Thursday, April 30, 2015


Heartbreaking discouragement comes to everyone who has ever tried to achieve anything. Coping with it is difficult, and understanding what God is really trying to say to us through our circumstances is often more so. The heroes of the Bible faced discouragement; the greatest Christian leaders faced it. Jesus himself faced it. There are times when it is God's will for us to be "in the valley", for there as much as on the mountaintops - sometimes even more! - we grow in the Lord. So, I share with you some quotes that have really helped me: 

1. From THE CHRISTIAN PRIEST TODAY (1972), by Archbishop Michael Ramsey:

Christ draws us to watch with him, and to watch will mean to bear and to grieve. As the cloud of God's presence in the tabernacle in the Old Testament was pierced from within by a burning light, so the sorrow of Jesus is the place of reconciling love pouring itself into the world, and his joy there is radiant. "Ask and you shall receive so that your joy may be full" (John 16:24): for "your joy no one can take from you" (John 16:22). "As sorrowful yet always rejoicing" (1 Corinthians 6:10): it is to this that you are committing yourself to the Lord Jesus Christ, saying:

Lord, take my heart and break it: break it not in the way I would like, but in the way you know to be best; and because it is you who break it, I will not be afraid, for in your hands all is safe, and I am safe.

Lord, take my heart and give it your joy: not in the ways I like, but in the ways you know are best, that your joy may be fulfilled in me.

2. "A Prayer for the Valley" from PURITAN PRAYER (1975) ed Arthur Bennett:

Lord, high and holy, meek and lowly, 
thou hast brought me to the valley of vision,
where I live in the depths
but see thee in the heights;
hemmed in by mountains of sin 
I behold thy glory. 

Let me learn by paradox
that the way down is the way up,
that to be low is to be high,
that the broken heart is the healed heart, 
that the contrite spirit is the rejoicing spirit, 
that the repenting soul is the victorious soul, 
that to have nothing is to possess all, 
that to bear the cross is to wear the crown, 
that to give is to receive, 
that the valley is the place of vision.

Lord, in the daytime 
stars can be seen from deepest wells, 
and the deeper the wells 
the brighter thy stars shine;
let me find thy light in my darkness, 
thy life in my death, 
thy joy in my sorrow, 
thy grace in my sin, 
thy riches in my poverty, 
thy glory in my valley.

3. Psalm 142 (ESV)

1 With my voice I cry out to the Lord; with my voice I plead for mercy to the Lord. 
2 I pour out my complaint before him; I tell my trouble before him. 
3 When my spirit faints within me, you know my way! In the path where I walk they have hidden a trap for me. 
4 Look to the right and see: there is none who takes notice of me; no refuge remains to me; no one cares for my soul. 
5 I cry to you, O Lord; I say, “You are my refuge, my portion in the land of the living.” 
6 Attend to my cry, for I am brought very low! Deliver me from my persecutors, for they are too strong for me! 
7 Bring me out of prison, that I may give thanks to your name! The righteous will surround me, for you will deal bountifully with me.

4. Isaiah 40:27-31 (RSV)

Why do you say, O Jacob, and speak, O Israel, "My way is hid from the Lord, and my right is disregarded by my God"? Have you not known? Have you not heard? The Lord is the everlasting God, the Creator of the ends of the earth. He does not faint or grow weary, his understanding is unsearchable. He gives power to the faint, and to him who has no might he increases strength. Even youths shall faint and be weary, and young men shall fall exhausted; but they who wait for the Lord shall renew their strength, they shall mount up with wings like eagles, they shall run and not be weary, they shall walk and not faint.

Wednesday, April 29, 2015

Inspiration from St Catherine

“All the way to Heaven is heaven, 
because He said, ‘I am the Way.’" 

- S. Catherine of Siena

Born in 1347, the 24th child of a wool dyer in northern Italy, Catherine was very sensitive to spiritual realities from childhood. From the age of six she could see guardian angels as clearly as the people they protected. Catherine became a Dominican tertiary when she was sixteen, and continued to have visions of Jesus, Mary, and the saints. She was one of the most brilliant theological minds of her day, although she had no formal education. 

At a very difficult time in the Church’s history, Catherine persuaded the Pope to go back to Rome from Avignon, in 1377, and when she died she was endeavoring to heal the Great Western Schism. In 1375 she received the Stigmata, which was visible only after her death. Catherine’s letters, and a treatise called “a dialogue” are considered among the most brilliant writings of the saints. 

Catherine died in 1380 when she was only 33, and her body was found incorrupt in 1430. Her tomb is under the altar in the Church of Santa Maria Sopra Minerva, in Rome.

God created us a second time 
in giving us the life of grace

From a Letter of St Catherine of Siena to Blessed Raymond of Capua

I know of no means of savouring the Truth and living with it, without self-knowledge. It is this knowledge which makes us really understand that we are nothing, that our being came from God when we were created in God’s image and likeness; and also that God created us a second time in giving us the life of grace through the blood of the only Son, blood which has shown us the truth of God the Father.

This is the divine truth: we were created for the glory and praise of God’s name, to enable us to participate in God’s eternal beauty and to sanctify us in God. And the proof that this is the truth? The blood of the spotless Lamb. How are we to know this Blood? By self-knowledge. ’

We were the earth where the standard of the cross was planted. We were the vessel that received the blood of the Lamb as it streamed from the cross. Why did we become that earth? Because the earth would not hold the cross upright; it would have refused such a great injustice. The nails could not have held the Lord fixed and nailed had not his love for our salvation held him there. It was love on fire with the glory of his Father and with desire for our salvation which fixed him to the cross. So, we are the earth which held the cross upright and the vessel which received the blood.

We who can recognize this and live as the spouse of this Truth will find grace in his blood, and all the richness of the life of grace; our nakedness will be the nuptial garment; we will be invested with the fire of love, because the blood and fire mingle and penetrate one another; it is love which has united the blood with the divinity and poured it out.

