Monday, February 29, 2016

Naaman, the Jordan River and our healing in Christ

In our journey to the baptismal celebration at Easter, the Church provides us this day with some powerful Mass readings. First is the story of Naaman - an “outsider” with leprosy - who was to humble himself and be washed in the Jordan in order to know the healing power of the Lord (2 Kings 5:1-15). Then there is the Gospel reading (Luke 4:24-30 ) in which Jesus - who came to bring savation to everyone - refers to the story of Naaman in order to show that “outsiders” are sometimes far more responsive to God than those who have grown up in the community of faith.

As we continue to make our way through Lent, let’s examine OUR hearts to ensure that pride doesn’t prevent us admitting our spiritual illnesses, or being responsive to the Lord, who has so much love, power and healing to bestow upon us.

Actually, it is good for us to think about the haunting significance of the Jordan River. In the words of Fr Thomas Hopko (in The Winter Pascha): 

The river Jordan plays a very important role in the Bible. Before it becomes the river in which Jesus the Messiah baptized, it is revealed as the river which bounds the “Promised Land.” To cross the Jordan, for the people of Israel, was to enter into the fulfillment of the Lord’s promises. It was to enter the “land flowing with milk and honey,” the place where God would dwell with His people providing them with the endless blessings of His presence.

In the New Testament, with it spiritual and mystical fulfillment of the Old, to cross the Jordan was to enter into the Kingdom of God, to experience the fullness of the life of the age to come. The fact that Moses was not blessed to cross the Jordan thus became a symbol of the fact that the Law by itself could not save Israel or the world. It had to be Joshua, which literally means Savior, and is the Hebrew form of the Greek word Jesus, who leads the people across the Jordan and into the promised land, thus symbolizing the saving action of the new Joshua, Jesus the messianic Savior, in the covenant of grace (see Joshua 1:12).

When Joshua came to the Jordan the streams parted at the presence of God’s people, with the priests bearing in their hands the Ark of the Covenant. As the waters of the sea parted to allow God’s people to pass through as if on dry land at their exodus from Egypt, so also at the entry into the land of promise, the river of Jordan made way for God’s people to pass through into the place of their final destination (Joshua 3:11-13).

The Lord also commanded Joshua to take twelve stones out of the river Jordan and to place them together in one place in a pile where the people had passed through, to remain “to the people of Israel as a memorial forever” of what the Lord had done for them (Joshua 4:8-10).

After the people passed through the Jordan River, “the waters of the Jordan returned to their place and overflowed all its banks, as before.” (Joshua 4:18) This miraculous wonder became part of the living memory of Israel, and the event was celebrated in the worship of God’s people ever since. The psalms which recall the divine action are sung at the Church’s festival of the Epiphany as prefigurations of God’s final act of the salvation of all people in the death and resurrection of His Anointed, the Beloved Son who was baptized in the same Jordan streams.

“What ails you, O Sea that you flee O Jordan, that you turn back?... Tremble, O earth, at the presence of the Lord, at the presence of the God of Jacob” (Psalm 114:5,7)

The river Jordan was also parted by the passage of Elijah and Elisha, an event also recalled at the liturgy of Epiphany. (2 Kings 2) And it was from the Jordan that Elijah was taken up into heaven in order to return again, as the tradition developed, to prepare the way for the coming of the Messiah. (See Mt 17:9-13) It was also in the Jordan that Naaman the Syrian was cleansed from his leprosy, a sign referred to by Jesus as a prefiguration of the salvation of all people, not only those of Israel. (Lk. 4:27) In the account of Naaman’s cure the special significance of the Jordan is stressed once again.

“He [Naaman] went down and dipped himself seven times in the Jordan, according to the word of the man of God; and his flesh was restored like the flesh of a little child, and he was clean.” (2 Kings 5:13,14)

Can we not be washed in just any river and be clean? God answers, No. Only in the Jordan, in the baptism of Christ, are we cleansed from all of our sins. Only through the Jordan do we enter into the land of the living, the Promised Land of God’s kingdom. Only by the sanctified waters of the Jordan does God sanctify us forever.

The River Jordan turned back of old,
Before Elisha’s mantle when Elijah ascended.
The waters were made to part in two,
So the wet surface became a dry path.
This was in truth a symbol of baptism
By which we pass through mortal life.
Christ has come to the Jordan to sanctify the waters.

