Sunday, September 30, 2012

St Thérèse and the Grace of God

“Nothing in my hands I bring. 
Simply to thy cross I cling.” 

From the hymn “Rock of Ages” 
by Augustus M. Toplady, 1776.

On 24th August, 1997, during the Mass he celebrated at the Twelfth World Youth Day in Paris in the presence of hundreds of bishops and before a huge crowd of young people from all over the world, Pope John Paul II announced that he was to proclaim St Thérèse a “Doctor of the Universal Church.” This he did on Sunday 19th October 1997 when he pointed out that Thérèse is the youngest of the 33 officially recognised Doctors of the Church, the one closest to our time, and the third woman among them. In his apostolic letter Divini Amoris Scientia, the Pope said: 

“As it was for the Church’s Saints in every age, so also for her, in her spiritual experience Christ is the centre and fullness of Revelation. Thérèse knew Jesus, loved him and made him loved with the passion of a bride. She penetrated the mysteries of his infancy, the words of his Gospel, the passion of the suffering Servant engraved on his holy Face, in the splendour of his glorious life, in his Eucharistic presence. She sang of all the expressions of Christ’s divine charity, as they are presented in the Gospel.” 

The Pope also said that 

". . . we can rightly recognize in the Saint of Lisieux the charism of a Doctor of the Church, because of the gift of the Holy Spirit she received for living and expressing her experienced faith, and because of her particular understanding of the mystery of Christ . . . That assimilation was certainly favoured by the most singular natural gifts, but it was also evidently something prodigious, due to a charism of wisdom from the Holy Spirit." 

No wonder that Thérèse is the most quoted woman saint in the Catechism of the Catholic Church!

Her Life

Marie Frances Thérèse Martin was born at Alençon, France on 2nd January 1873. When she was four years old her mother died, and she moved with the family to Lisieux. 

As a child, Thérèse had a deep awareness of God’s presence in her life. She grew up loving the Lord Jesus and understanding the Sacraments to be deeply personal encounters with him. By the time she became a teenager she knew that God was calling her to embrace the Religious life in its contemplative form. 

In 1887 Thérèse went to on pilgrimage to Italy with a group from Lisieux. On 20th November Pope Leo XIII met with them and Thérèse was able to ask him for special permission to enter the Carmel of Lisieux at the age of fifteen, which she did on 9 April 1888, receiving the habit on the following year. She made her religious profession on 8 September 1890, the Birthday of Our Lady. 

Thérèse embraced the spiritual principles of St Teresa of Avila while faithfully fulfilling the various community responsibilities entrusted to her, especially the menial ones. During this time her faith was severely tested by the sickness of her father who died on 29th July 1894. 

She continued to be nourished by the Scriptures, which were central to her spiritual life. Her response to God’s Word in openness of heart and mind nurtured her growth in holiness and made a deep impact on those around her. 

The autobiographical manuscripts she wrote are a detailed account of her walk with God. Based on the teaching of Jesus in the Gospels, she called it the “little way” of “spiritual childhood” and taught it to the novices entrusted to her care. 

She also accepted the ministry of spiritually supporting two missionary priests with prayer and sacrifice. Indeed, seized by the love of Christ, whom she described as her “only Spouse”, she became increasingly aware of her own apostolic and missionary vocation. 

In her autobiography Thérèse says that on Trinity Sunday 1895 (9th June), she gave herself completely to the love of God. Several months later, on the night between Holy Thursday and Good Friday (3rd April 1896), she suffered a haemoptysis, the first sign of the illness which would lead to her death. From this point, her writings speak of the trial of faith, which would last until she died. In the midst of her pain she wrote that her vocation was simply “to be love in the heart of the Church.” 

Thérèse was transferred to the infirmary on 8 July 1896. During this time her sayings were collected. Meanwhile her sufferings intensified. She accepted them with patience, right up to the moment of her death in the afternoon of 30th September 1897. “I am not dying, I am entering life”, she wrote. 

Her final words, “My God, I love you!” were uttered at the age of 24, after years of illness and spiritual struggle, sealing a life lived in total surrender to the Lord’s love. Then she began what she had already foreseen as her new responsibility - her ministry of intercession, prayer, and love in the Communion of Saints, “in order to shower a rain of roses upon the world.”

Thérèse was canonized by Pope Pius XI on 17 May 1925. 

Since her death, Christians of many cultures and traditions - especially young people - have been inspired by her holiness, love and steadfast faith to give themselves completely to the Lord.

Letters to Maurice

To get a truly rounded picture of Thérèse – and in order to move away from the rather saccharine stereotype of her that has been built up, it is a good idea to read Maurice and Thérèse: The Story of a Love, by Patrick Ahern. This is the collected correspondence between Thérèse and Maurice Bellière, a stumbling young man she had never met, who was preparing to become a missionary priest. They exchanged twenty-one letters at a time when Thérèse’s suffering and pain was at its height, and when her spiritual struggle was most intense. It is significant that she was able to write such letters of support and encouragement to someone else. (The letters are accompanied by Ahern’s commentary.) 

Maurice had experienced a moral failure, and couldn’t quiet his conscience. Thérèse told him that God does not want our relationship with him be based on an obsessive fear of punishment. Neither, she said, does God want us to try and bargain for salvation by promising to do good works. With all who have begun to grasp the meaning of the grace-filled Gospel down through the Christian centuries, Thérèse knew that no amount of “good works” could purchase God’s love, and that in our better moments we would always wonder if we had done enough. In fact she even said to Maurice that the best of our good works are blemished, anyway, and they make us displeasing to God if we rely on them. 

Thérèse knew that Jesus came into this world to save us, to set us free. She reminded Maurice of St Augustine and St Mary Magdalene, both of whose sins “which were many” were forgiven. 

She wrote to him, “I love them. I love their repentance, and especially their loving boldness.” 

Thérèse knew that “perfect love casts out fear” (1 John 4:18). Indeed, she said, “How can I fear a God who is nothing but Mercy and Love?” “Confidence, nothing but confidence” in God’s love was what she stressed. This may sound like spiritual presumption to some. But it echoes the teaching of Hebrews 10:19-22: 

“Therefore, brethren, since we have confidence to enter the sanctuary by the blood of Jesus, by the new and living way which he opened for us through the curtain, that is, through his flesh, and since we have a great priest over the house of God, let us draw near with a true heart in full assurance of faith, with our hearts sprinkled clean from an evil conscience and our bodies washed with pure water.” 

Justification, Faith and Works

Thérèse practised what she taught. Just four months before she died, she wrote:"I am very happy that I am going to heaven. But when I think of this word of the Lord, 'I shall come soon and bring with me my recompense to give to each according to his works,' I tell myself that this will be very embarrassing for me, because I have no works . . . Very well! He will render to me according to His works for His own sake." 