We must live in simplicity, with neither pretensions nor mannerisms nor servile fear. We must walk in the light of a living faith that shines in more than mere words—and always so, in adversity as well as in prosperity, in times of persecution as well as in times of consolation. Nothing will be able to change the strength or the radiance of our faith if Christ who is the Truth has given us knowledge of truth not just in desire but in living experience.

Friday, April 24, 2015

C.S. Lewis and believing in the Devil

Some paragraphs from SCREWTAPE LETTERS:

The commonest question is whether I really “believe in the Devil.”

Now, if by “the Devil” you mean a power opposite to God and, like God, self-existent from all eternity, the answer is certainly No. There is no uncreated being except God. God has no opposite. No being could attain a “perfect badness” opposite to the perfect goodness of God; for when you have taken away every kind of good thing (intelligence, will, memory, energy, and existence itself) there would be none of him left. The proper question is whether I believe in devils. I do. That is to say, I believe in angels, and I believe that some of these, by the abuse of their free will, have become enemies to God and, as a corollary, to us. These we may call devils. They do not differ in nature from good angels, but their nature is depraved.

Devil is the opposite of angel only as Bad Man is the opposite of Good Man. Satan, the leader or dictator of devils, is the opposite, not of God, but of Michael.

I believe this not in the sense that it is part of my creed, but in the sense that it is one of my opinions. My religion would not be in ruins if this opinion were shown to be false. Till that happens—and proofs of a negative are hard to come by—I shall retain it. It seems to me to explain a good many facts. It agrees with the plain sense of Scripture, the tradition of Christendom, and the beliefs of most men at most times. And it conflicts with nothing that any of the sciences has shown to be true.

It should be (but it is not) unnecessary to add that a belief in angels, whether good or evil, does not mean a belief in either as they are represented in art and literature. Devils are depicted with bats’ wings and good angels with birds’ wings, not because anyone holds that moral deterioration would be likely to turn feathers into membrane, but because most men like birds better than bats. They are given wings at all in order to suggest the swiftness of unimpeded intellectual energy. They are given human form because man is the only rational creature we know . . .

In the plastic arts these symbols have steadily degenerated. Fra Angelico’s angels carry in their face and gesture the peace and authority of Heaven. Later come the chubby infantile nudes of Raphael; finally the soft, slim, girlish, and consolatory angels of nineteenth century art, shapes so feminine that they avoid being voluptuous only by their total insipidity—the frigid houris of a teatable paradise. They are a pernicious symbol. In Scripture the visitation of an angel is always alarming; it has to begin by saying “Fear not.” The Victorian angel looks as if it were going to say, “There, there.” . . .

I like bats much better than bureaucrats. I live in the Managerial Age, in a world of “Admin.” The greatest evil is not now done in those sordid “dens of crime” that Dickens loved to paint. It is not done even in concentration camps and labour camps. In those we see its final result. But it is conceived and ordered (moved, seconded, carried, and minuted) in clean, carpeted, warmed, and well-lighted offices, by quiet men with white collars and cut fingernails and smooth-shaven cheeks who do not need to raise their voice. Hence, naturally enough, my symbol for Hell is something like the bureaucracy of a police state or the offices of a thoroughly nasty business concern....

On the surface, manners are normally suave. Rudeness to one’s superiors would obviously be suicidal; rudeness to one’s equals might put them on their guard before you were ready to spring your mine. For of course “Dog eat dog” is the principle of the whole organisation. Everyone wishes everyone else’s discrediting, demotion, and ruin; everyone is an expert in the confidential report, the pretended alliance, the stab in the back. Over all this their good manners, their expressions of grave respect, their “tributes” to one another’s invaluable services form a thin crust. Every now and then it gets punctured, and the scalding lava of their hatred spurts out . . .

Bad angels, like bad men, are entirely practical. They have two motives. The first is fear of punishment: for as totalitarian countries have their camps for torture, so my Hell contains deeper Hells, its “houses of correction.” Their second motive is a kind of hunger. I feign that devils can, in a spiritual sense, eat one another; and us. Even in human life we have seen the passion to dominate, almost to digest, one’s fellow; to make his whole intellectual and emotional life merely an extension of one’s own—to hate one’s hatreds and resent one’s grievances and indulge one’s egoism through him as well as through oneself. His own little store of passion must of course be suppressed to make room for ours. If he resists this suppression he is being very selfish. 

On Earth this desire is often called “love.” In Hell I feign that they recognise it as hunger. But there the hunger is more ravenous, and a fuller satisfaction is possible. There, I suggest, the stronger spirit—there are perhaps no bodies to impede the operation—can really and irrevocably suck the weaker into itself and permanently gorge its own being on the weaker’s outraged individuality. It is (I feign) for this that devils desire human souls and the souls of one another. It is for this that Satan desires all his own followers and all the sons of Eve and all the host of Heaven. His dream is of the day when all shall be inside him and all that says “I” can say it only through him. This, I surmise, is the bloated-spider parody, the only imitation he can understand, of that unfathomed bounty whereby God turns tools into servants and servants into sons, so that they may be at last reunited to Him in the perfect freedom of a love offered from the height of the utter individualities which he has liberated them to be . . .

“My heart”—I need no other’s—“showeth me the wickedness of the ungodly.”

Tuesday, April 21, 2015

St Anselm: Seek the Lord

A modern (1959) stained glass window of St Anselm in Canterbury Cathedral.

Today is St Anselm's Day in the Church calendar. He was a very great Archbishop of Canterbury.

Born in Aosta in Northern Italy in 1033, St Anselm entered the Norman monastery at Bec in 1060.