- Troparion of the prefeast of Epiphany.

Sunday, February 21, 2016

Come down from Tabor!

This is a Transfiguration prayer of Archimandrite Iachint Unciuleac (died 1998). He was a monk of the Putna Monastery, Romania. Go HERE to their website.

Come to us again, O Jesus  - do not listen to Peter! Come down from Tabor and come to our homes, into our hearts! Come here, where we are suffering and labouring for our daily bread! Come here, where we are crucified by people, demons, and passions! If Peter does not want to come down, leave him on the mount and come to us, to our hearts!

Teach us how to be saved, show us how to endure. Train us to carry our life’s cross. Teach us how to be crucified. Come and suffer for us, Thou Thyself be crucified instead of us, Thyself first taste the cup of death, show us a new way to salvation through suffering.

O, how we would have liked to stay with Peter on Mount Tabor! But we bear a body, gasping from sickness, lusts and passions. In our breasts are hearts burning with hatred. At home our children are waiting for us, asking us for a piece of bread!...

O, how we would like to delight with Peter there, on Mount Tabor! But we see ourselves surrounded by fog, by sin. Do not abandon us, O Jesus, but come down to us in a sharp wind, to the foot of the mount. Here we are waiting for Thee, along with the other disciples: Thomas and Andrew, James and Matthew, Jude and Bartholomew, Simon and Thaddeus. Hungry and naked, wanderers and orphans, the young and the old, widows and beggars, the sick and the suffering — we are all waiting for Thee, thirsting for Thee. Come and make peace with us.

Come down even further, to the shore of the sea, where life is tossed about in the waves, where ships are wrecked against the rocks and so many sails are torn, so many oars are broken, so many souls are carried down to the bottom by the rebellious force of the waves. We know that the mount with its quiet and solitude call Thee to prayer, but nevertheless look down to the sea with pity. There, in the distance, the waves cast up their mist, tearing at the shores with such fury…

And this, is the world. But on the waves the ships battle with the sea, wind, and night. And this, is man.

Come down to that place, to the sea’s abyss, to the heart of man, to the hearth of the family. Come there, where the light is mixed with the darkness, life with death, joy with sighing, bread with dust, truth with lies, honey with poison, love with hate, wine with vinegar, time with eternity.Come here, where we people are suffering; make peace with us, transform the face of the world, calm the sea, assuage our hearts, and unite the thoughts of our souls into one.

We were with him on the holy mountain

Icon of the transfiguration in the Romanian Orthodox Church in Jericho

Most of us have friends who accuse us of believing myths when we share the Good News of Jesus with them. It is reassuring to know that the same accusation was levelled at the first Christians, leading St Peter (yes, I still think he wrote that epistle!) to say about the Transfiguration of Jesus, which we celebrate in today’s Mass: “We did not follow cleverly devised myths when we made known to you the power and coming of our Lord Jesus Christ, but we were eyewitnesses of his majesty . . . We were with him on the holy mountain . . .” (2 Peter 1:16-18)

The Transfiguration is a “theophany”, a cosmic, earth-shaking manifestation and experience of heavenly glory right here in this world. A supernatural revelation of God. Of course, it is primarily something that happens to JESUS who had climbed the mountain that day to commune with the Father. We know that Jesus often went into a lonely place to pray. But his experience this day overflows into the lives of Peter, James and John, the inner core of the apostolic band. In the timelessness of that amazing moment they see the glory that Jesus had with the Father before the world was made (John 17:5), the glory he laid aside in order to become our Saviour, the glory with which he would be glorified in his cross and resurrection, the glory that he would one day share with all his people (Hebrews 2:10).

But what does it mean? What is this “glory”?

God most certainly wanted to do more than entertain the apostles with a sort of cosmic electric light show! What is this dazzling light? What is the cloud that “overshadows” them, from which the voice of God the Father says, “This is my beloved Son; listen to him”?

Well, these things aren’t happening in a vacuum. As devout Jews, Peter, James and John know all about the manifestation of God’s glory in times past. That’s why they fall back in fear. They know that the cloud on the mountain-top is not just any old cloud. They know that it's not a fog or a natural mist! It is the SHEKINAH GLORY. “Shekinah” comes from a Hebrew word which means “to dwell.” The “shekinah” glory of God is his actual manifest and uncreated presence with his people. This manifest glory of God in the shekinah cloud which gives off light  - a “luminous” cloud - appears at some crucial points in the Old Testament narrative. And so we recall:

(1) The people's experience of God in a luminous cloud and pillar of fire when he led them through the wilderness (Exodus 13).

