Thursday, December 18, 2014

A special Christmas message

"Behold, the Lamb of God "
Concelebrated Mass at Patmos House, Brisbane, Australia
4th Sunday of Advent, 2009

2009 was my last Christmas in Brisbane. For a number of reasons I knew in my heart that the time had come to move on, and so (without at that time announcing my resignation), I wrote to parishioners and friends what has turned out to be my last Christmas message as a priest with a parish of my own. The other day, one of my Brisbane friends emailed Christmas greetings and suggested it was it was time for a re-run of "that" letter. So, here it is: 


". . . no observation shall be had of the five and twentieth day of December, commonly called Christmas Day; nor any solemnity used or exercised in churches upon that day in respect thereof." 

Where do you think that comes from? The Soviet Union after the revolution? Some right wing fascist dictatorship? A secular humanist's dream of what should be decreed in Australia?

Those words are an order of the English Parliament, dated 24th December, 1652. (It was three years after the murder of King Charles I; Oliver Cromwell was in control of Parliament and England.)

This is not the place for an essay on the kind of puritanism that sought to eradicate every trace of Catholic faith and culture from England. But in our day, when the Gospel and the Catholic faith are under attack - it seems from all sides at once! - it is good medicine to look again at the courage of those in the so-called "Commonwealth" period of English history (when even services from the Prayer Book were illegal) without whom the Church of England would never have risen from the ashes.

We don't even have to imagine the way things were. We have the eyewitness report of Christmas Day 1657 in the Diary of John Evelyn who had gathered with a tiny congregation in the chapel at Exeter House, in the Strand:

"I went to London with my wife to celebrate Christmas Day, Mr. Gunning preaching in Exeter Chapel, on Micah vii. 2. Sermon ended; as he was giving us the Holy Sacrament the chapel was surrounded with soldiers, and all the communicants and assembly surprised and kept prisoners by them, some in the house, others carried away.

"It fell to my share to be confined to a room in the house, where yet I was permitted to dine with the master of it, the Countess of Dorset, Lady Hatton, and some others.

"In the afternoon came Colonel Whalley, Goffe, and others from Whitehall to examine us one by one; some they committed to the Marshal, some to prison.

"When I came before them they took my name and abode, examined me why, contrary to the ordinance made that none should any longer observe the superstitious time of the Nativity (as esteemed by them), I durst offend, and particularly be at Common Prayers, which they told me was but the mass in English, and particularly pray for Charles Stuart, for which we had no Scripture.

"I told them we did not pray for Charles Stuart, but for all Christian kings, princes, and governors. They replied, in so doing we prayed for the King of Spain too, who was their enemy and a Papist; with other frivolous and ensnaring questions and much threatening, and, finding no colour to detain me, they dismissed me with much pity of my ignorance.

"These were men of high flight and above ordinances, and spake spiteful things of our Lord's Nativity. As we went up to receive the sacrament the miscreants held their muskets against us, as if they would have shot us at the altar, but yet suffering us to finish the office of communion, as perhaps not having instructions what to do in case they found us in that action; so I got home late the next day, blessed be God!"

History records the bravery of both Anglicans and Roman Catholics in England during that time who secretly practised the faith when it was driven underground. We owe them an enormous debt.


We should remember this whenever we slip into thinking that the natural state of affairs for the Church is to be part of the power elite in this or that society, or that as individual Christians we have a "right" to be thought well of in the culture of which we are part. Christmas should remind us that OUR FAITH BEGAN AS AN UNDERGROUND MOVEMENT. Indeed, it began literally underground, as Chesterton delighted in reminding us, in the CAVE where the animals were kept.

Furthermore, at different times in history, Christians (of all traditions) have been pushed back underground, and have suffered greatly for the honour of just being the people of Jesus. And from time to time there has been the wholesale destruction of Christian cultures of influence. We only have to think of the ancient centres of flourishing Church life in Asia Minor (modern day Turkey) and North Africa, which were trashed so violently by the Muslims.

We don't have to look so far back in history. Did you know that the 20th century saw more Christian martyrs than any other time? Literally millions of our brothers and sisters have died over the last hundred years rather than renounce the faith of Jesus, or the principles of justice for the oppressed that are part and parcel of the Gospel.

I fear that we twenty-first century Christians in western countries like Australia have become soft and sentimental . . . dare I say even "gutless", worried about what people think of us - especially now that the Richard Dawkins crowd has captured the limelight with its peculiar brand of fundamentalist atheism - and we tend to clam up every time there is an opportunity to say or do something that just might prod someone we know into beginning a journey of faith. We are paralysed by fear, when - if we think about it - the worst thing that could ever happen to us is that we might become the butt of snide remarks at a dinner party or the pub.

And the "liberal" Church? Well, it seems more worried about whether or not it meets the approval of our corrupted culture, than if it meets GOD'S approval. 

The real truth is that there are many people out there who desperately want to meet a well rounded, intelligent, caring, fun person like YOU, who is not a "religious nut" but who can engage in a conversation about "spirituality" and the "meaning" of life, and - yes - about JESUS! Right now there is widespread evidence of an intensifying hunger and thirst for spiritual reality in modern secular Australia.


As Anglicans, let's stop grieving the loss of the supposed "standing" we had a generation or two ago (or whenever YOU think was our "golden age"). Let's lay hold of the grace and power of the Holy Spirit who can turn spiritual whimps into the sort of people who share meaningfully with others, serving them, and loving them into a real relationship with Jesus.