After being elected abbot, Anselm became the most celebrated theologian and spiritual guide of his age. His theological and philosophical treatises and letters of spiritual friendship all reflect the motto Fides Quaerens Intellectum - Faith Seeking Understanding.

His desire to show the complementarity of reason and faith bore fruit in his Proslogion, a treatise in which he formulated an ontological argument for the existence of God that continues to fascinate philosophers to this day. His letters, written in a graceful literary style that made them a model for generations of writers, reveal a warm and generous personality.

As Archbishop of Canterbury, Anselm was an active pastor and reformer. He defended the Church of England against royal control and oppression, for which he was twice exiled by the king. In 1102 he presided over the first Church council to outlaw the slave trade. During his exiles, St Anselm continued to write, producing Cur Deus Homo (Why God Became Man), the most famous medieval interpretation of the Incarnation.

We thank God for his holiness of life, the depth of his divine and human learning, his political and social conscience in the service of God and man.

Here is the first chapter of his Proslogion. It is, in fact, a prayer that we might seek God and find him. It is a wonderful prayer, a prayer of great beauty and sensitivity. I have sometimes given it to people who are at the beginning of their faith journey to help them begin a conversation with God. This translation is by Benedicta Ward, from her Penguin book, The Prayers and Meditations of Saint Anselm. (1973)

Come now, little man, 
turn aside for a while from your daily employment, 
escape for a moment from the tumult of your thoughts. 
Put aside your weighty cares, 
let your burdensome distractions wait, 
free yourself awhile for God 
and rest awhile in him.

Enter the inner chamber of your soul, 
shut out everything except God 
and that which can help you in seeking him, 
and when you have shut the door, seek him.
Now, my whole heart, say to God,
‘I seek your face,
Lord, it is your face I seek.’

0 Lord my God, teach my heart where and how to seek you,
where and how to find you.
Lord, if you are not here but absent, 
where shall I seek you?
But you are everywhere, so you must be here, 
why then do I not seek you?
Surely you dwell in light inaccessible – 
where is it? and how can I 
have access to light which is inaccessible?
Who will lead me and take me into it 
so that I may see you there?
By what signs, under what forms, shall I seek you?
I have never seen you, 0 Lord my God,
I have never seen your face.

Most High Lord, 
what shall an exile do 
who is as far away from you as this?
What shall your servant do, 
eager for your love, cast off far from your face?
He longs to see you,
but your countenance is too far away.
He wants to have access to you, 
but your dwelling is inaccessible.
He longs to find you,
but he does not know where you are.
He loves to seek you,
but he does not know your face.

Lord, you are my Lord and my God, 
and I have never seen you.
You have created and re-created me, 
all the good I have comes from you, 
and still I do not know you.
I was created to see you, 
and I have not yet accomplished 
that for which I was made.
How wretched is the fate of man 
when he has lost that for which he was created.

How hard and cruel was the Fall.
What has man lost, and what has he found ?
What has he left, and what is left to him ?
He has lost blessedness for which he was made 
and he has found wretchedness 
for which he was not made. 
He had left that without which there is no happiness, 
and he has got that which is nothing but misery.
Once man did eat angels’ food, 
and now he hungers for it; 
now he eats the bread of sorrow, 
which then he knew nothing of.

Ah, grief common to all men, 
lamentation of all the sons of Adam.
Adam was so full he belched, 
we are so hungry we sigh;
he had abundance, and we go begging.
He held what he had in happiness and left it in misery;
we are unhappy in our wants 
and miserable in our desires, 
and ah, how empty we remain.
Why did he not keep for us 
that which he possessed so easily, 
and we lack despite such labour?
Why did he shut out our light 
and surround us with darkness?
Why did he take away our life 
and give us the hurt of death ?

From whence have we wretched men been pushed down,
to what place are we being pushed on?
From what position have we been cast down, 
where are we being buried?
From our homeland into exile, 
from the vision of God into our own blindness, 
from the deathless state in which we rejoiced 
into the bitterness of a death to be shuddered at.
Wretched exchange, so great a good for so much evil.
A grievous loss, a grievous sorrow, 
the whole thing is grievous.

Alas, I am indeed wretched, 
one of those wretched sons of Eve, 
separated from God! 
What have I begun, and what accomplished?
Where was I going and where have I got to?
To what did I reach out, for what do I long?
I sought after goodness, and lo, here is turmoil;
I was going towards God, and I was my own impediment.
I sought for peace within myself, 
and in the depths of my heart I found trouble and sorrow.
I wanted to laugh for the joy of my heart, 
and the pain of my heart made me groan.
It was gladness I was hoping for, 
but sighs came thick and fast.

O Lord, how long? 
How long, Lord, will you turn your face from us?
When will you look upon us and hear us?
When will you enlighten our eyes and show us your face?
When will you give yourself to us again? 

Look upon us, Lord, and hear us, 
enlighten us and show yourself to us.
Give yourself to us again that it may be well with us, 
for without you it is ill with us.
Have mercy on us, 
as we strive and labour to come to you, 
for without you we can do nothing well.
You have invited us to cry out, ‘Help us’:
I pray you, Lord, 
let me not sigh without hope, 
but hope and breathe again.

Let not my heart become bitter because of its desolation, 
but sweeten it with your consolation.
When I was hungry I began to seek you, Lord; 
do not let me go hungry away.
I came to you famished;
do not let me go from you unfed.
Poor, I have come to one who is rich, 
miserable, I have come to one who is merciful; 
do not let me return empty and despised.
If before I eat I sigh, 
after my sighs give me to eat.

Lord, I am so bent I can only look downwards, 
raise me, that I may look upwards.
My iniquities have gone over my head, 
they cover me and weigh me down 
like a heavy burden. 
Take this weight, this covering, from me, 
lest the pit close its mouth over me.
Let me discern your light, 
whether from afar or from the depths.
Teach me to seek you, and as I seek you, 
show yourself to me, 
for I cannot seek you unless you show me how, 
and I will never find you 
unless you show yourself to me.
Let me seek you by desiring you, 
and desire you by seeking you; 
let me find you by loving you, 
and love you in finding you.