(2) The cloud descending powerfully on the newly finished Tabernacle (“Tent of Meeting”) in such a manifestation of God’s glory that Moses himself could not even go inside (Exodus 19).

(3) The cloud of God's glory descending on the mountain at the giving of the law (Exodus 24).

(4) Moses being hidden in the cleft of the rock as the cloud of God’s glory passes by (Exodus 33).

(5) The dedication of Solomon’s temple when the people are praising and worshipping the Lord, and the cloud of God's glory descends, filling the temple area. So intense and powerful is this manifestation of God’s presence that the priests are physically unable to remain on their feet (2 Chronicles 5).

On the mountain, Peter, James and John know they are witnessing and experiencing something very precious that has not been experienced in their people’s history for six hundred years - the SHEKINAH cloud of great glory. The top of that mountain is covered by the glory - the uncreated light - of God.

They experience a further revelation of who Jesus really is. That’s why the episode is central to Christian believing, Christian worship, and the life of prayer. St Gregory of Nazianzus (329-390 AD) sees the transfiguration as a promise for the people of Jesus: “On the mountain he was bright as the lightning and became more luminous than the sun, initiating us into the mystery of the future” (Theological Orations 4.19).

Many spiritual guides, especially from the Eastern Churches, encourage us to discern the light of Mount Tabor in our hearts and in the world around us. Somewhat mysteriously, the prologue of St John's Gospel speaks of Jesus as the true light that enlightens everyone who comes into the world (John 1:9). The Jesuit William Johnson reminds us that, as the people of Jesus, we “experience the inner fire of love,” that in Jesus we are “divinized through divine grace.” These things are all part of the same reality. In fact the word for “transfigured” in the original Greek of the New Testament is where the English “metamorphosis” comes from - you remember - describing the transformation of a grub into a butterfly. In today’s Gospel the word refers to the complete change in the appearance of Jesus . . . brighter than the light, revealing his true glory and identity to them. But the very same word is used in two other places in the New Testament in order to describe the change that is supposed to be taking place in our lives as we grow in him.

The first speaks of our transformation by the renewal of our MIND in God’s truth: “I appeal to you therefore, brethren, by the mercies of God, to present your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God, which is your spiritual worship. Do not be conformed to this world but be TRANSFORMED by the renewal of your mind, that you may prove what is the will of God, what is good and acceptable and perfect.” (Romans 12:1-2)

The second speaks of our transformation by the work of the Holy Spirit bringing us into an ever deepening inner freedom as we behold the Lord’s glory. This has to do with prayer and worship (confirming the old saying that for better or for worse we become like what we worship!): “Now the Lord is the Spirit, and where the Spirit of the Lord is, there is freedom. And we all, with unveiled face, beholding the glory of the Lord, are BEING CHANGED into his likeness from one degree of glory to another; for this comes from the Lord who is the Spirit.” (2 Corinthians 3:18)

Origen (185-254 AD) speaks of those who worship the Lord and seek to walk with him "in the light"  being transformed by his glory: "When [Jesus] is transfigured, his face also shines as the sun that he may be manifested to the children of light who have put off the works of darkness and put on the armor of light, and are no longer the children of darkness or night but have become the sons of day, and walk honestly as in the day. Being manifest, he will shine unto them not simply as the sun, but as demonstrated to be the sun of righteousness."

So it is that we gather on our Eucharistic Mount of Transfiguration Sunday by Sunday – and for some of us more often than that. We gaze upon Jesus, the Word made flesh, who continues to “tabernacle” in our midst in the Blessed Sacrament. May we continue responding to his Word, opening our hearts to his love and our minds to his truth, so as to be “changed from glory into glory, till in heaven we take our place . . . lost in wonder, love and praise” (Charles Wesley).

Monday, February 15, 2016

The selfie stick, evolution and the Bible

Dr Gavin Ashenden is the vicar of St Martin de Gouray in Jersey, the Channel Islands (just off the French Normandy coast), a Chaplain to the Queen and Canon Theologian at Chichester Cathedral. As a broadcaster he hosted a BBC Religion and Ethics show for 4 years (2008-2012), and presented the BBC podcast on Religion and Ethics. He is the author of a number of books and essays on the Oxford Inklings. This article was written for last Wednesday's Jersey Evening Post.

