laws of sprouting, giving, and becoming.

Be brave for my sake, dearest Maria, even if this letter is your only token of our love this Christmas-tide. We shall both experience a few dark hours - why should we disguise that from each other? We shall ponder the incomprehensibility of our lot and be assailed by the question of why, over and above the darkness already enshrouding humanity, we should be subjected to the bitter anguish of a separation whose purpose we fail to understand . . . And then, just when everything is bearing down on us to such an extent that we can scarcely withstand it, the Christmas message comes to tell us that all our ideas are wrong, and that what we take to be evil and dark is really good and light because it comes from Cod. Our eyes are at fault, that is all. God is in the manger, wealth in poverty, light in darkness, succour in abandonment. No evil can befall us; whatever men may do to us, they cannot but serve the God who is secretly revealed as love and rules the world and our lives.

Saturday, December 17, 2011

The YES that changes everything

The Annunciation, by James C. Christensen, b. 1942

Patti Gallagher Mansfield has been an international leader of the Charismatic Renewal in the Roman Catholic Church since 1967. She was asked by the Pontifical Council for the Laity to thank Pope Benedict XVI on behalf of all the ecclesial movements and new communities before a crowd of 400,000 people in St. Peter’s Square on the vigil of Pentecost, 2006. In this extract from one of her teachings, she encourages us to say "yes" to God, as Mary did.

Here is Mary, the woman of prayer, attentive and responsive to God. Here is Mary with hands open and empty before God, not clinging to any previous plans, not dictating any conditions. A simple fiat . . . "Yes. Be it done to me according to your word." Indeed, "Blessed is she who believed that there would be a fulfillment of what was spoken to her by the Lord" (Luke 1:45).

By faith she permitted the Father to fulfill his plan. By faith she welcomed the overshadowing of the Holy Spirit. By faith she embraced the Word made flesh in her womb. We know that "without faith it is impossible to please God" (Hebrews11:6) and that Mary found favour with him by her faith.

So must we, at this juncture in our lives . . . kneel before the Father in a radical poverty of spirit and learn to pray with hands open and empty . . .

We have received great graces, but I'm afraid that too often our hands have been full instead of empty. I sense that there are new "annunciations" being given for a new move of the Spirit, but that many of us don't really want God to be God. We still want him on our own terms . . . a God who will fit into a prescribed pattern of acting. We don't want the Living God, the God who is, the God who turned Mary's life upside down. Let's be careful!

By her faith, Mary permitted God to "create a new thing upon the earth" (Jeremiah 31:22). As I've asked Mary to be my mother and teach me to pray with hands open and empty, this is what I am learning to say to the Father, "With Mary, I want to be for you all YES, only YES, always YES."

Thursday, December 15, 2011

Mary's "yes"

O Virgin . . . the angel awaits an answer; . . . We too are waiting, O Lady, for your word of compassion; the sentence of condemnation weighs heavily upon us.

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

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

Answer quickly, O Virgin . . . See, the desired of all nations is at your door, knocking to enter. If he should pass by because of your delay, in sorrow you would begin to seek him afresh, the One whom your soul loves. Arise, hasten, open. Arise in faith, hasten in devotion, open in praise and thanksgiving.

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

- St Bernard of Clairvaux (1090-1153)

Wednesday, December 14, 2011

The real Santa Claus

Last week I let St Nicholas' Day go by without mentioning him on this blog. I more than make up for that today by passing on to you a wonderful homily preached last Sunday by the amazing Father Alexander Tefft, priest of St Botolph's Antiochian Orthodox parish in London (founded by the late Father Michael Harper). In fact, if you have some spare time during the Christmas break, one of the best places to linger is the website of St Botolph's parish. You will earn a lot. You will be inspired . . . and challenged, too!

“Rejoice in that day, and leap for joy, for behold, your reward is great in heaven” (Luke 6.23)

‘Wherever Christ went’, said a bishop once, ‘they threw rocks. Wherever I go, they serve tea’. Wherever Christ preached, the eyes of murderers, harlots, and con men streamed with tears. ‘Wherever I preach’, says a vicar, ‘bankers and stock brokers yawn’. ‘Ha!’ says an Orthodox priest. ‘I’ve solved that problem. I don’t preach!’ Wherever Christ went, a filthy crowd of blind beggars, homeless cripples, bleeding women, naked men racked with the demons inside and bound in chains, trailed along. Whining and pleading, throwing up on the soil. Wherever his ministers go these days, they are lucky to find a seat on the train. Bishops are meant to be discreet these days. Priests, all the more so. Unseen, unheard. Hidden away. Orthodox priests are not immune. Some hide by dressing up like the vicar in a little white dog collar peeping up through a black clergy shirt. A soft, beardless face. Perfectly incognito. Passing through the blind, jostling crowds on Oxford Street, heaving a sigh of relief: ‘Thank God, no one knows I’m Orthodox. No one guesses I’m a priest!’ You can hide effectively behind a smokescreen of incense, in words mumbled into your beard in a dead language. You leave well enough alone. Hide away discreetly from the snickering laughter and cold stares. This season, you can hide in a little wooden crèche. A tree decked with tinsel. Best of all – the fat jolly elf with a snow-white beard, the merry old gentleman in red and white called … Santa Claus. A friendlier face than the icon of Christ, with those piercing eyes. No one throws rocks at Santa Claus. More tea, vicar?