I confess, Lord, with thanksgiving, 
that you have made me in your image, 
so that I can remember you, 
think of you, and love you.
But that image is so worn and blotted out by faults, 
so darkened by the smoke of sin, 
that it cannot do that for which it was made, 
unless you renew and refashion it.
Lord, I am not trying to make my way to your height, 
for my understanding is in no way equal to that, 
but I do desire to understand a little of your truth 
which my heart already believes and loves.
I do not seek to understand so that I may believe, 
but I believe so that I may understand; 
and what is more,
I believe that unless I do believe I shall not understand. 

Friday, April 17, 2015

This re-interpretation of the Old Testament - Whose idea was it?

And he said to them, 
"O foolish men, and slow of heart to believe 
all that the prophets have spoken! 
Was it not necessary that the Christ should suffer these things 
and enter into his glory?" 
And beginning with Moses and all the prophets, 
he interpreted to them in all the scriptures 
the things concerning himself.

(Luke 24:25-27)

One of the textbooks I thoroughly enjoyed in my student days, and to which I frequently return, is An Introduction to the Theology of the New Testament (SCM Press, 1969 ed.) by Alan Richardson (1905-75), Dean of York, Professor of Christian Theology in the University of Nottingham and Canon of Durham Cathedral.

There are some truly memorable passages in this book, and it deserves to be better known among today’s theological students. One such passage occurs in the first chapter ("Faith and Hearing") in which Richardson explains his assumptions and methodology. I have reproduced it here, because it is related to yesterday's post on the Road to Emmaus and how the New Testament uses the Old Testament. Richardson asks the question, "Whose idea was it to reinterpret the Old Testament idea of redemption in this way?"

. . . Many . . . details . . . elaborate this basic conception of Jesus as himself the New Israel who accomplishes and brings to its conclusion the role which the Old Israel essayed but did not complete. Where the Old Israel had failed, the New Israel conquered. The Scriptures were fulfilled; the story of redemption was concluded. 

Since the rise of modern biblical scholarship the question has been asked, Who first thought of this way of setting forth the significance of the historical life of Jesus? 

Every conceivable kind of answer has been given. It could not have been the Evangelists who first thought of it, because St Paul knew it long before St Mark's Gospel was written. It could hardly have been St Paul, if we may trust the evidence which he himself supplies, including, of course, his own protestations of loyalty to the Gospel which he had received. Could it, then, have been the community at large, the Church into which St Paul "was baptized?" Some scholars have assumed that the early Christian community collectively worked out the theology of Christ as the fulfilment of the Scriptures. Such a conclusion, however, is not convincing, because communities do not think out such brilliant reconstructions as this uniquely original reinterpretation of the OT plan of salvation. 

There must have been some profoundly original mind which started the whole development on its course. Are we to assume that some creative thinker, whose name and whose memory have perished, is the genius behind the NT theology? Such a conclusion would indeed be an argumentum ex silentio.
There remains only one other possibility: the mind behind the NT reinterpretation of the OT theology of redemption was that of Jesus himself. Could any solution be more probable? It was the Lord himself who first suggested, as much by his deeds (signs) as by his words, the fundamental lines of the theology of the NT. 

One gains the impression from reading the Gospels that the disciples were slow to understand what Jesus was trying to teach them during his historical ministry (e.g. Mark 4:40f.; 6:51f; 8:16-21; 9:32, etc.; cf. Luke 24:25; John 14:9, etc.), and that it was not until after the crucifixion and resurrection that the clues which he had left with them began to shape in their minds a coherent pattern. After the resurrection of Jesus they themselves were conscious that they were being guided by the Spirit of the living Lord into all the truth concerning him (John 16:12-15); the things which the historical Jesus had said to them were now brought vividly to their remembrance through the activity of the Holy Spirit in their midst, and now they understood their inner meaning (John 14:26). 

This is the hypothesis upon which the argument of this volume is based, and it is our contention that it makes better sense of the NT evidence than does any other; its validity will be attested by its success or failure as a foundation for a coherent and soundly historical account of the theology of the apostolic Church.

- Alan Richardson, 
An Introduction to the Theology of the New Testament 
(SCM Press, 1969 ed.), pages 22 to 23.
(I've broken up Richardson's paragraphs into smaller ones 
for the purpose of this post) 

Tuesday, April 14, 2015

Michael Ramsey on the Resurrection

The one hundredth Archbishop of Canterbury, Michael Ramsey, often preached on the resurrection of Jesus. These paragraphs are from his book, The Resurrection of Christ. A Study of the Event and its meaning for the Christian Faith (London: Collins, 1965 [1961], 2nd edition). Go HERE to buy the book. 

The Christian Gospel was not first addressed to people who had no belief in the future stale . . . But nowhere, either for Greek or for Jew, was belief in the future life vivid, immediate, central and triumphant. Nowhere did the belief combine a conscious nearness of the world to come with a moral exalting of life in this present world. This was what Christianity brought. Its doctrine was not a light to another world that left this world behind, nor was it a longing for another world that would come when this world was ended. It was the very near certainty of another world, with which the Christians were already linked and into which the life of the world would he raised up.

For the Christian belief about the future state centred in Jesus Christ. He had been seen and loved in this life; and he had been seen and loved also as one who had conquered death. He had become vividly known as the Lord both of the living and the dead; and the conviction of his people concerning the future life rested upon their conviction about him in whose life they shared. It was an intense and triumphant conviction that where he was there also would his people be . . . 

While there was the glorifying of his body to which the narratives testify, there was also the continuity of the whole manhood, body and spirit, raised from death. The Son of God took upon him the whole of human nature (often in the New Testament the word ‘flesh’ is so used) in order that the whole might be raised in glory . . .

