Sunday, December 29, 2013

Holy Family Prayers before the Blessed Sacrament

Lord Jesus, Son of God and Son of Mary, 
truly present before us
in this Blessed Sacrament,
you were bom a child and called two chosen ones “mother” and “father.” 

Hear us as we call on you and say: 
Lord, hear our prayer.
R: Lord, hear our prayer.

Lord Jesus, eternal Word of the Father, 
you made yourself obedient to Mary and Joseph; 
make us meek and humble of heart:
R:  Lord, hear our prayer.

Lord Jesus, your mother kept your words and deeds in her heart; 
come and open our hearts to your word that we may keep it:
R:  Lord, hear our prayer.

Lord Jesus, through you the world was created, 
yet you were raised in the carpenter’s workshop; 
bless those countless men and women who work with their hands.
R:  Lord, hear our prayer.

Lord Jesus, all life springs forth from you,
yet you took human life from Mary; 
protect all women bearing children, 
and guard those soon to be born.
R:  Lord, hear our prayer.

Lord Jesus, you grew in wisdom, stature and grace before God 
and in the midst of your people; 
help us to grow in grace as the days, months and years go by.
R:  Lord, hear our prayer.

Lord Jesus, 
eternally begotten before time began, 
you became in time part of our human family. 
Give to parents the wisdom, wonder and courage 
to journey with their children, 
seeking always the mystery of the Father's will. 
Give to all of us,  
with the increase of years, 
an equal measure of growth in your grace, 
and respect for those who nurtured and protected us. 
Help us to treasure in our hearts 
the love you have lavished upon us 
in letting us be called your brothers and sisters. 
May we come at last 
to the home you have prepared for us, 
where you live and reign with the Father, 
in the unity of the Holy Spirit, 
one God, for ever and ever. 
R:  Amen.

Friday, December 27, 2013

A mural - the Communion of Saints with whom we worship

Here is something a little different! 

It is the mural from the sanctuary of the (Episcopal) Church of the Holy Comforter, Drexel Hill, Pennsylvania, USA, a representation of the Communion of Saints with whom we worship. There is really nothing like it anywhere else. The mural was painted in the 1950s and depicts the Church militant, Church expectant, and Church triumphant. 

(CLICK on the image to enlarge it)

At the bottom there is the rector at the time, the Rev. Mr. Hodder, being ordained. Above the ordination are rings of saints, ascending up to a depiction of the Holy Trinity. Surrounding the whole scene are angels, including one carrying a chalice and another carrying a paten. Servers hold prayer books with type so large you can actually read it if you are standing directly below. 

The three central patriarchal figures are an ecumenical group: Pope Pius XI (in his papal triregnum) (d. 1939), William Temple, Archbishop of Canterbury (d. 1944), and Benjamin, Ecumenical Patriarch of Constantinople (d. 1935). Of course, it is slightly presumptuous having the Archbishop of Canterbury as the centre of Christian Unity!

Trying to work out who else is depicted is a bit of a challenge. It looks like as if Thomas Cranmer and Thomas More are shoulder-to-shoulder on the right. There is also Our Lady, and St Hilda of Whitby.

The website of the parish is HERE.

The blog of the Rector is HERE (a good source of classical Anglican quotations)

Thursday, December 26, 2013

"The Gospel would still be true even if no one believed it." - A.N. Wilson

I have previously written about the English novelist, historian, biographer and social commentator, A.N. Wilson. Here is an article published in the Boxing Day edition of The Daily telegraph (U.K.) on the fortunes of Christians and Christianity today. Well worth the read!

Is Christianity a dying religion? Anyone watching the huge crowds assembled to hear the popular new Pope’s Christmas message yesterday would have concluded that the news of the death of Christianity had been much exaggerated.

Every year, huge numbers of Chinese, Koreans and South Americans are still being drawn to evangelical Christianity. The Queen’s Christmas message, and the sight of her, with the Royal family, loyally attending morning service at Sandringham is a reminder that we are still, notionally at least, a Christian country, with – as it happens – a Head of State who is herself a committed Christian.

And yet – in spite of the vast crowds clapping Pope Francis, it is difficult to feel sanguine.

Ever since William Dalrymple published his classic From the Holy Mountain in 1997, about the decline of Christianity in the very lands which gave it birth, it has been impossible to ignore the shrinkage. In eastern Turkey – St Paul’s earliest stamping-ground – Syriac Christians have been so persecuted that they fled to neighbouring Syria. President Assad is one of the few Middle Eastern leaders to protect Christians and their ancient shrines, and since the outbreak of civil war, Christians have paid the price for being the tyrant’s beneficiaries.

In Egypt, Coptic Christians suffer harassment and persecution. In Israel, the government turns a blind eye to encroachment, or destruction, of church property, and many young Palestinians, reared as Christians, have turned to Islam. As Dalrymple has more recently said, the Arab Spring was the Christian Winter.