It is easy to forget the gulf that separates ‘Christendom’ and Christ. Or Father Christmas and Saint Nicholas.

Christendom is pretty. A nice, white, clapboard or stone Victorian church, very suitable for concerts. A place to fawn over newly-christened babies; or cut business deals, make matches, get a tip on a property investment; or arrange the quiet funeral for the ‘dearly departed’ – at which no one cries. Christ is not ‘pretty’. He had no beauty that we should desire him. Pierced, crushed. A man of sorrows, acquainted with grief. The voice that prostitutes loved and Pharisees hated. Born not in a rich suburb but in an animals’ cave. Christendom is pleasant. Well-trained choirs, hardbound hymnals. A ‘talk’ about … well, after all, if all else fails, butterflies. Nothing too controversial. Christ is not ‘pleasant’. His first words in the Gospel according to Mark: ‘The time is fulfilled. The kingdom is at hand. Repent and believe in the Gospel’. Is this a pall of sorrow – a heavy, wet blanket laid on those poor losers called Christians? By no means. It is joy. Pure joy. So pure that the heart pounds in your chest, your breath surges upward. The soul leaps inside you, the eyes flash, and prayer shoots forth from your lips. Joy – real joy – is not the absence of sorrow. It is the presence of life. Life, bubbling up, erupting, streaming out and giving life to the dead.

Life that dares to take on everything. And everyone. A life like that of Saint Nicholas.

Bishop of a town near the mouth of the River Mýros, in the rocky little county of Lycia, a few miles ashore from Rhodes. They are poor, the people of Myra. Tombs, hewn out of solid rock, hold the dead. Like the cave in Bethlehem that held an ox, an ass, and a very unusual Child; and the cave outside Jerusalem that could not hold his Body, taken down from the Cross. Poor people. And a bishop, who is anything but discreet.

A poor man sits up all night, unable to give a dowry for his three daughters. His heart is heavy at the thought of them selling themselves, night after night, on the streets. After sleep overwhelms him, three sacks of gold drop ‘indiscreetly’ into three pairs of sandals left by the fireplace. Who else dropped them through the window but Nicholas, that most indiscreet of bishops? All night at the inn outside town, the remains of three schoolboys lie rotting in the barrel where the innkeeper hid the pieces. At dawn, three boys are alive again. Who prayed for them all night but Nicholas, the bishop who would not leave well enough alone? A judge, with a splitting headache, releases the three condemned felons from custody. Why go through with a death sentence when that meddling bishop stands over you for three hours defending the innocent? A calm sea and a safe voyage to the Holy Land. Who would know that gale-force winds whipped the little ship only last night, until the sailors gave up hope? No one but them – and Bishop Nicholas, who would not remain unseen, unheard, hidden away, but prayed up on deck until the storm ceased. A bishop who never held a word back, when the lives of poor, maimed, blind, lame souls, entrusted to his care, were placed at risk.

No soft, beardless face in a dog collar. A bishop that everyone on the street recognised. A bishop that some called evil – especially Arius, that pious priest, when he denied that Christ is God, and Bishop Nicholas slapped him in the face.

What? Santa Claus hit someone? Assault and battery, with intent. But at dawn, those politically correct bishops found Nicholas in his jail cell. The vestments that they stripped off him the night before, all perfectly in place. Bishop Nicholas had no time for excuses. The man who negotiated a field or five head of oxen. That young man who just had his wedding in church. No time for Communion. Nicholas had no time for ‘Christendom’. He had Christ on his mind, the poor in his heart. The maimed, the blind, the lame: all those wounded in body or spirit. The homeless from the highways and the hedges. The losers in the sight of this world, who need the Precious Body and Divine Blood offered here, at the banquet of the Master, who vested Nicholas that night – as they need Life Himself.

Excluded, reviled, his name cast out as evil. Or at least, indiscreet. Nicholas of Myra is a bishop that you throw rocks at and seldom have home to tea. But, beloved in Christ, he leaps for joy this season – whenever you have the eyes to recognise him under his red coat and white muffler, his snowy beard, his eyes twinkling with the pure flame as they always did. His voice – rich, round, and full – that never holds back a word of Life.

Holy Hierarch Father Nicholas, pray to God for us!

Monday, December 12, 2011

The closed-mindedness of Phillip Adams

Today the Australian Broadcasting Commission ("ABC") has posted an article on its Religion and Ethics Website by Greg Clarke of the Centre for Public Christianity in response to a particularly bitchy piece Phillip Adams wrote in his column in The Australian last weekend. Now I must say that in so many ways I really like Adams, but he does have a "thing" about theists. So, it's worth reading Greg's article. If you want to read Adams' original (and you should) then it is HERE.