It is insufficient and misleading to present the Old Testament as the story of the growth of man’s ideas about God, without the primacy of the greater theme of God’s own acts and God’s own utterances in the events of Israel’s history that makes the Old Testament what it is. It is equally misleading to present the Gospel as the conception of God taught by Jesus, without due reference to the mighty act of God himself in the Passion and Resurrection. Read in its own light, the Bible has the Resurrection as its key. Its God is the God who raised up Jesus Christ from the dead, and in so doing vindicated his word in the Old Testament and in the Cross of Christ. It is only in virtue of the Resurrection that the Bible is one, and that the message of the Bible is coherent and true.

But though the revelation in the Bible is unique and breaks into the world from above, it is not ‘wholly other’. For the God who there reveals himself is also the God who created the world. Therefore the theme of the Gospel, Life-through Death, does not come as wholly strange to the world. Rather is it like a pattern already woven into nature and into the life of man. Though it is blurred by human sinfulness the pattern is not obliterated; and throughout all life there runs, however faintly perceived, a law of living through dying, a law whose presence testifies that man is made in the image of God. The Gospel of the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ is both strange to mankind and yet nearer to mankind than the breath which they breathe. For the truth in him is also the truth in them.

Monday, April 13, 2015

The joy of the Resurrection renews the whole world

Over the next few days I will be sharing with you some inspiring quotes about the resurrection of the Lord Jesus. Of course, Easter is a celebration of his resurrection as an historical event. The tomb really was empty! But is is much more a celebration that he is alive today and for evermore. It is also a celebration of OUR resurrection. I don't mean just the one we look forward to on the Last Day when the Lord shares the fulness of his victory over death with us (although that's well worth celebrating in advance!). I mean the reality of our having been plunged into the dying and rising of Jesus in the miracle of our baptism . . . joined to him, and now sharing his risen life - even in THIS world - so as be able to meet all our joys and sorrows, not in our own strength, but in the supernatural power of his resurrection (Philippians 3:10). Remember last Sunday's Epistle in which St Paul said to the early Christians (and to you and me!) "If you, then, be raised with Christ . . . " (Colossians 3:1).

There really is no story about the Resurrection in the New Testament. Except in the most fragmentary way, it is not described at all. There is no poetry about it. Instead, it is simply proclaimed as a fact. Christ is risen! In fact, the very existence of the New Testament itself proclaims it. Unless something very real indeed took place on that strange, confused morning, there would be no New Testament, no Church, no Christianity. 
- Frederick Buechner, in The Magnificent Defeat 

How fair and lovely is the hope 
which the Lord gave to the dead 
when He laid down like them beside them. 
Rise up and come forth 
and sing praise to Him 
who has raised you from destruction. 
- From the Syrian Orthodox Liturgy

Jesus dies. His lifeless body is taken down from the cross. Painters and sculptors have strained their every nerve to portray the sorrow of Mary holding her lifeless son in her arms, as mothers today in Baghdad hold with the same anguish the bodies of their children. On Holy Saturday, or Easter Eve, God is dead, entering into the nothingness of human dying. The source of all being, the One who framed the vastness and the microscopic patterning of the Universe, the delicacy of petals and the scent of thyme, the musician’s melodies and the lover’s heart, is one with us in our mortality. In Jesus, God knows our dying from the inside.

How can these things be said, and sung, and celebrated, as they will be by countless millions this Easter? Only because the blotting out of life by death is not the horizon. The definitive line is not drawn there. From that nothingness and darkness and the seeming triumph of the darkest powers of evil, new life was born, a new creation came to be. On Easter morning a tomb was found empty, a stone rolled away, and a new order broke into the world. The Easter stories of the Gospels are not about “the resurrection of relics”, but about an amazing new life and transfiguration. It is not the resurrection of a principle but of a person, who calls us by name. In St John’s Gospel, Mary Magdalene hears the calling of her name by the risen Christ, though blinded by her tears she thinks Him to be the gardener. Clutching his feet she tries to pin him down, to shut him up in the old order, but he tells her not to touch, not to seek to hold down his risen life. She is to go and tell the Good News of resurrection, that all may be drawn into the ascending energy of the love of God.

Jesus breathes on His disciples His life-giving Spirit, the divine life of the new creation. “Go and live that life, live out that love”, for “Christ is risen and the demons are fallen”. The principalities and powers are dethroned. They have no ultimate control of our lives. From the nothingness of death and the absence of God and meaning, Christ rises in triumph and love’s redeeming work is done.

- Bishop Geoffrey Rowell (b. 1943), in The Sunday Times  8/4/2007

Wednesday, April 8, 2015

The Road to Emmaus - "Did not our hearts burn within us . . ."

This is an edited transcript of a sermon I preached at All Saints’ Wickham Terrace, Brisbane, 
on Easter Day, 2003 at Evensong & Benediction.

It was near the end of Easter Day, the first Easter Day. According to Luke Chapter 24, two disciples of Jesus were on their way to Emmaus - about 11 km northwest of Jerusalem.

But their walk had become a trudge.

The bottom had fallen out of their world. Jesus of Nazareth, in whom they had placed their hope for a new and better world, had been killed by the authorities. He had such promise. "He could have called ten thousand angels . . ." as the old gospel song says. How come he didn't use his supernatural power to bring in God's Kingdom then and there?

That was a question in the minds of many people.

It seems that these two had not been part of the inner circle of disciples. Most likely they were among the hundreds who heard Jesus preach and believed in him, who knew him from a distance, from among the crowd.

There they were. Downhearted, despondent and without hope. But they became aware of someone else walking with them. Why didn't they know it was Jesus?

Commentators give all sorts of reasons. I think it was simply that they didn't expect it to be him, and they might never have seen him up close, anyway.