And in her Act of Oblation, she prays to Jesus: “After earth’s exile, I hope to go and enjoy you in the fatherland, but I do not want to lay up merits for heaven. I want to work for your love alone . . . In the evening of this life, I shall appear before you with empty hands, for I do not ask you, Lord, to count my works. All our justice is blemished in your eyes. I wish, then, to be clothed in your own justice and to receive from your love the eternal possession of yourself.” 

At the level of Christian experience, Thérèse articulates the theological convergence on the doctrine of Justification that would appear in the the Agreed Statements of the Roman Catholic/ Lutheran dialogue, as well as the Roman Catholic/ Anglican dialogue. It is significant for the ecumenical journey ahead that she occupies such a central place among the Doctors of the Church and in the Catechism.

Saturday, September 29, 2012

Who is REALLY against Jesus today?

These are millstones from Capernaum, used for grinding grains. What a terrible thing it would be to have one of those tied to your neck as you were thrown into the sea. Made from the basalt rock found in Capernaum, they are far too heavy for a man to lift on his own. The pointy part of the one in the foreground is the bottom. A bowl-shaped piece was inverted over it. The wheat was poured into the top and one or two women turned it to grind the wheat which would fall out underneath. 

One of the websites that I have bookmarked is run by the English Dominicans. It is simply called, and contains an amazing archive of homilies for the Sundays of the year, in a range of styles and also from a variety of theological perspectives. I share with you a challenging homily preached on this Sunday three years ago by the Very Revd Dr Simon Francis Gaine OP. 

[Readings: Numbers 11:25-29; James 5:1-6; Mark 9:38-43,45,47-8]

It's a Scandal

Jesus always provokes a response in those who encounter him. It's true that there are those who want to follow but are afraid and those who are held back by something they don't want to leave behind. But at bottom there are those who are for him, and those who are against. Jesus himself implies as much: 

For he that is not against us is for us. 

And in different circumstances he says: 

He who is not with me is against me, and he who does not gather with me scatters. 

So who is for Jesus and who against? In today's Gospel, Jesus cautions us against judging that those outside his group of disciples are against him. Someone not a disciple has been performing miracles in Jesus's name, and when the disciples complain about it Jesus admonishes them rather than the lone exorcist. No one, Jesus says, can do such a mighty work in his name and afterwards speak evil of him.

Nor is it that the exorcist is somehow for Jesus but against the disciples. When the disciples made their complaint, their grievance was that the man was not with us. Whom does this 'us' include, Jesus or just the disciples? Perhaps their concern was that the man wasn't following them rather than not following Jesus. So is Jesus replying that the exorcist, though he may not be with the disciples, is nevertheless for Jesus? No. Jesus doesn't say that the man is for him but not for the disciples. He says: 

He that is not against us is for us. 

Jesus doesn't reject the exorcist, but he doesn't exclude the erring disciples either. Jesus and the disciples are 'us'. Whatever their mistakes, the disciples are not his enemies. Who though are the ones who are really against Jesus? 

Jesus's enemies might have been thought to be the Roman authorities, and indeed they are the ones to try him and put him to death. Moreover, Jesus struggled with Satan in the desert and set about despoiling his house by exorcising devils. He was opposed by the Sadducees who saw him as a threat to their religious and political position. He was opposed too by the Pharisees whose religiosity he lambasted. 

And yet, in today's Gospel Jesus singles out none of these as those who are against him. Instead he speaks against those who cause little ones who believe in him to sin, those who 'scandalise' believers. These, it seems, are those who are really against him, not an external enemy even, but someone within - any disciple could become a scandal to another believer. 

We are used to thinking of a scandal as some disgraceful happening, but here 'to give scandal' means to behave in such a way that you encourage others to sin. In our second reading St James speaks of the rich who oppress the poor and don't pay their wages. Now that is already a heinous crime, but imagine if those rich people are also Christians! When other Christians see their behaviour, they may feel justified in sinning themselves. And so the sin of the rich would be not just oppression but scandal too.

Who is opposing God, who is opposing Christ, in our world today? There are many who are against him, including those who campaign against religion and faith. But perhaps those who are really against God are those Christians who have ended up making themselves an 'enemy within', a scandal or a stumbling-block to the faith of others. 

Is that us? Are we a stumbling block to others by our failure to live Christian lives in church and out of church? Have we given scandal by a lack of reverence for Christ in others? Have we given scandal by a lack of reverence for Christ in the Eucharist? Do we fail to show proper regard for the Church as the Body of Christ? 

Jesus tells us that it would be better for those who give scandal to be drowned at the bottom of the sea, just as the Egyptians, the enemies of God's people, were drowned. There is, however, an alternative. In baptism the old Adam in all of us was drowned away. When the grace of our baptism is renewed, at Mass, in confession, or by any growth in charity, we drown away the enemy of God in us. Whenever we repent by God's grace and turn back to him and do penance, we cut off some unspiritual part of ourselves and throw it away. Let us never be scandals to others, but instead the prophets and disciples our Lord wants.

Friday, September 28, 2012

After Rowan: Priorities for the Anglican Communion (by John Milbank)

Today the ABC published on its Religion and Ethics website an essay by John Milbank on the "post-Rowan" Anglican Communion. It is a long piece, but well worth reading to the end. I agree with most of Milbank's observations, especially the following: 

"The increasing failure of many priests to perform their true priestly roles of pastoral care and mission outreach, in a predominantly "liberal" and managerialist ecclesial culture that encourages bureaucratisation and over-specialisation. This has often led to a staggering failure even to try to do the most obvious things." 

Milbank concludes his essay with these words: 

"What is essential is that the Crown Nominations Commission does not sacrifice vision to efficiency - lack of the former, at this juncture, could prove disastrous. I remain optimistic though, for . . . there are several able potential candidates, and more crucially, among the younger generation, real signs of Anglican revival, on both the Anglo-Catholic and Evangelical wings. All the while, whiggish liberalism in the Church of England continues its rapid and inexorable decline."

John Milbank is Research Professor of Politics, Religion and Ethics at the University of Nottingham, Director of the Centre of Theology and Philosophy, and Chairman of the ResPublica Trust. I have previously directed readers of this blog to his work HERE and HERE

After Rowan: Priorities for the Anglican Communion 

A general dismay in England greeted the news that Rowan Williams was to take the more or less unprecedented step of stepping down from the office of Archbishop of Canterbury eight years before he is officially bound to retire.

This dismay was compounded for some Anglicans when, just a few days later, the proposed "covenant" between the various provinces of the Communion collapsed, thanks to rejection by sufficient diocesan governing bodies of the mother church in England herself, against the advice of the bishops.

The covenant would have bound the participants to agree that no major shift in doctrine or practice be undertaken by any of them without a full-scale "consultation" with all the other provincial churches. Failure then to comply with the global consensus could conceivably lead to various degrees of exclusion from full inter-communion.