Meanwhile, Britain, despite our Christian Queen, grows ever more secular. Public discourse assumes that most intelligent people have given up religious belief. Anglican congregations are, on the whole, ageing, and, outside the big cathedrals or evangelical rallying points, have dwindled to almost nothing. The rising generation – many of whom do not even have nativity plays any longer at their primary schools, let alone a grounding in the Bible – simply have no idea what Christianity is, let alone whether they might believe in it. Why, there is no historical evidence that Jesus ever went to Bethlehem, let alone that his birth there, of a Virgin Mother, was heralded by choirs of angels.

The child-abuse scandals in the Catholic Church have had a devastating effect in all Western countries, especially in America and Ireland, the two places which used to supply priests for the rest of the world. Priestly vocations in Ireland are more or less nil. The tsunami of sad sordid stories about the mistreatment of children did not just make faithful people think twice before allowing their child to become an altar boy; they made the world in general think that Christianity, with its long abhorrence of sex – and indeed its general distrust of the body – was an unwholesome creed, based on a fundamentally fallacious conception of humanity, and sustained by miraculous claims – about a virginally conceived saviour who rose from the dead – which were candidly incredible.

For those who try to soak themselves in the Gospel, however, the world news sends out signals that are more or less the opposite of those which a secular statistician might consider reliable.

Huge numbers of people clapping in a square – even if they are clapping the Pope – do not tell you anything about whether Christianity is actually true. Nor does the dwindling congregation at the 8 o’clock Communion at Much-Binding-in-the-Marsh undermine the truth of the Word Made Flesh – if it is true.

The Gospel is hard, and it contains within it, not the fear but the absolute certainty, that persecution and misunderstanding will always follow in its wake. It is based on the idea of dying in order to live; of losing life in order to find it; of taking up the cross, that instrument of torture, and finding therein not merely life but glory.

Yes, the hype and sentimentality surrounding the funeral of Nelson Mandela’s funeral were embarrassing, but at the core of it all was the central idea, embodied by a figure such as Archbishop Tutu, that it is possible to ignore the poison of hatred bubbling in your heart and forgive your enemies. The ANC, for long – yes – a terrorist organisation, changed its mind, and behaved, not like Jihadists, but like Christians. South Africa, riven as it is with every kind of human problem, got that thing right largely because Mandela in his prison years decided to risk all on what was a fundamentally Christian idea.

Yes, the Arab Spring is the Christian Winter because there is no truth or reconciliation apparently at work in Israel-Palestine, nor in Iraq, nor in Syria… But the Christian writings, beginning as they do with a refugee mother and baby surrounded by invading armies, and ending with world conflict, the utter destruction of Jerusalem, and the coming of apocalyptic death and plague, are not comfortable.

The paradox is that growing or shrinking numbers do not tell you anything. The Gospel would still be true even if no one believed it. The hopeful thing is that, where it is tried – where it is imperfectly and hesitantly followed – as it was in Northern Ireland during the peace process, as it is in many a Salvation Army hostel this Christmas, as it flickers in countless unseen Christian lives, it works. And its palpable and remarkable power to transform human life takes us to the position of believing that something very wonderful indeed began with the birth of Christ into the world.

Wednesday, December 25, 2013

Fr David's Christmas Message 2013

The Nativity, by Arthur Hughes (1832-1915)
Birmingham Museum and Art Gallery

My dear friends:

One of the great early Christian leaders, St Gregory of Nazianzus (329-389), teaches that Christmas is a “festival of re-creation”, that in the birth of this Child the world has been recreated. It is the beginning of the renewal, sanctification and re-creation of the entire universe.

The same understanding of Christmas is echoed in the Orthodox Liturgy:

"Your coming, O Christ, 
has shed upon us a great light. 
O Light of Light, Radiance of the Father, 
you have illumined the entire creation!"

The birth of Jesus, the Word made flesh who dwelt among us (John 1:14), abolishes the boundaries between man and God, matter and spirit, secular and sacred, seen and unseen. The very world through which we stumble on our pilgrimage into God is now tinged with sacredness and glory.

It’s just as well, because there are times when we experience this world as a place of exile, a vale of tears, an environment of undeserved suffering, pain and confusion. It is for many a source, not of joy, but of unrelenting depression and despair.  (Those who are blessed with a confident faith, or who have never faced such agonies, or who have grown through them, are called to be gentle and sensitive towards others whose pain and inner anguish causes them to doubt even the existence of a loving God.)

For me the real magic of Christmas is not the “feel-good” stuff so much as the transcendent Lord of glory and love entering into the fulness of all that it means to be human, so as to redeem, renew and transfigure everything about life in this world, including the miserable bits, from the inside. (St Paul talks about that in Romans 8).

But I’m no Scrooge! There is nothing I would do to diminish the exuberant joy of Christmas, provided we remember that those God chose to participate in the first Christmas had a hard time of it. Mary and Joseph shunted from pillar to post, desperately looking for somewhere to stay. Jesus born in a smelly cave where the animals were kept. All those little boys slaughtered by the power crazy Herod, their mothers wailing and their blood running in the streets. The Holy Family living as refugees in Egypt until it was safe to return to their own land.