But . . . isn't that a picture of what happens to us? Hopes and dreams crumble, communities disintegrate, businesses go under, people let us down, super funds lose their value, we get a serious illness, or we're simply engulfed by an unexplained torpor. Things like these - and many others besides - trigger off the kind of depression and fear that can destroy us from the inside out.

How many times, when we feel like that, and our walk has become a trudge, do we fail to recognise the presence of Jesus with us?

Because . . . he DOES walk with you and me. Even when we don't recognise him he walks with us because he loves us. We call that "grace". He walks with you; he walks with me. Just as on that Road to Emmaus, he draws near in a special way when our journey becomes a trudge. He is there . . . in our darkest moments.

Though they didn't recognise him, Jesus managed to take their minds off themselves and how they felt. In fact, their hearts began to change even before they realised who he was. We know that, because later on when they looked back on the experience they said: "Did not our hearts burn within us while he talked to us on the road, while he opened to us the scriptures?" (Luke 24:32)

There was something about his presence as he taught them from the Old Testament. ". . . beginning with Moses and all the prophets, he interpreted to them in all the scriptures the things concerning himself " (v. 27).

When they reached Emmaus, Jesus "made as if he was going further." Do you understand what he did . . . instead of imposing himself on them he gave them the prerogative of saying "yes" or "no" to what had begun happening in their lives. He does that to us!

And, do you know, we can close ourselves off to what might become a great adventure of faith, or we can - as people say - "go with the flow."

That's what they did. Even before they understood exactly what was happening to them, "they constrained him, saying, 'Stay with us, for it is toward evening and the day is now far spent'" (v.29). They invited him in.

You heard how the story ends. "Jesus went in to stay with them. When he was at table with them, he took the bread and blessed, and broke it, and gave it to them. And their eyes were opened and they recognized him; and he vanished out of their sight" (v. 30-32). They rushed back into Jerusalem to fine the Eleven, and "they told what had happened on the road, and how he was known to them in the breaking of the bread" (v.35).

Do you see what this passage tells us about the Risen Jesus - how he makes himself known to his people?

First, he comes alongside us long before we recognise his presence, especially when we are empty and defeated. I've already spoken about that.

Second, he opens up the Scriptures to us. When we read the Scriptures or hear them expounded, we are not just gaining intellectual knowledge. The Risen Jesus speaks through his Word. He speaks to our hearts, our spirits. It is a supernatural communion. His Word expands our vision, heals our souls, and gives us strength. Did you know that in our day there is an unprecedented turning to the Scriptures among Christians of all backgrounds because, to use the language of Vatican II, we actually "encounter" the risen Jesus in his Word.

Referring to a teaching of the fourth century St Ambrose, Vatican II said that "prayer should accompany the reading of Sacred Scripture, so that God and man may talk together; for 'we speak to him when we pray; we hear him when we read the divine sayings'" (Dei verbum 25).

When was the last time you blew the dust off your Bible, turned off the television, and just began reading, maybe in the Psalms, or one of the Gospels, or a letter of St Paul, all the while asking the Lord to speak to you? Have you thought about following a system (like Bible Alive) or using the weekday Mass readings for your regular time in God's Word?

If you start doing that you will grow; you will be changed; your faith will become stronger; your heart will burn within you as you hear his voice.

Third, he is still known to us in the Breaking of the Bread. High up over the main altar of St John's Horsham in the Diocese of Ballarat - the second parish I served as rector - is a beautiful stained glass window of Jesus celebrating the Eucharist at Emmaus. Every time I looked up at the altar of St John's I would be reminded of this Mass at which Jesus was - literally in his risen body - the actual celebrant. I would say to my people there that whenever we come to Mass we are not only joined to the apostles in the upper room on the first Maundy Thursday when Jesus gave us the Eucharist; we are also joined to the Emmaus disciples at the end of Easter Sunday who had the amazing honour of being the congregation at the first Mass of the Resurrection!

Then the Lord "vanished out of their sight." What's going on here? Along with many scholars of this text I believe that because Jesus had chosen the "Breaking of the Bread" to be the place where his risen tangible presence would be encountered by his people, once the disciples recognised him there, he was able to withdraw the extraordinary and special grace of his "actual" resurrection body.

There you have it. That's why I love Holy Communion. It's not "just" a symbol. Jesus comes in all of his love and risen power in the Breaking of the Bread - the Mass - to bless us, to heal us, and to fill us with his resurrection life.

I've got one more thing to say.

Many Scripture scholars believe that the encounter of Jesus with these disciples is included by St Luke specifically to teach us about the Eucharist. That is, while this passage has its deeply personal application (upon which I dwelt earlier) it is, in fact, a pattern of the liturgy itself.

The references to the Word and the Breaking of the Bread have to do with the life of the whole believing community, which is why Luke doesn't omit to tell us that the disciples rush back to the apostles in Jerusalem. And to this day it is supremely as part of the apostolic community gathered for the proclamation of the Word and the Breaking of the Bread that we actually meet Jesus.

Because of this passage of St Luke I have a special job to do tonight. If you are from a catholic background I have to encourage you to become as much a "Bible Christian" as any evangelical you might know, recognising that the risen Jesus comes to us in his Word. No more sneering at people who love the Scriptures, underline verses, or learn texts off by heart!

And if you are from an evangelical background I have to encourage you to become as catholic as the Roman Catholics and Orthodox, recognizing the real presence of Jesus in the Breaking of the Bread. No more accusations of idolatry against those who would fall down in reverence before the presence of Jesus in the Blessed Sacrament!

In waht is rapidly becoming a post-Christian age, the Lord is calling us to be "evangelical catholics", and "catholic evangelicals."