It is important for Catholic readers to realise that Rowan Williams had sought this covenant, in part, for ecumenical reasons. The Vatican signalled to him at the start of his primacy that conversations leading to further unity could only be re-commenced if the Catholic Church could be sure that the Anglican Communion was truly capable of acting as one body. Many Anglicans agreed . . .  CLICK HERE TO READ THE ENTIRE ESSAY

Thursday, September 27, 2012

Affirmation of Life

I read the book Healing the Dying by Mary Jane Linn, Matthew Linn and Dennis Linn, when it was first published in 1979, and – apart from the book itself, which is wonderful – discovered in the notes on Chapter 5 the following Statement on Christian Affirmation of Life, developed by the American Catholic Hospital Association. I have given this to many people over the years as a basis for their own instructions to medical staff, relatives and friends, and I’ve read it a number of times from the pulpit when preaching on the Gospel of Life: 

Statement on Christian Affirmation of Life

To my family, friends, physician, lawyer and clergyman: 

I believe that each individual person is created by God our Father in love, and that God retains a loving relationship to each person throughout human life and eternity. 

I believe that Jesus Christ lived, suffered and died for me and that his suffering, death and resurrection prefigure and make possible the death-resurrection process which I now anticipate. 

I believe that each person's worth and dignity derive from the relationship of love in Christ that God has for each individual person, and not from one's usefulness or effectiveness in society. 

I believe that God our Father has entrusted to me a shared dominion with him over my earthly existence, so that I am bound to use ordinary means to preserve my life, but I am free to refuse extraordinary means to prolong my life. 

I believe that through death, life is not taken away but merely changed, and though I may experience fear, suffering and sorrow, by the grace of the Holy Spirit I hope to accept death as a free human act which enables me to surrender this life and to be united with God for eternity. 

Because of my belief: 

I, __________________________, request that I be informed as death approaches so that I may continue to prepare for a full encounter with Christ through the help of the Sacraments and the consolation and prayers of my family and friends. 

I request that, if possible, I be consulted concerning the medical procedures which might be used to prolong my life as death approaches. If I can no longer take part in decisions concerning my own future and there is no reasonable expectation of my recovery from physical and mental disability, I request that no extraordinary means be used to prolong my life. 

I request, though I wish to join my suffering to the suffering of Jesus so as to be united fully with him in the act of death-resurrection, that my pain, if possible, be alleviated. However, no means should be used with the intention of shortening my life. 

I request, because I am a sinner and in need of reconciliation, and because my faith, hope and love may not overcome all fear and doubt, that my family, friends and the whole Christian community join me in prayer and mortification as I prepare for the great personal act of dying. 

Finally, I request that after my death, my family, my friends, and the whole Christian community pray for me, and rejoice with me because of the mercy and love of the Trinity with whom I hope to be united for all eternity.

Wednesday, September 26, 2012

Participation in the Grace of the HolyTrinity

Yesterday I shared the section from The Moscow Agreed Statement (1976) of the Anglican-Orthodox Joint Doctrinal Commission dealing with the Eucharist. Today's post is a significant couple of paragraphs from that same dialogue, this time from the Dublin Agreed Statement of 1984. 

Participation in the Grace of the Holy Trinity 

Trinitarian doctrine presupposes participation in the grace of the Holy Trinity. The doctrine One God in Trinity is not an abstract philosophical formula. It originates in the personal and corporate experience of the grace of the Triune God which has been and is communicated to us in Jesus Christ. This experience is not to be understood in a merely subjective way. It is rooted in the historic fact of the incarnation and God's revelation of himself in Christ. Doctrine is the attempt to express this revelation in such a way as both to safeguard it from misunderstanding and to enable others to share in it. The formulation of doctrine, which is based on the Scriptures and on a tradition of careful theological reflection, should in no way be seen as an independent intellectual exercise. Ultimately, as St Gregory the Theologian (of Nazianzus) says, 'It is impossible to express God and yet more impossible to conceive him' (Theological Orations II, 4). Thus doctrinal formulae should in no way detract from the mystery of God which is handed down in the Church from the apostles by the Fathers. It is not the doctrine of the Trinity but the One God in Trinity, the Father, Son and the Holy Spirit, that constitutes the object of Christian worship and faith. Although we may sometimes speak separately of God the Father, sometimes of God the Son and sometimes of God the Holy Spirit, it is always understood that there is no division of one person from another, but all and each reveal in unity the grace and glory of the one Godhead.

Christians participate in the grace of the Holy Trinity as members of the Christian community. It is the Church which is filled by the Holy Spirit and it is precisely for this reason that every human person has the possibility of becoming a partaker of the divine nature (2 Peter 1.4). The Holy Spirit praying in us heals and renews us at the centre of our being, that is to say in our hearts. The healing character of the grace of the Holy Trinity in the life of the individual believer and of the Church has important implications for the whole life of contemporary society.

Church: the Eucharistic Community

In these days when it seems to many that the ecumenical movements of the 20th century achieved little, it is useful to go back and ponder the "agreed statements" of the various dialogue groups. Of course, the statements, while being acknowledged by the Churches and even "received" by some of them, really only express the agreement of the appointed members of the commissions. But this does not detract from their significance, for, even if they don't satisfy everyone, they do demonstrate the vast territory of shared ground that is common among mainstream Christian communities, and the possibility of expressing ancient truths in a ways that are consistent with the convictions of different traditions. 

One useful example of this is the short but comprehensive and beautiful section on the Eucharist from The Moscow Agreed Statement (1976) of the Anglican-Orthodox Joint Doctrinal Commission: 

VI The Church as the Eucharistic Community 

22. The eucharistic teaching and practice of the Churches, mutually confessed, constitutes an essential factor for the understanding which can lead to reunion between the Orthodox and Anglican Churches. This understanding commits both our Churches to a close relationship which can provide the basis for further steps on the way to reconciliation and union. Already in the past there has been considerable agreement between representatives of our two Churches regarding the doctrine of the Eucharist. We note particularly the six points of the Bucharest Conference of 1935. We now report the following points of agreement: 

23. The eucharistic understanding of the Church affirms the presence of Jesus Christ in the Church, which is his Body, and in the Eucharist. Through the action of the Holy Spirit, all faithful communicants share in the one Body of Christ, and become one body in him. 

24. The Eucharist actualizes the Church. The Christian community has a basic sacramental character. The Church can be described as a synaxis or an ecclesia, which is, in its essence, a worshipping and eucharistic assembly. The Church is not only built up by the Eucharist, but is also a condition for it. Therefore one must be a believing member of the Church in order to receive the Holy Communion. The Church celebrating the Eucharist becomes fully itself; that is koinonia, fellowship - communion. The Church celebrates the Eucharist as the central act of its existence, in which the ecclesial community, as a living reality confessing its faith, receives its realization. 

25. Through the consecratory prayer, addressed to the Father, the bread and wine become the Body and Blood of the glorified Christ by the action of the Holy Spirit in such a way that the faithful people of God receiving Christ may feed upon him in the sacrament (1 Cor. 10.16). Thus the Church depends upon the action of the Holy Spirit and is the visible community in which the Spirit is known. 