The Lord of glory and love entered into the fulness of what it means to be human, in the kind of circumstances in which most people have lived and died . . . violence, killing, exploitation, anguish, poverty and the despair we see all too often on the television and in our own streets. It is REAL human life to which God is now joined, and which is being transfigured bit by bit in him.

Love Divine invades our world to effect a union of the divine and human that can never be dissolved; a union in which God so freely and at such great cost gives himself to us as the Babe of Bethlehem, the Jesus of Nazareth, the Christ of Calvary whose sacrifice of love brings us back to the Father, the Risen, Ascended Lord, AND the Food of eternal life in the Blessed Sacrament of Holy Communion we receive at Mass, in our parish Church which is OUR “Bethlehem”, OUR “House of Bread” (which is what the word “Bethlehem” means).

So, if you feel as if you’re hanging on to Jesus this Christmas just with naked faith, that’s OK. You have a place in the prayers of many others. Trust in the goodness and love of our Incarnate God and in his purposes, knowing that he is the King of Kings, your Lord, your loving Saviour, your wonderful Redeemer, your firm Rock, your Hiding Place, the one who wipes your tears away and heals you deep within. Remember that he who began a good work in you WILL bring it to completion (see Philippians 1:6).

One more thing . . .

The love of God is greater far
Than tongue or pen can ever tell;
It goes beyond the highest star
And reaches to the lowest hell!

That little poem is actually the beginning of a hymn about God’s love, written in 1917. In a moment I’m going to read the last verse, which had been found penciled on the wall of a cell in an American mental asylum by a man who had died there, having lived in that cell for many, many years.

Who knows the cruel torment of mind he suffered, as much from the treatment as from his illness! What we can say, however, - and this is so wonderful - is that although locked up and written off as insane according to the wisdom of the age, this man at least some of the time anchored deeply into a reality, an experience of God, that broke through the darkness, that flooded his soul and his prison cell, and that was far more real to him than all the darkness, all his torments and all his anguish put together.

This is what he wrote on the wall of his cell. These are the words they discovered when he died:

Could we with ink the ocean fill,
And were the skies of parchment made,
Were every stalk on earth a quill
And every man a scribe by trade,
To write the love of God above
Would drain the ocean dry.
Nor could the scroll contain the whole
Though stretched from sky to sky.

Dear people, I want to encourage you, whatever your circumstances, your happiness, your blessing, your joy, or your pain and sorrow, to open up your hearts to the Lord Jesus afresh this Christmas day. Allow him in his own way to touch your life with the wonder and sacredness of his love.

Tuesday, December 24, 2013

Mother Maria Skobtsova on the measurelessness of Christian love

Mother Maria Skobtsova (1891-1945) was a spiritual inheritor of the theology of Bukharev. Born in Latvia, her name in the world was Elisabeth Pilenko. She became a politically active Socialist in Russia around the time of the revolution; escaping to Paris with her husband. In Paris, she became involved with the Russian Students Movement and became friends with many of the Russian theological intelligentsia.  Sergius Bulgakov became her father confessor. A theologian, poet and social worker she petitioned her bishop to take up the habit. She was professed and was given the monastic name Maria.

She strongly wished to continue a monasticism open to the world in the manner of Alexander Bukharev. In the 1930s she reached out to the suffering poor of Paris. A controversial socially active monasticism caused a scandal with more conservative church members, but Mother Maria endured. With the advent of World War II, Mother Maria and her friends reached out to help Jews hide and escape Nazi persecution.  She was betrayed to the Germans and was put to death, taking the place of a young girl scheduled to die in the gas chambers. Her martyrdom took place in the last days of the war in Ravensbruck concentration camp.  On January 18, 2004, the Holy Synod of the Ecumenical Patriarchate in Istanbul recognized Mother Maria Skobtsova (often known simply as "Mother Maria of Paris") as a saint along with her son Yuri, the priest who worked closely with her, Fr. Dimitri Klépinin, and her close friend and collaborator Ilya Fondaminsky. All four died in German concentration camps.

The following is from Mother Maria's well-known essay "Types of Religious Lives", available HERE as a pdf document.

The Eucharist . . .  is the Gospel in action. It is the eternally existing and eternally accomplished sacrifice of Christ and of Christ-like human beings for the sins of the world. Through it earthly flesh is deified and having been deified enters into communion again with earthly flesh. In this sense the Eucharist is true communion with the divine. And is it not strange that in it the path to communion with the divine is so closely bound up with our communion with each other. It assumes consent to the exclamation: “Let us love one another, that with one mind we may confess Father, Son and Holy Spirit: the Trinity, one in essence and undivided.” 