It was the first time I had seen a ‘bunch’ of selfie sticks in action. Last Sunday, I was walking across Westminster Bridge on my way to St James’ Palace where I had my annual gig as a chaplain in the Royal Ecclesiastical Household, and I wandered into a crowd of Japanese tourists.
We were all in the shadow of Westminster Abbey, which glowed in the early morning sunlight. It radiated ornate gold, textured with parapets and saints, slender fingers of stone pointing to heaven and wrapped in a complex beauty. It took my breath away – again – for the thousandth time.
The tourists were taking pictures as well they might. But they all had selfie-sticks, and were turning their backs on the building to get their face in front of the stone, and impose it on the picture.
I thought that they might take one or two photos like that and then turn round and take photos full on – without the selfie stick – but they didn’t. It seems Westminster Abbey was not beautiful enough or significant enough unless it had their face in front of it.
Last week the headteacher of St Andrew’s Church of England Primary in Oswaldtwistle sent out a rather feverish tweet about evolution and the Bible (who knows what annoyed her - NEVER tweet when cross!). She was a bit clumsy in what she said, but tweeted that evolution was a theory and there was much truth in the Bible.
She was jumped on remorselessly by clever people everywhere. Lots of them even calling for her resignation as clearly unfit to teach little ones at Primary school.
She was technically right. Yes, evolution is still a theory, but it’s not just a theory. It’s the best explanation we have as to the mechanics of growth and development of living things down the millennia. There are also bits in the theory we don’t yet understand; but that’s not where the argument lies. She is also right that there is truth in the Bible. So why the outburst of rage?
The first obvious thing is that they do different things. Evolution explains ‘how’ we think biology took the steps it did, but it is hopeless on ‘why’.  In fact it’s worse than hopeless. The whole idea of survival of the fittest, when turned into a moral or ethical rule was exactly what drove the worst examples of racism, and especially the Nazi death camps.
The Bible, a collection of books which include, poetry, history, prophesy, as well as moral exploration, claims that through them, God has whispered the ‘why’.
What were the ‘how’ people doing getting so furious with a teacher who thought there was something to be said for asking the question ‘why’?
I wondered it it might have something to do with the selfie-stick?
The ‘how’ people  have got used to the idea that knowing about the mechanics of everything saves them from having to ask further questions about the ethics. They are understandably proud of having discovered so much about how things work. But looking at the world in general, they behave a little like the tourists in front of Westminster Abbey. They take pictures of the world with their face at the centre.
Having been clever enough to find out how things work – up to a point – they become our  theories;  Ideas, with our faces on them.
But biology doesn’t really tell us enough. It might take us back to the time when somehow life was seeded on the earth – astoundingly clever, but what about before that? Where else in the universe did the life come from … and why?
And is there any purpose to life apart from not being dead? Why do human beings need to find meaning, and become ill when they can’t? The ‘how’ of evolution doesn’t speak that kind of language. But the Bible does.
Buried in each of our lives are a series of questions: “what am I here for? Do I matter? Am I loved? What happens to me when I die?”
It may be that one of the reasons for the vast number of anti-depressants our society depends on, is the absence of meaning in people’s lives. In the UK last year, 53 million prescriptions were dispensed, with 4 million people relying on them. We get ill when we experience our lives as being without meaning.
Science, the study of ‘how’ is not equipped to talk this kind of language. But the Bible is all about helping us face the unease, or dis-ease of meaninglessness.
Science and the Bible need each other. Science explains how utterly wondrous the world is. and what drives it. The Bible, telling us that we were purposefully designed for love, paints a picture of the mysterious face at the centre of it all – and it isn’t ours; – which is why, perhaps, the critics got so cross.

Sunday, February 14, 2016

Geoffrey Kirk's book on the ordination of women

And here is another book, one which I have ordered and not yet read. But those who know Geoffrey Kirk or who have read his articles in New Directions over a 20 year period will be eager to purchase WITHOUT PRECEDENT, if only to be to be resourced for engagement with well meaning people (lay and ordained) whose view of New Testament and early Church history has been conditioned by the kind of influences that lie behind Dan Brown’s novels! 