Again, it all comes together in Vatican II's Dei verbum, where we find this very important statement: "The Church has always venerated the divine Scriptures just as she venerates the body of the Lord, since, especially in the sacred liturgy, she unceasingly receives and offers to the faithful the bread of life from the table both of God's word and of Christ's body"
(Dei verbum 22).

Brothers and sisters, may you know and love the risen Jesus more and more; may your hearts burn within you as you hear him speaking to you in his holy Word; and may you never fail to recognize the love, the healing power, and the holiness of his presence in the Breaking of the Bread.

Happy Easter!

Sunday, April 5, 2015

The Grand Miracle - A great C.S. Lewis piece for Easter Day

St Jude on the Hill, London

In April 1945 years ago at the Church of St Jude on the Hill, London, C.S. Lewis preached a sermon called “The Grand Miracle.” It was published two weeks later in The Guardian, (and today in God in the Dock). It continues to resonate as one of Lewis’ most important essays.

Here is the essay. If you prefer, you can listen to it while watching the DOODLE, which is, in fact, very clever! (Scroll to the end of the essay to find the YouTube Doodle) 

One is very often asked as present whether we could not have a Christianity stripped, or, as people who ask it say, “freed” from its miraculous elements, a Christianity with the miraculous elements suppressed. Now, it seems to me that precisely the one religion in the world, or at least the only one I know, with which you could not do that is Christianity. In a religion like Buddhism, if you took away the miracles attributed to Gautama Buddha in some very late sources, there would be no loss; in fact, the religion would get on very much better without them because in that case the miracles largely contradict the teaching. Or even in the case of a religion like Mohammedanism, nothing essential would be altered if you took away the miracles. You could have a great prophet preaching his dogmas without bringing in any miracles; they are only in the nature of a digression, or illuminated capitals.

But you cannot possibly do that with Christianity, because the Christian story is precisely the story of one grand miracle, the Christian assertion being that what is beyond all space and time, which is uncreated, eternal, came into Nature, into human nature, descended into His own universe, and rose again, bringing Nature up with Him. It is precisely one great miracle. If you take that away there is nothing specifically Christian left. There may be many admirable human things which Christianity shares with all other systems in the world, but there would be nothing specifically Christian.

Conversely, once you have accepted that, then you will see that all well-established Christian miracles are part of it. That they all either prepare for, or exhibit, or result from the Incarnation. Just like every natural event exhibits the total character of the natural universe at a particular point in space of time, so every miracle exhibits the character of the Incarnation.

Now, if one asks whether that central grand miracle in Christianity is itself probable or improbable, of course, quite clearly you cannot be applying Hume’s kind of probability. You cannot mean a probability based on statistics according to which the more often a thing has happened, the more likely it is to happen again (the more often you get indigestion from eating a certain food, the more probable it is, if you eat it again, that you will again have indigestion).

Certainly the Incarnation cannot be probable in that sense. It is of its very nature to have happened only once. But then it is of the very nature of the history of this world to have happened only once; and if the Incarnation happened at all, it is the central chapter of that history. It is improbable in the same way in which the whole of nature is improbable, because it is only there once, and will happen only once. So one must apply to it a quite different kind of standard.

I think we are rather in this position. Supposing you had before you a manuscript of some great work, either a symphony or a novel. There then comes to you a person, saying, “Here is a new bit of the manuscript that I found; it is the central passage of that symphony, or the central chapter of that novel. The text is incomplete without it. I have got the missing passage which is really the center of the whole work.”

The only thing you could do would be to put this new piece of the manuscript in that central position, and then see how it reacted on the whole of the rest of the work. If it constantly brought out new meanings from the whole of the rest of the work, if it made you notice things in the rest of the work which you had not noticed before, then I think you would decide that it was authentic. On the other hand, if it failed to do that, then, however attractive it was in itself, you would reject it.

Now, what is the missing chapter in this case, the chapter which Christians are offering? The story of the Incarnation is the story of a descent and resurrection. When I say “resurrection” here, I am not referring simply to the first few hours, or the first few weeks of the Resurrection. I am talking of this whole, huge pattern of descent, down, down, and then up again. What we ordinarily call the Resurrection being just, so to speak, the point at which it turns.

Think what that descent is. The coming down, not only into humanity, but into those nine months which precede human birth, in which they tell us we all recapitulate strange prehuman , subhuman forms of life, and going lower still into being a corpse, a thing which, if this ascending movement had not begun, would presently have passed out of the organic altogether, and have gone back into the inorganic, as all corpses do.

One has a picture of someone going right down and dredging the sea bottom. One has a picture of a strong man trying to lift a very big, complicated burden. He stoops down and gets himself right under it so that he himself disappears; and then he straightens his back and moves off with the whole thing swaying on his shoulders.

Or else one has the picture of a diver, stripping off garment after garment, making himself naked, then flashing for a moment in the air, and then down through the green, and warm, and sunlit water into the pitch-black, cold, freezing water, down into the mud and slime, then up again, his lungs almost bursting, back again to the green and warm and sunlit water, and then at last out into the sunshine, holding in his hand the dripping thing he went down to get. This thing is human nature; but, associated with it, all Nature, the new universe.

Now, as soon as you have thought of this, this pattern of the huge dive down to the bottom, into the depths of the universe and coming up again into the light, everyone will see at once how that is imitated and echoed by the principles of the natural world; the descent of the seed into the soil, and its rising again in the plants.

There are also all sorts of things in our own spiritual life where a thing has to be killed, and broken, in order that it may then become bright, and strong, and splendid. The analogy is obvious.

In that sense the doctrine fits in very well, so well in fact that immediately there comes the suspicion, Is it not fitting in a great deal too well? In other words, does not the Christian story show this pattern of descent and reascent because that is part of all the nature religions of the world? We have read about it in The Golden Boughs. We all know about Adonis, and the stories of the rest of those rather tedious people; is not this one more instance of the same thing, “the dying god”? Well, yes it is. That is what makes the question subtle.