The Eucharist needs the flesh of this world as the “matter” of the mystery. It reveals to us Christ’s sacrifice as a sacrifice on behalf of mankind, that is, as his union with mankind. It makes us into “christs,” repeating again and again the great mystery of God meeting man, again and again making God incarnate in human flesh. And all this is accomplished in the name of sacrificial love for mankind. 

But if at the center of the Church’s life there is this sacrificial, self-giving eucharistic love, then where are the Church’s boundaries, where is the periphery of this center? Here it is possible to speak of the whole of Christianity as an eternal offering of the Divine Liturgy beyond church walls. What does this mean? It means that we must offer the bloodless sacrifice, the sacrifice of self-surrendering love not only in a specific place, upon the altar of a particular temple; the whole world becomes the single altar of a single temple, and for this universal Liturgy we must offer our hearts, like bread and wine, in order that they may be transubstantiated into Christ’s love, that he may be born in them, that they may become “Godmanhood” hearts, and that he may give these hearts of ours as food for the world, that he may bring the whole world into communion with these hearts of ours that have been offered up, so that in this way we may be one with him, not so that we should live anew but so that Christ should live in us, becoming incarnate in our flesh, offering our flesh upon the Cross of Golgotha, resurrecting our flesh, offering it as a sacrifice of love for the sins of the world, receiving it from us as a sacrifice of love to himself. Then truly in all ways Christ will be in all. 

Here we see the measurelessness of Christian love. Here is the only path toward becoming Christ, the only path which the Gospel reveals to us. What does all this mean in a worldly, concrete sense? How can this be manifested in each human encounter, so that each encounter may be a real and genuine communion with God through communion with man? It implies that each time one must give up one’s soul to Christ in order that he may offer it as a sacrifice for the salvation of that particular individual. It means uniting oneself with that person in the sacrifice of Christ, in flesh of Christ. This is the only injunction we have received through Christ’s preaching of the Gospel, corroborated each day in the celebration of the Eucharist. Such is the only true path a Christian can follow. In the light of this path all others grow dim and hazy. One must not, however, judge those who follow other conventional, non-sacrificial paths, paths which do not require that one offer up oneself, paths which do not reveal the whole mystery of love. Nor, on the other hand, is it permitted to be silent about them. Perhaps in the past it was possible, but not today. 

Such terrible times are coming. The world is so exhausted from its scabs and its sores. It so cries out to Christianity in the secret depths of its soul. But at the same time it is so far removed from Christianity that Christianity cannot, should not even dare to show a distorted, diminished, darkened image of itself. Christianity should singe the world with the fire of Christian love. Christianity should ascend the Cross on behalf of the world. It should incarnate Christ himself in the world. Even if this Cross, eternally raised again and again on high, be foolishness for our new Greeks and a stumbling block for our new Jews, for us it will still be “the power of God and the wisdom of God” (1 Cor. 1:24). 

We who are called to be poor in spirit, to be fools for Christ, who are called to persecution and abuse — we know that this is the only calling given to us by the persecuted, abused, disdained and humiliated Christ. And we not only believe in the Promised Land and the blessedness to come: now, at this very moment, in the midst of this cheerless and despairing world, we already taste this blessedness whenever, with God’s help and at God’s command, we deny ourselves, whenever we have the strength to offer our soul for our neighbors, whenever in love we do not seek our own ends.

Tuesday, December 17, 2013

Arvo Pärt's setting of the O Antiphons

Arvo Pärt, whose works rank him as the 3rd-most performed living composer globally, is an Orthodox Christian of Estonian nationality. His music is mystical, cross-cultural, and cross-traditional. Along with Henryk Górecki and John Tavener, he  is considered a pioneer of the style that has come to be known as "mystic minimalism" or "holy minimalism."

“Arvo Pärt draws on his Orthodox Christian roots to compose music that seizes people of all faiths and of none,” observed Dr. Bouteneff, Asociate Professor of Systematic Theology at St Vladimir’s Seminary in New York.

Here are his “O Antiphons” to inspire your Advent journey.

Saturday, December 14, 2013

Michael Ramsey on the Eucharist, the Church and the whole of life

Thank you for the emails following the post containing the Michael Ramsey quotes. I heard him speak on two of his visits to Australia, as someone said, “looking as if he’d just come straight from the Council of Nicaea.” Ramsey unselfconsciously saw everything in relation to the Eucharist. It wasn't just when he preached. He was a man of prayer, and even listening to him speak when he was being academic was like being on retreat. He didn’t seem to have much “small-talk” but he did sidle up to the one or two obvious "outsiders" in the group to help them feel comfortable. A catholic who was open to the insights of modern scholarship, he was also very supportive of charismatic renewal, and, in fact, was a particular friend of Cardinal Suenens.

Here are some key passages from Ramsey on the Eucharist, the Church and the whole of life.

The [episcopal] ministry is important as linking the Christians with the historic events of Jesus Christ, since Christian experience is not a spirituality unrelated to history, but bears witness to its derivation from Jesus in the flesh . . . Thus the Church is one Body; its members glorify not themselves and their experiences, but the one historic Christ. And its worship is one; the Eucharist is not the act of any local group, but of the one Body, represented by its organ of unity in any place. Hence the Eucharist is to be celebrated only by the bishop [and those authorized by the bishop].