26. The eucharistic action of the Church is the Passover from the old to the new. It anticipates and really shares in the eternal Rule and Glory of God. Following the Apostolic and Patristic teaching, we affirm that the eucharistic elements become, by the grace of the Holy Spirit, the Body and Blood of Christ, the bread of immortality, to give to us the forgiveness of sins, the new creation, and eternal life. The celebration of the Church in liturgy carries with it the sense of the eternal reality which precedes it, abides in it, and is still to come. 

27. In the Eucharist the eternal priesthood of Christ is constantly manifested in time. The celebrant, in his liturgical action, has a twofold ministry: as an icon of Christ, acting in the name of Christ, towards the community and also as a representative of the community expressing the priesthood of the faithful. In each local eucharistic celebration the visible unity and catholicity of the Church is manifested fully. The question of the relationship between the celebrant and his bishop and that among bishops themselves requires further study. 

28. The Eucharist impels the believers to specific action in mission and service to the world. In the eucharistic celebration the Church is a confessing community which witnesses to the cosmic transfiguration. Thus God enters into a personal historic situation as the Lord of creation and of history. In the Eucharist the End breaks into our midst, bringing the judgement and hope of the New Age. The final dismissal or benediction in the liturgy is not an end to worship but a call to prayer and witness so that in the power of the Holy Spirit the believers may announce and convey to the world that which they have seen and received in the Eucharist.

Monday, September 24, 2012

Yes, Jesus does have a Bride

One of the most interesting blogs is CATHOLICITY AND COVENANT: REFLECTIONS OF A POST-LIBERAL ANGLICAN. Its name says it all! I check it out every now and then for a lot of good sense and helpful insights from a range of traditions. What follows is the author's response to the Coptic text everyone has been talking about over the last week: 

Jesus said to them, "my wife". 

We now have another frenzy of "Gnostic gospels-Dan Brown is right!-sexist church v. liberated Jesus" stories associated with a late 4th century Coptic text. Thankfully, as Mark Goodacre states, Harvard professor Karen King has approached the matter in an exemplary fashion. Her sober assessment of the significance of the find was summed up by the New York Times

"She repeatedly cautioned that this fragment should not be taken as proof that Jesus, the historical person, was actually married. The text was probably written centuries after Jesus lived, and all other early, historically reliable Christian literature is silent on the question, she said." 

Her final plea was to the point: 

"At least, don’t say this proves Dan Brown was right!" 

Or, as Ashbury Theological Seminary's Ben Witherington III put it

"This is no confirmation of the Da Vinci Code or even of the idea that the Gnostics thought Jesus was married in the normal sense of the word." 

The affair, however, does allow the Church to reflect on the significance of the fact that Jesus did not marry. He did not marry precisely because He was - is - married. He has a Bride: the ecclesia. The stark contrast between the canonical understanding of the nuptial relationship between the Crucified and Risen One and His Church, and the Gnostic image of the wife of the Jesus, is superbly illustrated in Nicholas Perrin's Thomas, the Other Gospel

"For Thomas Christians the new creation was not something something objectively realized through Christ, but rather something subjectively realized through the individual's imitation of Jesus ... For orthodox believers, new creation has always been an objective and corporate reality." 

As Goodacre notes, this text "definitely evokes the atmosphere of other second and third century Gospels, especially the [Gnostic] Gospels of Thomas, Philip and Mary". As such, it points to how the profound difference in interpreting the nuptial nature of salvation - corporate reality or individual experience - shaped how catholic Christian communities and Gnostic communities received and proclaimed the story of Jesus. For catholic Christian communities, Jesus turns to His Church and says "my wife". For the Gnostic communities, Jesus turns to an individual and says "my wife". 

That the Gnostic myths should have such an attraction in the secular age - seventeen centuries after this fragment of the Coptic text was written - is perhaps not surprising. In the words with which Perrin concluded his study of the Gospel of Thomas: 

"Perhaps the Great Church rejected the Gospel of Thomas not because it was 'other', but because it was not 'other' enough. In retrospect, the Jesus of Matthew and Simon Peter ... was much more counter-cultural than the one whose words Judas Didymus Thomas claims to preserve."

* * * * *

The same blog had a short but not unrelated post this time last week under the title: Hildegard and the nuptial mystery:   

"Hildegard develops at the very heart of her work the theme of the mysterious marriage between God and humanity that is brought about in the Incarnation. On the tree of the Cross take place the nuptials of the Son of God with the Church, his bride, filed with grace and the ability to give new children to God, in the love of the Holy Spirit."  From Benedict XVI's "St Hildegard of Bingen" in Great Christian Thinkers: From the Early Church through the Middle Ages.

Hildegard's reflections remind the Church that gender and marriage are not to be considered from the perspective of the social and cultural norms of the 1950s but in light of the Incarnation, Passion and Resurrection of the Word.

Sunday, September 23, 2012

Leadership and Love

There is a brutal honesty and winsome humility in the Gospels – indeed, throughout the whole Bible – in that the heroes, whether Old Testament figures or the disciples of Jesus, are presented not only as sinful, but also as stupid! (Had we been contributing to the compilation of these documents, I’m sure we would have smoothed out some of the murkier details so as to present the heroes in a better light.) 

In today’s Gospel (Mark 9:30-37) the disciples are so embarrassing. 

They were walking from Caesarea Philippi in the north, through Galilee, to the small lakeside town of Capernaum. Jesus had been talking about his suffering and the death that he was to endure. 

Then there is an argument among the disciples themselves. When they arrive in Capernaum Jesus asks them what they had been discussing, but they cannot answer him. Not surprising, really. It says: “on the way they had discussed with one another who was the greatest.” 

You’d think that after the kind of things Jesus had just shared with them they’d have been sympathetically encouraging one another to surrender to his love, and to “take up their own crosses.”

Jesus obviously knows what they had been discussing, but instead of losing his cool as we might have done, he simply points out that leaders in the Kingdom of God are to be servants. Then, most likely from among the entourage travelling with him (which clearly consisted of more than just “the twelve”), he puts a child “in the midst” and with his arms around him, says, “whoever receives one such child in my name receives me.” 

What Jesus did was quite shocking. In the mainstream Jewish culture of his day children didn’t really count. They were certainly not a great focus of parental energy. Infant mortality rates were so high in that part of the world that up to 60 per cent of children died before the age of 16. In fact, while still a minor, a child was really on par with a slave, and could not inherit the family estate. Without power, and often unprotected, children were - along with women - regarded as possessions of men. 

So, the child in today’s Gospel symbolizes powerlessness and vulnerability. Jesus is saying “this is the person with whom I identify,” the implication being that those who belong to the new community of God’s Kingdom should both BE like the child, as well as be more concerned with embracing the poor and vulnerable than with gaining positions of power and importance. 