What the anthropological critic of Christianity is always saying is perfectly true. Christ is a figure of that sort. And here comes a very curious thing. When I first, after childhood, read the Gospels, I was full of that stuff about the dying god, The Golden Bough, and so on. It was to me then a very poetic, and mysterious, and quickening idea; and when I turned to the Gospels never will I forget my disappointment and repulsion at finding hardly anything about it at all. The metaphor of the seed dropping into the ground in this connection occurs (I think) twice in the New Testament,[2] and for the rest hardly any notice is taken; it seemed to me extraordinary. You had a dying God, Who was always representative of the corn: you see Him holding the corn, that is, bread, in His hand, and saying, “This is My Body,”[3] and from my point of view, as I then was, He did not seem to realize what He was saying. Surely there, if anywhere, this connection between the Christian story and the corn must have come out; the whole context is crying out for it. But everything goes on as if the principal actor, and still more, those about Him, were totally ignorant of what they were doing.

It is as if you got very good evidence concerning the sea serpent, but the men who brought this good evidence seemed never to have heard of sea serpents. Or to put it in another way, why was it that the only case of the “dying god” which might conceivably have been historical occurred among a people (and the only people in the whole Mediterranean world) who had not got any trace of this nature religion, and indeed seemed to know nothing about it? Why is it among them the thing suddenly appears to happen?

The principal actor, humanly speaking, hardly seems to know of the repercussions His words (and sufferings) would have in any pagan mind. Well, that is almost inexplicable, except on one hypothesis. How if the corn king is not mentioned in that book, because He is here of whom the corn king was an image? How if the representation is absent because here, at last, the thing represented is present? If the shadows are absent because the thing of which they were shadows is here?

The corn itself is in its far-off way an imitation of the supernatural reality; the thing dying, and coming to life again, descending, and reascending beyond all Nature. The principle is there in Nature because it was first there in God Himself. Thus one is getting in behind the nature religions, and behind Nature to Someone Who is not explained by, but explains, not, indeed, the nature religions directly, but that whole characteristic behavior of Nature on which nature religions were based. Well, that is one way in which it surprised me. It seemed to fit in a very peculiar way, showing me something about Nature more fully than I had seen it before, while itself remaining quite outside and above the nature religions.

Then another thing. We, with our modern democratic and arithmetical presuppositions would so have liked and expected all men to start equal in their search for God. One has the picture of great centripetal roads coming from all directions, with well-disposed people, all meaning the same thing, and getting closer and closer together. How shockingly opposite to that is the Christian story!

One people picked out of the whole earth; that people purged and proved again and again. Some are lost in the desert before they reach Palestine; some stay in Babylon; some becoming indifferent. The whole thing narrows and narrows, until at last it comes down to a little point, small as the point of a spear-a Jewish girl at her prayers. That is what the whole of human nature has narrowed down to before the Incarnation takes place. Very unlike what we expected, but, of course, not in the least unlike what seems, in general, as shown by Nature, to be God’s way of working.

The universe is quite a shockingly selective, undemocratic place out of apparently infinite space, a relatively tiny proportion occupied by matter of any kind. Of the stars perhaps only one has planets: of the planets only one is at all likely to sustain organic life. Of the animals only one species is rational. Selection as seen in Nature, and the appalling waste which it involves, appears a horrible and an unjust thing by human standards.

But the selectiveness in the Christian story is not quite like that. The people who are selected are, in a sense, unfairly selected for a supreme honor; but it is also a supreme burden. The people of Israel come to realize that it is their woes which are saving the world. Even in human society, though, one sees how this inequality furnishes an opportunity for every kind of tyranny and servility.

Yet, on the other hand, one also sees that it furnishes an opportunity for some of the very best things we can think of — humility, and kindness, and the immense pleasures of admiration. (I cannot conceive how one would get through the boredom of a world in which you never met anyone more clever, or more beautiful, or stronger than yourself. The very crowds who go after the football celebrities and film stars know better than to desire that kind of equality!)

What the story of the Incarnation seems to be doing is to flash a new light on a principle in Nature, and to show for the first time that this principle of inequality in Nature is neither good nor bad. It is a common theme running through both the goodness and badness of the natural world, and I begin to see how it can survive as a supreme beauty in a redeemed universe.

And with that I have unconsciously passed over to the third point. I have said that the selectiveness was not unfair in the way in which we first suspect, because those selected for the great honor are also selected for the great suffering, and their suffering heals others. In the Incarnation we get, of course, this idea of vicariousness of one person profiting by the earning of another person. In its highest form that is the very center of Christianity. And we also find this same vicariousness to be a characteristic, or, as the musician would put it, a leitmotif of Nature.

It is a law of the natural universe that no being can exist on its own resources. Everyone, everything, is hopelessly indebted to everyone and everything else. In the universe, as we now see it, this is the source of many of the greatest horrors: all the horrors of carnivorousness, and the worse horrors of the parasites, those horrible animals that live under the skin of other animals, and so on.

And yet, suddenly seeing it in the light of the Christian story, one realizes that vicariousness is not in itself bad; that all these animals, and insects, and horrors are merely that principle of vicariousness twisted in one way. For when you think it out, nearly everything good in Nature also comes from vicariousness. After all, the child, both before and after birth, lives on its mother, just as the parasite lives on its host, the one being a horror, the other being the source of almost every natural goodness in the world. It all depends upon what you do with this principle.

So that I find in that third way also, that what is implied by the Incarnation just fits in exactly with what I have seen in Nature, and (this is the important point) each time it gives it a new twist. If I accept this supposed missing chapter, the Incarnation, I find it begins to illuminate the whole of the rest of the manuscript. It lights up Nature’s pattern of death and rebirth; and, secondly, her selectiveness; and, thirdly, her vicariousness.