- The Gospel and the Catholic Church (1990 ed)  p.68

The language and structure of worship will point away from the changing and the topical to the divine action in the death and resurrection of Jesus, and to the same action now present in heaven and in the whole Church. Hence the regular and ordered movement of the Liturgy is not a cumbrous addition to Christian prayer; rather does it express the New Testament fact of worship as the divine action into which all spontaneous and congregational prayer is ever merged . . . The centre is the High priestly act of Jesus Christ in heaven and in history.

- The Gospel and the Catholic Church (1990 ed)  p. 95

The Church’s life is gathered around the Liturgy since it is not only the most important of a series of rites, but the divine act into which all prayers and praises are drawn . . . here also every woshipful thought and deed and word of men is gathered up and explained, since there the Christians, with all that they have and do and desire, are offered in union with the death and resurrection of Jesus and the one family of God.

- The Gospel and the Catholic Church (1990 ed)  p.119

Thus the service in any Christian building is not the act of the local group of Christians; it is, in inward reality and outward ritual, the act of the timeless Church, and the worshippers are pointed beyond their topical needs and feelings and interests to the one sacrifice of Christ and to the universal Church of God.

- The Gospel and the Catholic Church (1990 ed)  p.119

In the Eucharist, with the Risen Jesus present as our food, we are worshipping with the saints and angels in heaven. But the risen Jesus who is the heart of the heavenly worship is also a Jesus who was crucified, and we share in heaven’s worship only as sharing also in the Jesus who suffers in the world around us, reminding us to meet him there and to serve him in those who suffer. Indeed in the Eucharist we are summoned by two voices, which are really one voice: ‘Come, the heavenly banquet is here. Join with me and my mother and my friends in the heavenly supper.’ ‘Come, I am here in this world in those who suffer. Come to me, come with me, and serve me in them.

- Quoted in Love’s Redeeming Work: 
The Anglican Quest for Holiness,
 ed. Rowell, Stevenson, Williams (2003) p.667 

Friday, December 13, 2013

Jesus fulfilling the prophecies - Frederica Mathewes-Green

Listen to Frederica Mathewes-Green - one of my favourite contemporary Christian writers (see her website HERE) - talk about the many Old Testament prophecies fulfilled by the birth of Jesus, as well as the need to understand the entirety of the Old Testament through the lens of Jesus. We also hear from Fr Laurent Cleenewerck about Mary’s virgin birth and perpetual virginity.


Frederica Mathewes-Green is a wide-ranging author, whose work has appeared in such diverse publications as the Washington Post, Christianity Today, Smithsonian, the Los Angeles Times, First Things, Books & Culture, Sojourners, Touchstone, and the Wall Street Journal. She has been a regular commentator for National Public Radio (NPR), on Morning Edition and All Things Considered, a commentator on the Hallmark TV network, a columnist for the Religion News Service,, and Christianity Today, wrote regular book reviews for the Los Angeles Times, movie reviews for National Review Online and Christianity Today Movies, recorded a podcast for Ancient Faith Radio, and was a consultant for Veggie Tales. 

She has published 9 books, including The Jesus Prayer: The Ancient Desert Prayer that Tunes the Heart to God (Paraclete, 2009), Facing East: A Pilgrim’s Journey into the Mysteries of Orthodoxy (HarperCollins, 1997) and The Illumined Heart: The Ancient Christian Path of Transformation (Paraclete, 2001). Her essays were selected for Best Christian Writing in 2000, 2002, 2004, and 2006, and Best Spiritual Writing in 1998 and 2007. She has published over 700 essays.

She has also appeared as a speaker over 500 times, at places like Yale, Harvard, Princeton, Wellesley, Cornell, Calvin, Baylor, and Westmont; at the Smithsonian Institute, the Aspen Institute, Washington National Cathedral, the Los Angeles Times Book Festival, the American Academy of Religion, the Veritas Forum, the Family Research Council, and the National Right to Life Committee.

She has been interviewed almost 700 times, on venues including PrimeTime Live, the Diane Rehm Show, the 700 Club, NPR, PBS, CNN, NBC, Fox News, and by Time, Newsweek, the New Republic, USA Today, the Chicago Tribune, the Philadelphia Inquirer, and the New York Times.

She lives with her husband, the Rev. Gregory Mathewes-Green, in Baltimore, MD, where he is pastor and she is “Khouria” (“Mother”) of the parish they founded, Holy Cross Orthodox Church. Their three children grew up and got married, and they now have eleven grandchildren. Since 1997, Frederica has been recording books for the blind with the Radio Reading Network of Maryland.