None of this is to say that authority is unimportant, or that there does not need to be government in Church life. But to glance over Church history is to become aware that so often – even at its best – the Church has rarely got the “authority” thing right. 

Authority – governance – is necessary in order for relationships and community to flourish. Jesus himself exercised authority. Then there is the authority of the Apostolic Tradition in the Scriptures, as well as the authority of the accumulated discernment and understanding of the Spirit-filled Church on her journey through the centuries. Truth can never be simply the averaging out of all available opinions. Nor is the right to freedom of behaviour unfettered. It needs to be tempered by a concern not to destroy our inner lives or to hurt those around us, both concerns being expressed in moral codes that arise from the Scriptures. So, we need authority. 

Over the last couple of years I have made a new in-depth study of all the ARCIC# documents, and some of the background materials. After reaching “substantial agreement” on the Eucharist and the Ministry, the rather more difficult area of authority had to be tackled, giving rise, eventually to the document titled “The Gift of Authority.” 

That title surprised some people. Well, authority in the Church IS a gift if what we are talking about is servant leadership. That’s why we need to keep in mind the other recurring word that is a feature of the ARCIC dialogue: “communion”. At the heart of the universe is the communion of shared life – the Holy Trinity. Through faith and baptism we are made part of this shared life, with the communion of the Church in this world being an actualised expression of the communion in God himself. 

One reason Jesus stressed “servant leadership” is to help us understand that AUTHORITY EXISTS IN ORDER TO NOURISH AND NURTURE COMMUNION. Growing and deepening communion with God and with one another is the whole point of the Gospel. Unfortunately, in secular society as well as in the Church, that saying often seems in practice to have been reversed by the way the “system” works, so that it looks as if COMMUNION EXISTS IN ORDER TO BOLSTER AUTHORITY, with authority becoming ugly, exploitative, self-serving, and a means of crushing other people. What a terrible distortion within the community whose God is love. 

We are all leaders in one way or another – even if we don’t want to be. We live in relation to others in our daily lives, and we are responsible for channeling God’s love to all those whose lives touch our own. Let’s take to heart the words of Jesus in today’s Gospel, and ask him to use us in drawing others into his healing love. 

Lord, make me an instrument of your peace:
 where there is hatred let me sow love,
 where there is injury let me sow pardon,
 where there is doubt let me sow faith,
 where there is despair let me give hope,
 where there is darkness let me give light,
 where there is sadness let me give joy.

O Divine Master, grant that I may
 not try to be comforted but to comfort,
 not try to be understood but to understand,
 not try to be loved but to love.

Because it is in giving that we receive,
it is in forgiving that we are forgiven,
and it is in dying that we are born to eternal life.

(St Francis of Assisi)

 # Anglican-Roman Catholic International Commission

Friday, September 21, 2012

Dried up wells and living water

In his book "The Kingdom Within”, John Sanford, priest and psychotherapist, tells of a New Hampshire farmhouse where his family used to spend time each summer. It was 150 years old and had never been modernized. Near the back door was an old well, which for many years had supplied the house with cold, pure water - a joy to drink. Amazingly, the well never ran dry. Even during the most severe summer droughts, the old well faithfully yielded up its high-quality water. 

In due course the family decided to modernize the house. Electricity replaced the old kerosene lamps. An electric stove took the place of the kerosene burner. Modern plumbing and running water were installed. This meant that a new artesian well had to be drilled. For safety reasons, since it would no longer be needed, the old well was sealed over to be kept in reserve in case the new well ever stopped functioning. 

Father Sanford tells how a number of years later, out of curiosity, he went to the house and uncovered the old well to inspect its condition. Thinking he would find the cool, moist depths he had known so well as a boy, he was shocked to see that the well was bone dry. 

He asked around in order to find out what had happened. He learned that this kind of well is fed by hundreds of tiny underground rivulets along which seep a constant supply of water. As water is drawn from the well, more and more water moves in along the rivulets, keeping these tiny apertures clear, open and unblocked. But, when the well is not used and the water is not regularly drawn, these tiny rivulets close up. 

The old Sanford well had dried up, not because there was no water, but because it had not been used.

For Father Sanford, a person’s spirit is like that well, and what happened to the well can so easily happen to us if the living water – the Holy Spirit - does not flow in and through us. It is so easy to dry up through self centredness, neglect and carelessness. 

In one of his talks, Nicky Gumbel (the originator of the Alpha Course) explores the same theme: 

“It was the last and greatest day of the Feast of Tabernacles (John 7:37). This was the day when the people anticipated that the great river prophesied in Ezekiel 47 (which was read and enacted at the feast) would flow out from Jerusalem. ‘Jesus stood’ (John 7:37). The usual custom was to sit when teaching, but these words were so significant that he wanted to be seen and heard by all the people. He cried out ‘in a loud voice’ (v.37). 

“ ‘Whoever believes in me, as the Scripture has said, will have streams of living water flowing from within’ (v.38). The Feast of Tabernacles was anticipating the river that would flow out of the temple in Jerusalem . . . Jesus tells them that this has been fulfilled, not in a place but in a Person. 

“The river flows out of the heart of Jesus (out of his ‘koilia’ – the pit of his stomach or his innermost being) and in a derivative way out of every Christian (John 7:38). The river – the Holy Spirit - flows into us and out of us. The river will flow into the little ‘Dead Seas’ of our hearts and from our ‘innermost being’. Superficially life may not be easy, but deep down the Holy Spirit constantly flows like a ‘river of living water’. 

“This river does not flow once in a while. It flows continuously. It is not supposed to be blocked up. It should be constantly bubbling up and flowing out of us.” 

Did you notice what Nicky said . . . the river is not supposed to be blocked up. 

Let us pray. 

Father God, 
we come before you parched and dry, 
having tried to be reservoirs 
where water flows in but does not flow out. 
We now dedicate ourselves to becoming 
channels of your love and blessing for others. 
Please refresh us; 
May the Holy Spirit flow into each of us, 
and then from within our innermost beings 
as streams of living water 
into the lives of those we meet from day to day. 
Through Jesus Christ our Lord, 
who lives and reigns with you 
in the unity of the same Holy Spirit, 
one God, for ever and ever. 

Thursday, September 20, 2012

William Temple - film of his 1944 "Message From Canterbury"

In the film below, shot in 1944 after Canterbury Cathedral had suffered from bombs and incendiary raids, the choir sings traditional Anglican music, the “Red Dean”, Hewlett Johnson, processes to the rear door where he admits Archbishop William Temple, and they return to the altar area. 

Father Tony Clavier (from whose blog I pinched the video!) writes: “The cathedral is packed. Temple, the Christian Socialist, sounding like an ecclesiastical Churchill, but with rather more tortured aristocratic vowels, preaches an extraordinary sermon, in which he invokes Augustine and Ethelbert (with Bertha), Henry II and Becket, Henry VIII, Oliver Cromwell and Hitler, and then proceeds to lay out his vision for a Christian post war England. I’d never heard Temple’s voice before, all the more poignant because he was filmed shortly before his sudden death.” 