ISBN: 9781498230810
Pages: 178
Publication Date: 2/5/2016
Retail Price: $21.00  (For special Web Price ($16.80 ) go HERE.

(UK readers are able to place advance orders with for £15.00 and free postage)

Though the ordination of women has been hotly debated in a number of churches (and in particular in the world-wide Anglican Communion) there has been a strange silence on the subject from academic theologians. “They have left the debate,” says the author of this book, “for the most part, to the also-rans.”

WITHOUT PRECEDENT seeks to examine the arguments that, in the absence of serious academic contributions, have been advanced. In particular it looks at claims of ancient precedent for modern practice. What did Jesus think about women? Was Paul a misogynist or a feminist, a reactionary or a revolutionary? Does the role of Mary of Magdala, in scripture and tradition, offer any guidance (as many have claimed)? Were there female priests, and even bishops, in early Christianity?

Extravagant claims have been made and repeated in all of these areas, and have crucially influenced decisions taken. This book provides, in the words of former Archbishop of Canterbury, Rowan Williams: “a lucid and helpful survey, which quite rightly punctures some awful historical nonsense.”

”I read it with appreciation for its clarity and comprehensiveness. It is undoubtedly a lucid and helpful survey, which quite rightly punctures some awful historical nonsense.”
- Rowan Williams, Master of Magdalen College Cambridge; former Archbishop of Canterbury

 “This elegant survey will no doubt cause quite a stir, and rightly so.” 
- Aidan Nichols, OP, Lecturer in Theology, Blackfriars, Cambridge; author The Panther and the Hind

“Disagree though I may with Geoffrey Kirk’s final position, I must strongly recommend this sparkling volume on women’s ordination to the priesthood. Dr. Kirk skillfully engages the pertinent Scriptural texts and historical record, and witheringly exposes the largely flabby arguments still making the rounds in church debate. Along the way, he uncovers logical missteps and conceptual failures that have littered the discussion. This is a book that will make reflection wiser and more honest, and finally, one hopes, more faithful to the integrity of our Christian common life.”
- Ephraim Radner, Professor of Historical Theology, Wycliffe College, Toronto

Saturday, February 13, 2016

"Fathers in God" - edited by Colin Podmore

Back in 2004, the book CONSECRATED WOMEN, an initiative of Forward in Faith, was published by Canterbury Press. It contained a theological response to the direction of the Church of England’s General Synod with regard to women bishops, and a useful appendix of several resource papers cogently arguing the case against the ordination of women in general. At the time CONSECRATED WOMEN was published, it already seemed certain that on the substantive issue, mainstream Catholics had lost in the General Synod. That's why the burden of the book was to argue the case for a jurisdictional structure within the Church of England for those who conscienciously held the innovation to be against the mind of the Church Catholic, of which the Church of England has always claimed to be part. The rest of CONSECRATED WOMEN was taken up with suggested detailed changes to Canon Law that would enable such a jurisdiction to become a reality.

Subsequently, a strictly jurisdictional solution was rejected by the Synod. Then followed Pope Benedict’s creation of the Ordinariate for clergy and “groups” who left the Church of England. In 2012, the legislation for women bishops came into being, supported by the five “declarations” which include a kind of provision for parishes and clergy who would otherwise feel that they had been “unchurched.” Subsequently, Forward in Faith, the Bishops of the Society of St Wilfrid and St Hilda, and - admittedly - some of the bishops on the other side of the debate, have worked hard to ensure a continued ecclesial life for Catholic Christians within the Church of England.

It would have been a great pity if the theological parts of CONSECRATED WOMEN had slipped into history, out of sight and out of mind, as they carefully relate the various arguments together in a way that is both positive and widely accessible. That is why the Church should be thankful to Dr Colin Podmore, Director of Forward in Faith, for editing FATHERS IN GOD, an excellent volume that incorporates those theological parts of CONSECRATED WOMEN (which had been edited by Bishop Jonathan Baker) as well as new articles and addresses by Emma Forward, Cardinal Kasper, Bishop Geoffrey Rowell, Dr Podmore and Bishop Martin Warner, with a foreword by the Bishop of Coventry.

There is a new generation in what are sometimes now called the “declaration” parishes. These people were not around for the theological debates of 20 to 30 years ago, and some want to know the reasons why their parish doesn’t have a woman bishop or priest. FATHERS IN GOD needs to be made widely available.