Tuesday, December 10, 2013

Some Advent reading from Michael Ramsey

Michael Ramsey (1904-1988) was Archbishop of Canterbury from 1961 to 1974. His books always take the reader on a spiritual journey, and it’s a pity that many of them are now out of print. As an academic, priest, bishop, and spiritual guide, Ramsey was a giant. Here are two passages of his teaching - VERY suitable for Advent reading! - on pride and humility:

To be a Christian is to be very closely united to Christ as living Lord, not alone, but in the fellowship of the Church. It means an existence in which our self-centredness is constantly challenged and defeated. The more Christ becomes your true centre, the less can your own selfish pride be the centre. The more you are drawn into the fellowship of those who belong to Christ, the less are you entangled by your selfish pride.

That is why again and again the Christian life has been called a “death to self”; it is the growth in us of Christ’s own self-giving unto death. The sacraments depict this: Baptism was from the beginning the means whereby the convert died to the old life whose centre was the self, having been buried symbolically beneath the water, he stepped out into a new life whose centre was Christ in the midst of the Church’s fellowship. Holy Communion deepens our unity with Christ who, through the media of bread and wine, feeds us with himself.  But it is always his self as given to death.  It is his broken body, his blood poured and offered.

These are the great realities upon which Christian people have laid hold. Some have grasped them once, and forgotten them. Some have grasped them only in a conventional and unreal way. Some have grasped them, and courageously try to be true to them among much conflict with the reassertions of self and pride.  Some have grasped them, and have shown it in lives in which, notwithstanding some humiliating failures, Christ really has been apparent.

It all happens through Calvary judging us, Calvary bringing forgiveness to us, and Calvary defeating the pride which rules us.

Let the griefs, pains and humiliations that come to you help you. You will hate them, as they always hurt. But they help you to be near to Christ, and you will be learning not to fear them. There is the pain of disappointment when some cherished plan has gone wrong, and you are inclined to be bitter and resentful: but let it help you to think more about Christ‘s pain and disappointment; then you are nearer to him and it becomes very different. There is the pain sometimes of opposition, or of misunderstanding, or even abuse perhaps, coming to you from other people: it can feel terrible, but again it can bring you near to Christ. What if it is a part of the discipline of Christ, which we profess to believe in?

There is also the pain that comes from our own mistakes coming home to roost. But that too can bring us back to the truth of our own inadequacies, and the greatness of Christ’s forgiveness, to the decrease of self and the increase of him. These things are not things that we do or seek: they just come. They will come to you too. When they come, let them help you to be a little nearer Christ crucified; that is how we find the deep joy of priesthood and Christian life. You will come to know how truly the psalmist says: ‘Thou of very faithfulness hast caused me to be troubled’ (Psalm 119:75). Be ready to accept humiliations: they can hurt terribly, but they help you to be humble, and to be a little nearer to our humble and crucified Lord. There is nothing to fear if you are near to our Lord and in his hands.

Monday, December 9, 2013

Completely, perfectly, enduringly endowed with grace . . .

Here is a homily by Fr Lawrence Lew OP for today's solemnity of the Immaculate Conception of our Lady, taken from HIS WEBSITE.

“It is a sweet and pious belief that the infusion of Mary’s soul was effected without original sin; so that in the very infusion of her soul she was also purified from original sin and adorned with God’s gifts, receiving a pure soul infused by God; thus from the first moment she began to live she was free from all sin”. 

Who do you suppose said this? It was Martin Luther in a sermon for this feast day in 1527, a decade after he’d nailed his Ninety Five Theses to the door of Wittenberg’s church and six years after his break from Rome. And he very nicely summarizes what the Church celebrates today. 

This tells us, at the very least, that the doctrine of the Immaculate Conception was not something invented by the Pope in the 19th century and foisted onto Catholics, as some people might think. Rather, what Pope Blessed Pius IX did in 1854 was to solemnly confirm as a revealed truth what had been, from very early on, a “sweet and pious belief” held by many Christians. For although belief in Our Lady’s sinlessness was unanimous, an understanding of how Mary could have been uniquely preserved from the stain of original sin and yet remain a creature in need of redemption by Christ, still had to be worked out. It would take some time for a solution to develop and theologically mature over the centuries, and then a few more centuries for the theological position to settle and be accepted and finally be declared as infallible truth by the Church. 

A Scots Franciscan, Blessed Dun Scotus, came up with an explanation in the 13th-century that has prevailed. He argued that prevention is greater than cure and requires more skill, and so, Our Lady, in being prevented from contracting original sin, requires the Redeemer’s ‘skills’ even more. Pope Pius IX cites Scotus in his 1854 declaration and his teaching is echoed in today’s Collect. For Scotus also said that God “foresaw” the “merits of the Passion of Christ” which redeems all from original and actual sin, and God “applied them to the Virgin and preserved her from all actual sin, and also from all original sin”. 