Temple (1881-1944) had been Bishop of Manchester (1921–29), and Archbishop of York (1929–42) before becoming Archbishop of Canterbury in 1942. A renowned teacher and preacher, he is best known these days for his 1942 book Christianity and Social Order, which set out a social theology based on the Anglican way, together with a vision of what would constitute a just post-war society. It is widely regarded as one of the tragedies of the 20th Century that Temple died in 1944, thus depriving Britain of his intellectual, political and spiritual contribution to its rebuilding. Even the short sermon on the video lends credence to that view!


Wednesday, September 19, 2012

Praying in a Crisis

Angela Ashwin is a Lay Canon of Newcastle Cathedral and an Honorary Reader in the Diocese of Southwell and Nottingham. Her website is HERE. Born in Birmingham, Angela graduated in Theology from Oxford University, and lectured in Old Testament Studies before spending seven years with her husband in Swaziland, Southern Africa, working with the church there. After their return to the UK, Angela combined writing and speaking with bringing up three children and being a vicar's wife in the North East of England. Some of her most popular books came out during this period, including the best-selling Book of a Thousand Prayers. She then worked for St Antony's Priory Ecumenical Spirituality Centre in Durham until 2004. 

This article was first published by the Guild of St Raphael in the Winter 1996 issue of their journal Chrism

Sometimes Prayer is Bleeding … 

Some time ago a friend told me that her small grandson had just been diagnosed as having a rare and probably fatal blood disease. In her shock and grief she was struggling to find some way of praying with so much pain. 'But I don't seem to be able to find God at all,' she said. 'I'm just so angry.' I suggested that she might dare to make her anger into an offering of prayer for Sam (not his real name), since this was the one thing she could give to God with all her heart at that moment. I also gave her a wooden 'holding cross' which she could literally hang on to when she could find no words. The act of holding the cross would itself be prayer. 

She wrote later, describing how she had sat down and wept, telling God exactly what she thought of him. She had expected to feel ashamed for exploding to God like that, but she was surprised to find that her only sensation was one of numb exhaustion. 

Next day she felt that her praying had moved on, and she realised that she was being asked to stay there, in the misery, with God. 'It was like allowing a stream of pain to flow through me,' she wrote. 'I didn't resist it, and I held on to that cross. It made all the difference that God had let me shout and scream at him yesterday, and hadn't rejected me. Now I'm beginning to glimpse a bit of God's love again, though it's hard work hanging on to this.' Her letter reminded me of some words of Melvyn Matthews, 'Sometimes prayer is bleeding, and its source the incompleteness of the human person'.

When we come face to face with a crisis, either our own or someone else's, it is tempting to hide behind pious platitudes or explanations in order to try and make things all right and let God off the hook. But this won't do. A nurse told me recently that she witnessed a scene where a baby had just died, and the priest said to the parents, 'It's the will of God.' The father punched the priest and knocked him over. (Who can blame him?) It is perhaps wiser to acknowledge that we are face to face with mystery in such circumstances, and simply to stay in the darkness with those who are going through hell. 

I am convinced that the prayers of my friend for her grandson Sam were powerful and real precisely because she had not pulled any punches with God, nor had she run away from the uncomfortable truth of the situation. Intercession is often a costly business, and it is right that this should be so. Our feelings of helplessness and frustration are themselves a vital part of our prayer, because we are sharing something of the misery of those who are feeling lost and afraid. 

So I believe that God's healing energy of love is more likely to be released into a situation when people have been given space freely to express their pain and anxiety. For those of us ministering to them, it feels like weakness when we do not produce pat answers to questions like, 'Why is this happening to us?' But by refusing to run away, and by communicating God's love through our attitudes and actions, we will probably help them more than if we start theologising at the bedside. 

There are, of course, moments when people do want to think through the implications of suffering and illness, perhaps some time after an acute crisis. Then it is appropriate to discuss the mystery of life on this planet, where to be human is itself a risk, where bacteria are necessary but can wreak havoc; where living cells can become cancers; where water can save life or drown us, and where volcanoes keep the earth sustainable. I was greatly helped by the insight of a man who had suffered from arthritis for years. He said that he was quite sure his illness was not the direct will of God, although God certainly wanted him to be alive. He saw it like this: just as parents allow their children to go out cycling, but do not directly 'will' an accident to happen, so God puts us in a world where simply to be alive is a dangerous business. But God never deliberately causes us to suffer in it. 

This is confirmed by the way Jesus' entire ministry was given to relieving human suffering. It is impossible to explain away pain and disease, but we can be clear that God never 'wills' anyone to be sick or damaged because it might somehow be good for them. 

But then we move back into total mystery, because there are cases where people grow and blossom through illness, and marvellous reconciliations take place in tragic situations between people who would otherwise never have come back together. This is itself healing, and we need to go on praying, holding in tension the darkness of human pain and an ultimate trust in the power of the divine love.

Some kinds of prayer, though well meant, can impose an intolerable pressure on sick people. Someone whom I shall call Susan had serious tumours on her spine. She has now made a full recovery, and was upheld and strengthened by the prayers of many over the long years of treatment. But there was a phase when she reached a very low ebb, at a time when members of a prayer-group from her local church were visiting her. In his prayers, the leader kept asking God to increase her (Susan's) faith, so that she would 'claim the healing that was already hers'. She wrote to me, 'What if I don't get well? I'll feel as if it's my own fault, on top of everything else. They don't give me a chance to say how hellish it all is.' 

If we can enable people facing illness and unhappiness to feel confident enough to express their vulnerability and fears, the channels are opened up for the Holy Spirit to work, far more than when we attempt teeth-gritting acts of 'faith' in our own strength. The very act of spitting out to God our dark and difficult emotions has a cleansing effect. There is a sense of release and relief because there is nothing left to hide. Sometimes old hurts and guilt will also come to the surface, so that there is now a chance to address these things, letting them become 'green', i.e. disposable and leading to new growth, rather than a toxic irritant poisoning the system. And the wonderful thing is that God does not say, 'Tut, tut, you really shouldn't talk to me like that!' Instead we find ourselves scooped up into the enfolding of presence of the divine love, as God says to us, 'Did you really think you could make me stop caring for you?' 

By being completely open with God, we identify and expose to him the very things which most need to be touched and healed. God always comes to us at our point of need, not at the places where we are being worthy or respectable. We are in good company when we shake a fist at God. 'How long, 0 Lord?' rages the writer of Psalm 89. 'Will you hide yourself for ever?' The prophet Jeremiah even accuses God of being a 'deceitful brook' that has dried up on him (Chapter 15.18). If these great friends of God can pray so bluntly, so can we. 