Greg Clarke

Christmas approaches, so it must be time for Phillip Adams to reestablish his reputation as a no-God-botherer.

In last weekend's column in the Weekend Australian, Adams used the awarding of the Nobel Prize for Physics to local astronomer Professor Brian Schmidt as an opportunity to claim a few certainties for atheism. It always stuns me when the columnists come down firmly on the questions that the academics are still wrestling with. (Note to self: remember to apportion claims in columns to actual knowledge.)

Adams suggests that Schmidt's discovery that the universe is expanding at an accelerating rate provides the lay-down misere for the nothingness of existence, the victory of nihilism and the bullet in the Godhead.

"The facts are in," writes Adams, "more than ever He, She or It is a redundant notion." With his usual confidence, Adams implies that the question, "Why is there something rather than nothing?" is not worth answering, and that the "something" is a mere blip on the way back to the "nothing."

This question has fascinated the pointy heads since forever. Most of the ancient Greeks didn't believe in "nothing" as a possibility: they were convinced the universe is eternal. The rise of science modified this belief, such that in the medieval period it was slowly replaced by belief in an eternal Being as the source of all things.

Modern science, with its theories of the origins of the universe, actually did put the nail in the coffin of the eternal universe theory. We now know that the universe did have a beginning.

But it did not sound the death knell for the eternal Being theory. Thomas Aquinas's argument in the thirteenth century that God is the uncaused cause of the universe still warrants attention.

Islamic thinkers "improved" this approach, with the Kalam cosmological argument stating that all things that exist have a cause, and since we now know the universe had a beginning, it must have a cause (other than itself). This leads many thinkers towards notions of God.

Furthermore, many find satisfaction in the arguments about the fine-tuning of the universe (such as Professor Alvin Plantinga), the unlikely nature of human intelligence and information theory (Professor John Lennox) and game theory approaches to the probability of the universe (Professor Richard Swinburne), and feel similarly led by their minds to the notion of a God.

So is Schmidt's research a game-changer, as Adams suggests?

To finish reading the article (and also follow the debate in the comments) go HERE.

Sunday, December 11, 2011

Watch for the signs

From the website Monastic Wisdom for Everyday Living is this powerful Advent message:

One of the things that used to be fun about driving to Heathrow Airport was, as you approached the airport, the road took you through a tunnel under the main runway, and as you entered the tunnel there was this large airport notice on the side of the road – “WATCH FOR THE SIGNS.” We used to laugh because this road sign sounded so much like an apocalyptic warning, such as we hear during the season of Advent.

In this second of our Advent preaching series, the word I have been given to reflect on, is the word watch. It is amazing how often this word comes up in Scripture, and it is clearly one of the main characteristics of a faithful Christian disciple, that we WATCH. So why watch? What does it mean, to watch, and why should we watch?

To watch is not the same as to look, or to see – it is rather, looking attentively for something – keeping alert and awake so as not to miss it – like watching for the signs for Terminal 2 at the airport. Watching is hard – it takes effort. If you remember driving to Logan Airport during the Big Dig, when every week the layout seemed to change, keeping your eye on the road and watching for the signs to your terminal was extremely difficult, and you really had to be alert – or you would miss it. So watching demands attention, focus, being awake, keeping alert.

To keep reading go HERE.

Saturday, December 10, 2011

Searching for God in the Desert . . .

Sinai Desert

Here is a bit more about the wilderness. It is by Father Pat McNulty, Priest of Madonna House, in Combermere, Ontario, Canada.

If I remember correctly, it seems to me that I have written at least one Advent article a year in this newspaper about the desert. Many of the details of my time in the Sinai back in 1976 are somewhere in all those articles; so I won’t bore you by repeating them.

But if you remember any of those articles, you already know that Patrick of Combermere was no Lawrence of Arabia, even though, like Lawrence, I did travel in the desert on a camel.

Well, actually I traveled into it by foot tied to a man who was on a camel. The camel wouldn’t let me mount, and since we were traveling at night, my Bedouin guide, not wanting me to get lost, had a long cord connecting my wrist to his.

Thankfully, with his stick to inspire the camel, we moved very, very slowly. But even in the dark at that speed, I knew I was in the desert—big time!

Advent is filled with the imagery of desert from whence John the Baptist came to "prepare the way of the Lord." I guess that’s why Advent always takes me back to my time in the desert.

Anyhow, my Bedouin guide took me to an area five hours into the desert by camel, and while I stayed there, he came once a week to bring me food.

In that area was the cave where I stayed and total, absolute silence. My guide stayed with me the first day to get me settled. Then when he "drove off into the sunset" on his 1976 camel, I learned what a panic-attack is.

There I was, alone in the middle of the Sinai Desert, without camels, curds, or a clue where I was! This wasn’t a movie! This was for real! What had I done? "Patrick," I said to myself, "You are in deeeeeeeep trouble!"

Click HERE to read the rest of Fr McNulty's article.