History reveals that many times when the Church has been reduced to an "underground movement" it came to depend only on God's promises and grace, and consequently underwent cleansing and renewal.

I hope and pray that in our time the whole Church - from its increasingly "underground" position - will rediscover the Good News of Jesus - the Gospel - as well as its own essence as a dynamic, loving, sacramental community, the many membered Body of Jesus in the world today, connecting with others, especially the truly needy, supporting them in their troubles, their pain, their sorrow, the tangles and ambiguities of their troubled lives, and bringing them to know and love Jesus as their Saviour.

It is unfortunate that a lot of people who "do evangelism" today (including some well resourced Catholics and Evangelicals) behave as if all that is necessary in order to make "converts" is to have the best logical arguments. Now - as you know - I quite enjoy the challenge of robust debate myself; but I need to remind you that conversion to Christ is not just changing what people THINK or BELIEVE. It's also - in fact, primarily, - changing what - or "who" - they LOVE. That is much more difficult. Jesus has to win our HEARTS as well as our MINDS.


So, if I am permitted to use militaristic imagery, the chief "weapon" we use in our struggle as underground Christians trying to reach others for Jesus is LOVE. It's not good enough just to beat people in a debate! We must - as I have just said - love them to the Lord. After all, his love is poured into our hearts by the Holy Spirit (Romans 5:5), so as to flow out from us into the lives of others.

I often think of this at Christmas, especially when gazing upon the Christmas Crib with the hands of baby Jesus outstretched towards us. He left the glory of heaven to join us in our poverty, so that through him we might become rich! Our redemption cost him everything. I once preached a mission sermon on the "hands of Jesus", beginning with those little hands outstretched in the manger, moving on to the hands at work in the carpenter's shop, then to the hands reaching out, touching and healing all who came to him with their broken lives in the time of his earthly ministry; then the hands dripping with blood, nailed to the cross - hands outstretched in a cosmic embrace; and finally the hands of the Risen Body held out to doubting Thomas who cried out to Jesus in that moment of realisation, "My Lord and my God."

It was St Teresa of Avila (1515-1582) who said. "Christ has no . . . hands . . . on earth but yours" now with which to minister compassion to the world. As an underground Church slowly bringing about the Lord's revolution of love, we accept the cost of serving others as Jesus did . . . giving ourselves away, if that's what he calls us to do.

Even orthodox parishes need to hear this, because Jesus did not say: "By this shall everyone know you are my disciples, that you have the best and most breathtaking liturgies in town", or "that you believe everything in the Creed, the Bible and even the Catechism of the Catholic Church", or "that you have stunning contemporary emergent outreach services", or "your healing services and spontaneous times of praise and worship lift you to heaven", or "that you operate the most effective social welfare programs in the district." No. However important these things are, Jesus actually said, "By this shall everyone know that you are my disciples, that you have LOVE one for another." (John 13:35)

And the greatest sign of that love is THE WILLINGNESS TO FORGIVE THOSE WHO HURT US DEEPLY. Look at Ephesians 4:32 where it says: "Be kind to one another, tenderhearted, forgiving one another, as God in Christ has forgiven you."

Authentic Christian life like that develops when the Church goes underground, because nothing but a culture of love works for people who are completely marginalized, poverty-stricken and persecuted. Our parishioners - for all we have been through in these days when Anglo-Catholics like us are persecuted and bullied by those who have risen to power in large slabs of Australian Anglicanism - know this better than most. Many of you have said how that in spite of all our faults as a community (and we have some!), our experience of God's love and the love of the Church family over the last five years years is so much greater than anything you have known elsewhere. A wide range of visitors to our worship have said the same kind of thing.

What happens to us in our personal lives or as a Church community if we do not allow our hands to be the hands of Jesus, reaching out and loving one another and the world around us? After all, we know that kind of love carries with it enormous risks, and we want to be "safe." What happens to us if we close ourselves off to love? Think of Jesus on the cross, and the love that flows from the cross into your life and mine as you read this devastating answer to that question from C.S. Lewis' book, The Four Loves:

"To love at all is to be vulnerable.
Love anything, and your heart will certainly be wrung
and possibly be broken.
If you want to make sure of keeping it intact,
you must give your heart to no one,
not even to an animal.

"Wrap your heart carefully round with hobbies and little luxuries;
avoid all entanglements;
lock it up safe in the casket or coffin of your selfishness.
But in that casket - safe, dark, motionless, airless - it will change.
It will not be broken;
it will become unbreakable, impenetrable, irredeemable . . .
The only place outside Heaven
where you can be perfectly safe from all the dangers of love
is Hell."


As I gaze into the manger and see those little hands that are destined to be pierced for me and nailed to the cross, all I can think is how amazing and real that love is, and how unworthy I am to be loved like that. I can't help it . . . I am smitten every time! And I understand more and more deeply just how costly it was that first Christmas for God to come among us to rescue us, to redeem us, to forgive us, to bring us back to himself, to give our lives meaning, to pour his love into our hearts, and to be with us in the joy and the pain of our very human life.

What about you? Will you come to Mass at Christmas, and open your heart to him? Christmas is a great opportunity to renew your relationship with Jesus. It's the perfect time, if you have strayed, to begin receiving Holy Communion again, and know the wonder of his love in that special way.

Finally, if someone has given you this letter to read, and you're not one our Church members (in fact, maybe you've never been to church before!) there's no better time to dip your toe in the water than Christmas. You'll be so glad you did. We’d love to have you with us.

This comes to you with my prayers and best wishes for a happy and holy Christmas.


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