But this understanding of Our Lady’s sinlessness and her immaculate conception is the theological fruit of centuries of pondering over the seed of truth revealed in Scripture. In the angelic greeting of today’s Gospel, Gabriel calls Our Lady kecharitomene. But this Greek form does not just denote that Our Lady is “full of grace”, or “highly favoured” as it is often translated.  Rather, it is a term that is only used once in the entire Bible; Our Lady’s immaculate conception is unique, a “singular grace and privilege”, as Pope Pius IX said. And what kecharitomene denotes is that Mary is “completely, perfectly, enduringly endowed with grace” in a way that completely transforms her and prepares her from the very beginning for her unique role in the history of salvation.

So, in this Advent season when we prepare to celebrate the coming of Christ as our Redeemer, we rejoice today in what God has done “for us Men and for our salvation” in preparing Our Lady to be a “worthy Mother for [his] Son”. As she is also our Mother, may we be her worthy children by daily rejecting the lure of sin and trampling the Serpent underfoot. Through our Immaculate Mother’s intercession, may we also have the grace to  say to God: “Yes. Let it be to me according to your Word”.

Saturday, December 7, 2013

If might is right . . .

"If might is right, then love has no place in the world. 
It may be so, it may be so. 
But I don't have the strength to live in a world like that."

(From "The Mission", one of the greatest films ever made.)

Friday, December 6, 2013

The REAL St Nicholas


St Nicholas was born sometime between 265 to 280 into a wealthy Christian family in Patara, a little village near the city of Myra (now called Demre) where the Roman god Diana was worshipped. Nicholas’ parents were probably merchants who traded with the many ships that visited the port of Myra. St Paul had passed through Myra 200 years before as a prisoner on his way to Rome and most likely preached there. In any case, a church was established during the apostolic age, and was still going strong when Nicholas was born.

Nicholas, an only child, grew up knowing and loving the Lord, familiar with the Gospel and the Scriptures, singing the Psalms in church and worshipping at the Eucharist which at that stage would still be celebrated in a large house. Occasionally the church would meet at the local cemetery as a way of celebrating the resurrection.


Being a Christian back then was extremely dangerous. A few years before Nicholas was born, some church members in Myra were killed by the Roman authorities for refusing to offer sacrifice to the Roman gods. Nicholas would have grown up being aware of this ever-present risk, but along with the rest of the church he would have considered persecution to be an opportunity to “participate in the sufferings of Christ” (1 Peter 4:13).

In the Greek language “Nicholas” means “victory for the people.” It is said that even from childhood he behaved like a saint, especially in avoiding the usual temptations available to the affluent in Roman society - money, sex, and politicking for power. The Lord’s hand was clearly on his life. He never strayed, and from the earliest age was noted for his holiness and the Christlike compassion with which he treated others.

Nicholas’ parents died in an outbreak of plague when he was still in his teens. He was alone, though not without resources, because of his large inheritance. But, rather than squander it, or develop a lavish lifestyle, he prayed that the Lord would show him how he should dispose of his life and his assets.


In Roman society at the time, it was usual for people to look after their own families, but not to care very much about anyone else. Historians tell us that the early Christians shocked their contemporaries by caring indiscriminately for the needy, whoever they were, including those rejected by society, such as prisoners, widows, and orphans. Nicholas took the call of Jesus to care for the poor seriously, which resulted in the first and most talked about deed of his life.

In Patara there was man who had once been wealthy, but had lost everything. He had three daughters, but there was no prospect of them ever getting married because the father couldn’t afford a dowry. Selling his daughters into slavery (which at the time often meant sex slavery) - a common practice under these circumstances in the Roman world - was the only option left. 

Nicholas heard about this family’s problems. So, one night, he took some of the gold left to him by his parents, tied it up in a small sack, and threw it into the open window of the poor man’s house. (Some versions of the story say that he threw the sack down the chimney and the gold landed in the girls’ stockings, which had been hung up by the fire to dry. But this is likely to be a later embelishment!) 

In the morning the father got up out of bed and found a pile of money in the middle of the house. He wept, giving thanks to God. He then realised that the amount corresponded exactly with what was needed for a dowry. So he decorated the bridal chamber of his oldest daughter. Peace of mind returned to the family.

When Nicholas saw the effect his gift had on the family, he decided to do the same for the other two daughters. The third time, the father of the girls was hiding in the dark to see who the generous giver was. This time, when the bag of gold hit the floor, the father ran outside and found Nicholas, thanking him for saving him and his family from a life of ruin and shame. 

This kind of giving was unique. In those days, in a culture of patronage, anonymous giving was unheard of. If a wealthy benefactor helped someone, the receiver would be obligated for life. So Nicholas’ generosity had a huge impact on the Christian communities who first heard the story. To this day it is the main thing for which Nicholas is remembered, and the reason why he is one of the most popular saints in the church’s history.


But there is more. When Nicholas was a young man a cruel well-organised persecution of Christians took place under the Roman emperor Diocletian, who needed a scapegoat to blame for the Empire’s economic recession. Nicholas seems to have been studying for the priesthood at the time when the Bishop of Myra was killed. One night in 295 AD, the senior bishops from around that area met to pray through the night, asking God to show them who to consecrate as the next bishop of Myra. One bishop there had a vision, in which God told him to take the others to the place where the church met and wait there for the first man to walk through the door in the morning. “His name will be Nicholas.”