Obviously being angry with God is not a formula guaranteed to bring results, any more than any other way of praying would be that. We may be stunned and drained rather than angry, and feel more inclined to weep quietly than to wrestle with God. What we all need is the freedom to expose our deep and often conflicting emotions to God without fear. Then this becomes a step towards facing the situation and allowing God's healing power to flow into every aspect of it. 

 © Guild of St Raphael

Tuesday, September 18, 2012

Catholic Evangelicalism

Long time readers of this blog will be familiar with my conviction that the truly Catholic and the truly Evangelical elements of the Faith belong together (undergirded with a strong sense of the immediacy of the work of the Holy Spirit). Indeed, their interaction accounts for a good deal of so-called Anglican "patrimony" (as Canon Roger Greenacre reminded the 1978 Loughborough Catholic Renewal Conference). 

With a title like that you might expect the book to be hard going. But it is actually exciting. Voll, a German scholar, shows how so many of those who are now considered heroes of the 19th century Catholic Revival in the Church of England not only had “evangelical” emphases on things like conversion and personal faith in Jesus, but they unashamedly incorporated features of evangelical life into their parishes - things like non-liturgical mission services, extempore prayer meetings and creative outreach activities. This was true of quite a number of the so-called extreme "ritualst" clergy! It is a fascinating book, and in my youth it helped me to see how a lot of things fit together that small minds would regard as opposed to one another. 

I am indebted to the Accidental Anglo-Catholic Blog for these two passages from the book. (By the way, if anyone has a copy of the book that is surplus to their requirements, please let me know!) 

From Father George Body: 

“What is Church life? It is the personal walking of the individual sinner with the personal individual Saviour. There must be this apprehension of Him as the personal Saviour before Catholicism can be anything but legalism, instead of being the banqueting house where the children live in the Father’s House and feast at the Father’s Board. Nothing to my mind is more grievous than to come across people who are trying to frame their lives by Catholic rules, without having any personal communion with the Lord of Catholicism.” (pp. 75-76) 

On Father Stanton: 

“Two things were of the utmost importance to him: ‘(1) The Adorable Mystery of the Sacrifice of The Altar. (2) Confession to a Priest. They are much dearer to me than all the incense, vestments, music in the world; they are my hope of Salvation, for one is to me Jesus Christ, and the other pardon in His Precious Blood.’ Stanton knew himself to be very close to Evangelicalism. ‘Nothing must ever take away our rest in the old Evangelical love and our trust in Jesus.’ In a letter of March 18th, 1867, he writes: ‘I go to Shepperton this week to preach for a dear old Evangelical Calvinist. I am sure we shall get on, as he loves Jesus.’” (p. 92)

Monday, September 17, 2012

A Living Hope - Bishop Martyn Jarrett's York Minster sermon

The retirement of the Bishop of Beverley, the Right Reverend Martyn Jarrett, takes place on 30th September. Bishop Martyn, formerly Bishop of Burnley, has been Bishop of Beverley for the past eleven years. So, last Saturday's Northern Provincial Festival in York Minster was particularly significant for him, as well as for all those to whom he has ministered since becoming the Provincial Episcopal Visitor ("P.E.V." or "Flying Bishop") for the Northern Province. 

The parishes for which Bishop Martyn has had particular pastoral care have experienced renewal and growth and are making an increasingly significant contribution to the life of the Church of England. In an official statement, the Archbishop of York said: “Bishop Martyn has served the Province with a real pastor’s heart, with cheerfulness and Christian virtue. The people and parishes he has looked after as the Provincial Episcopal Visitor will miss him greatly and so will the Bishops. I will miss his generous and wise counsel, and his friendship . . .” 

Here is the sermon Bishop Martyn preached last Saturday: 


By his great mercy he has given us a new birth into a living home through the resurrection of Christ Jesus. (1 Peter 1 v3) 

Those who have listened to my preaching across the years will know that I have one abiding hope. It is that Bristol Rovers might one day win the FA Cup! Before anyone laughs too much remember that, statistically speaking, there is more chance of that happening that of anyone of us winning big time on the Lottery. And, unlike playing the lottery, my particular fantasy costs me nothing. 

All of us, in one way or another, have our dreams for the future. Following the recent royal wedding a little girl told me just how much she wanted to be a princess. The hard-pressed parent who spends her last pound on a scratch card desperately hopes that this will be the win that solves her immediate financial worries. It is a hard lesson for some of us to learn. Games of chance can only truly be great fun when, from the very first, we never seriously believe that we are likely to win. You and I might hope for a better summer next year than this year's. Nothing, however, can be done about it. We just have to hope and then wait and see. Compared with such hopes for the future the subsequent fortunes of Bristol Rovers begin to look a little better every time I consider them. 

We Christians, though, are called to understand hope in quite a different way. Hope, for the Bible, is not to be thought of as longing for something that might just turn up. The Bible calls us to a faith that speaks of confidence in the future. The Bible talks the language of backing an absolute certainty. Jeremiah tells us that, even where God's own people are bent on ignoring Him, those who continue to trust in the Lord will be held as securely as a tree that sends its roots ever more deeply into the ground; roots that are sure of finding the water that eventually will provide the necessary nourishment. Jeremiah's confidence that God will look after the future, even as the present is falling apart all around him might well be a feeling that many of us gathered here today recognise all too easily. Yet, even Jeremiah's confidence is as nothing when viewed in the light of Easter Day. God shows us, then, that nothing whatsoever can defeat the love Jesus has shown on Good Friday. Even death is not going to have the final word. If there is one thing above all others to underline in every preparation for Baptism or for Confirmation it is that great truth. Nothing is going to defeat God's purpose. Jesus' death and resurrection are, as it were, the seal, the rubber stamp, on God's promise never to give up on us or to let us down. The First Letter of Saint Peter, our second reading today, might even have come originally from a sermon preached to folk as they were about to be baptised and confirmed. The very first thing of which those new Christians are reminded is that in their new birth, that is their baptism, they are going to share a living hope. A living hope is one certain that all the negativity with which you and I meet in our world will never have the last word. Ruth Etchells, that great theologian from Durham, only recently died, used to speak of her father's constant reassurance during wartime. Whenever Ruth would express her fears as to how the war might end, even in the darkest moments of such times as Dunkirk or the Blitz, her father, immediately and confidently, would reassure her that eventually Hitler would be defeated. God offers a similar reassurance to you and me. Anything that stands in the way of God's loving purpose will eventually be swept aside. If you or I should doubt it, all we have to do is turn once again to the message of Good Friday and of Easter Day. 