Nicholas was indeed the first to enter the house that morning. And he became one of the youngest bishops ever in the church, a man of the people and a man of God, who ministered according to the example of loving humility seen in Jesus. 

Not long after Nicholas’ consecration, he was arrested on religious charges, imprisoned without trial, beaten and tortured. It was common for the authorities to blind the right eye of a Christian prisoner and cut the sinews of his left ankle. Nicholas bore the scars of his torture for Jesus, even though he was not called to martyrdom. But for most of the time he was Bishop of Myra, Christians were a hated minority, abused by violent mobs and persecuted at the whim of the emperor. 

Under the emperor Constantine, Christianity went almost overnight from being a persecuted minority to the most influential religion of the empire. The Edict of Milan (312 AD) removed restrictions on Christians. In 325 Constantine called together the Council of Nicaea, three hundred or bishops who gathered for discussion and debate. Many of them were old, missing eyes and limping, some even missing limbs because of the persecution they had been through. They debated vigorously. The most important result of that Council was to affirm what St John’s Gospel says about Jesus, that he, the Word, was with God and was God – that the Word that became flesh and dwelt among us was actually God in the flesh, the same substance as God.

There are so many stories of Nicholas’ ministry involving deeds of loving compassion by which he lightened the people’s burdens. His fame spread far and wide, and it is clear that some of the stories are legendary. But the impact of his life and ministry was so great that many churhes in East and west were very early dedicated under his patronage. 


Nicholas died in the 330s, and his tomb in Myra became a place of pilgrimage whose popularity grew over the centuries. By the 11th century, however, the church in Turkey was under attack by Muslim armies, and many thought that access to the tomb might become difficult or even impossible. From the religious point of view, as well as – admittedly – the commercial rewards of operating a major pilgrimage centre, the Italian cities of Venice and Bari both wanted St Nicholas’ relics.

In spring 1087, capitalising on this rivalry, sailors from Bari in Apulia took some of St Nicholas’ remains from Myra. To this day at St Nicholas’ shrine in Bari, there are two churches, one Roman Catholic and one Orthodox.

Bit the sailors from Bari collected just half of St Nicholas’ skeleton, leaving all the minor fragments in the grave. These were collected by Venetian sailors during the first crusade, in the closing years of the 11th century, and taken to Venice, where a church to St Nicholas was built. This was actually confirmed in two 20th century scientific investigations of the relics in Bari and Venice, which revealed that the relics in the two cities belong to the same skeleton.


Modern forensic science is able to identify crime victims from their skeletal remains. But when we have the right information (normally, skeletal remains, including the skull) these techniques can be used also to show us what figures of hisory looked like.

The following is taken from the website of The St Nicholas Centre.

These bones were temporarily removed when the crypt was repaired during the 1950s. At the Vatican’s request, anatomy professor Luigi Martino from the University of Bari, took thousands of minutely-detailed measurements and x-ray photographs (roentgenography) of the skull and other bones.

The current professor of forensic pathology at the University of Bari, Francesco Introna, knew advancements in diagnostic technique could yield much more from the data gathered in the 1950s. So he engaged an expert facial anthropologist, Caroline Wilkinson, at the University of Manchester in England, to construct a model of the saint’s head from the earlier measurements.

Using this data, the medical artist used state-of-the-art computer software to develop the model of St Nicholas. The virtual clay was sculpted on screen using a special tool that allows one to “feel” the clay as it is molded. Dr Wilkinson says, “In theory you could do the same thing with real clay, but it’s much easier, far less time-consuming and more reliable to do it on a computer.”

After inferring the size and shape of facial muscles—there are around twenty-six—from the skull data, the muscles are pinned onto the virtual skull, stretched into position, and covered with a layer of “skin.” “The muscles connect in the same place on everyone, but because skulls vary in shape, a different face develops,” Wilkinson comments. The tangents from different parts of the nasal cavity determine the length of a nose. This was difficult because St Nicholas’ nose had been badly broken. “It must have been a very hefty blow because it’s the nasal bones between the eyes that are broken,” she continued.

“We used clay on the screen that you can feel but not physically touch. It was very exciting. We did not have the physical skull, so we had to recreate it from two-dimensional data. We are bound to have lost some of the level of detail you would get by working from photographs, but we believe this is the closest we are ever going to get to him,” Wilkinson concluded.

Next the three-dimensional image went to Image Foundry Studios where a digital artist added detail and color to the model. This gave it Greek Mediterranean olive-toned skin, brown eyes, and grey hair and beard, trimmed in 4th century fashion.

The result of the project is the image of a Greek man, living in Asia Minor (part of the Greek Byzantine Empire), about 60-years old, 5-feet 6-inches tall, who had a heavy jaw and a broken nose.

The following images are from the IMAGE FOUNDRY website in the U.K.