Yes, we Catholic Anglicans do live in difficult times. Some within our church still seem determined on backing away from the promises made to us in the Nineteen-nineties. We view, with some concern, the outcome of the recent House of Bishops Meeting. We fear a retreat from the recent proposals that seemed to throw us a lifebelt even in these latter stages of the debate about the rightness or otherwise of women bishops. Many of us here today could probably offer long lists of seemingly unfair treatment we have received in the past, not to mention our fears for something even worse in the future. We Catholic Anglicans, though, are not to reconstitute ourselves into some kind of society for the promoting of despair. God is in charge. The Church is Christ's Body. Christ is the Church's head and no-one else. You and I need, perhaps, to see both ourselves, and our present situation, just a little more in proportion. God, in the words of the famous hymn, is working His purpose out. You and I have a living hope. We do not need to use up so much of our energy in worrying about final outcomes. T S Eliot wrote these famous lines: We had the experience but we missed the meaning. I sometimes fear that you and I are so busy seeking the meaning amongst the arguments that at present consume our church that we then lose out on the wonderful experience of what it is to live, trust and hope as a Catholic Christian in the first place. 

Christ is Lord of the Church. It is His will that is going to prevail in the end. That ought to give you and me a little more confidence to live with some untidy anomalies as we wait for God's will to prevail. How strange that so many of those who wish radical1y to alter the Church's age long practice as to who might be ordained, claim, almost in the same breath, that anything that would allow a proper accommodation of our needs, would be a gross breach of Catholic Order. You and I can only hold to a doctrine of open reception on this issue because, ultimately, we believe, it is Christ, Lord of the Church, whose Spirit will lead us into all truth. We must now have the courage to go forward in such trust. It is not unreasonable, though, to seek the same humility in those who see things differently from us. 

The lives of many of us here today have been overshadowed, for the past forty or so years, by the wonderful work of ARCIC, the Anglican-Roman Catholic International Commission. That great work is only going to be finally brought to completion when our two churches are once again united. If ever that great day is to come, there must first, surely, be a consistent and determined group of Anglicans who hold to a Catholic understanding of the Church and are determined to win around the rest of our Church to that same viewpoint. Conviction politicians do not give up when they are losing in the polls. They seek, rather, to hold their ground and fight for a comeback. Unless, or until, the Church of England should take from us the guarantees of a true Catholic ministry, refusing us genuine bishops, we should be seeking to hold firm and to fight the battle confident in our living hope, Jesus Christ. And, dare I say it, even if, as we sometimes fear in our worst moments, there were eventually to be no honourable place for us within the Church of England and you and I had to go, we would do so without bitterness. We would still remain confident in Christ, our living hope, who would in His own time and His own way, resolve the situation. 

Movements within the Church rise and fall. Even Bishops of Beverley come and go! This particular Northern Festival, for me, of course, is overshadowed by the fact that it will be the last I share with you as Bishop of Beverley. The future, though, belongs to Christ; not to any of us, no matter how important we might think ourselves to be. 

When the General Synod was meeting in February a young Anglican rightly asked us to start talking about Jesus and not of such items as the ordination of women to the episcopate. How right she is; save for one thing. The Church is Christ's Body. The ministry within it is Jesus' ministry. You and I seek nothing more than to proclaim Jesus. Our passion for Catholicism stems only from the conviction that within it we find Jesus most authentically proclaimed. Here today you and I, in this Holy Mass, show the Lord's death until He comes again. Jesus, our living hope, is here with us. You and I are caught up, once again, in the timeless worship of heaven. Our living hope is now a present reality. Your concern and mine is to offer that saving experience to our world.

Sunday, September 16, 2012

The Eucharist is “surrounded by temporal ripples through which past and future things are refracted” PART 2

Here is the second part of the passage from Pages 104-108 of Eucharistic Presence: A Study in the Theology of Disclosure by Robert Sokolowski. 


. . . the Eucharist . . . reenacts [Calvary] as occurring before God and reenacts it in a prayer that addresses God. In this presence before God, the emergence of the present and the determination of the future now show up as not being the final context for what occurs. The succession of things and events, which in the natural order is the ultimate setting for whatever is, now becomes an image. Time becomes a moving image of eternity. Succession, which seemed to lie under everything that happens and seemed to be the "last thing" there is, now seems itself to rest against a life or an event that has no before or after, the eternal life of God, and this life is directly involved and invoked in the Eucharist. 

In celebrating the Eucharist, we do not "'feel" the life of which succession is the image, since whatever we can feel must move along in time. If we were to "feel" this life, it would not be imaged any longer; it would be given to vision, not to faith. But because succession is now understood as an image, what it images is somehow presented to us: not merely in words, but in the image we have of it specifically in succession. 

The very temporality and public movement of the Eucharistic celebration are perhaps a more effective presentation of eternity than might be a religious moment "out of time," precisely because the time and motion of the Eucharist can serve as a privileged image of eternal life. The Eucharist takes time when it is celebrated, but it also overcomes time as it reenacts an event that took place at another time. In doing this, the Eucharist calls time into question. It claims to go beyond time and thereby indicates that time and its succession are not ultimate. It makes time to be an image; it makes succession to be a representation. Thus the Eucharist, in its reenactment of the past and anticipation of the future, also enacts for us the context that encloses past, future, and present: it enacts the eternal life of the God who could be all that he is, in undiminished goodness and greatness, even if the world and its time were not. The Eucharist engages, and perpetually reminds us of, the Christian distinction between the world and God. 

Because the Eucharist engages the relationship between the world and God, it reaches beyond the context set by the Passover, which we took initially as the first setting in our chronological study of Eucharistic contexts. In our exposition in this chapter, we first examined the Passover, then the Last Supper, and finally the present Eucharistic celebration; our discussion reached back to the Passover as the widest horizon for the Eucharist. But now we find that the Eucharist extends back into Creation itself, into the biblical understanding of the relationship between the world and God. In reaching back to Creation, the Eucharist finds itself in the same context as that of the eschaton, the moment in which all things will be restored in Christ. The widest horizon is the place for both the beginning and the end. What the Eucharist anticipates as the eschaton is found to be in the same place as what it attains when it reaches back to Creation, the context in which all things begin and end in God. 

This final setting, in which worldly time becomes profiled against eternal life, in which worldly time itself becomes relativized against eternity, permeates the Eucharist and gives it its sense. Only the God who lives in eternal plenitude and independence could become part of his creation; only he could save us in the way we have been redeemed; only he could achieve in the Eucharist the sacramental reenactment of our Redemption. Our celebration of the Eucharist, our sacramental way of looking back on the one sacrifice of Christ and being present to it, becomes a temporal icon of how we will look "back" on that .5ame sacrifice from the eschaton, from the eternal present of our life with God. 

If God were not as Christians understand him to be, the Eucharist would be either a mere symbol or a kind of idol. A worldly divinity that intervened in human affairs would have to become subject to the inevitabilities of time: either it would only seem to enter into history and hence only be symbolized by a commemoration of that "event," or it would be captured by its own worldly involvement and hence idolized in it. Only the God who is so independent of the world as the biblical God is revealed to be could become incarnate and sacramentally present in the Eucharist. Only before this God could sacramental time become an image of eternity. The Eucharist is a constant reminder of the transcendence of God.