FATHERS IN GOD? is available from Forward in Faith. Go HERE for details.

The Kindle edition is available HERE.

Friday, February 12, 2016

Stations of the Cross booklet you can make at home

When I was the Parish Priest of Horsham - that is, the Horsham in Australia - I put together a user-friendly guide to Stations of the Cross, combining prayers, hymns and Scripture verses from a range of different sources. Nothing at all in it is original! But over the years it has been found useful with large crowds of people, small groups, and for individual meditation on the journey of Jesus to Calvary.

Thursday, February 11, 2016

Lent: A Sea of God’s Mercy (Catherine Doherty)

Catherine de Hueck Doherty in 1941

Catherine de Hueck Doherty (1896-1985), the foundress of Madonna House in Combermere, Canada, is among those whose causes for “official” sainthood are currently being worked on in Rome

She survived — and her love of God was tested and grew — through two World Wars, the Russian Revolution, and the Great Depression. She knew the pain of a broken marriage and the struggles of single parenthood. She knew the privileged life of aristocratic wealth, as well as the grinding poverty and uncertainty of a refugee.

Through it all, her faith in God and her love for him remained intact and led her to work with the poor in small, humble ways, forsaking material comforts in order to do so. Her work in social justice in both Canada and the United States eventually led to the establishment of Friendship House, and later the community called Madonna House.

You can read about Catherine Doherty, and the present ministry of Madonna House HERE

The passage below is from her book “Season of Mercy,” published by Madonna House Publications:

I was praying and it came to me that Lent is a sort of sea of God’s mercy. In my imagination Lent was warm and quiet and inviting for us to swim in. If we did swim in it, we would be not only refreshed but cleansed, for God’s mercy cleanses as nothing else does.

Then I thought of our reticence. I don’t know if it is reticence or fear to really plunge into God’s mercy. We really want to be washed clean; we want to be forgiven. But these desires meet with something else inside. I say to myself that if I do enter into the sea of mercy I will be healed, and then I will be bound to practice what Christ preaches, his law of love, which is painful, so terribly painful. There by that sea I stand and think: If I seek mercy I have to dish out mercy; I have to be merciful to others.

What does it mean to be merciful to others? It means to open my own heart, like a little sea, for people to swim in.

If we stand before God’s mercy and drink of it, it will mean that the Our Father is a reality, and not just a prayer that I say. “Our Father who art in heaven, hallowed be thy name. Thy kingdom come…” We like that part and have no problem saying it.

But then we come to: “Thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven…. Forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us.” We shake our heads and say, “Yes, it’s Lent; it’s true we should be forgiving everybody.” But we don’t like trespassers. If strangers come to use our beaches we will say to ourselves: What are they doing here? Why do they come to our beach? It’s not easy to make of one’s heart a little sea of mercy for the other.

We should also be listening to God’s will. But we think: Wait a second! “Thy will.” What does that mean?

It means many things. For instance somebody is thinking of entering a convent and they say, “Well, I don’t know; I’m afraid. Maybe I won’t measure up.” Silly people! Of course they won’t measure up, but God will measure up for them. If he calls them, he’ll give them the grace. As we look at the will of God—to go to a convent or to marry or to just live in the world in the conditions of today, to submit oneself to somebody else—our hackles rise up against authority. To submit to the will of God would be to put our toe in the sea of God’s mercy.

Lent relentlessly moves on and shows us who we are—our true identity as Christians, what it means to be Christian.

The mercy that we must give to others includes that of standing up for the poor, the lonely, those who have no education and cannot stand up for themselves. It means to engage in what we call social justice on behalf of our sister and brother. That involves opening ourselves to being pushed around and crucified. This always happens to those who stand up for others. Do we want to go into the sea of God’s mercy, to be washed clean so that we begin to do the things of Christ?

What is this Lent all about? It is to go into some strange and incredible depths of ourself and there to meet the sea of God’s mercy and swim in it, having shed all garments, garments of selfishness and fear.

Take for instance the fear of ridicule. Christ said to St. Francis, “I want you to be the greatest fool that anyone ever saw.” Did you ever stop to think what an absolute foolishness Christ is? It borders on idiocy, not mental idiocy, but a sort of passionate foolishness. Just think of a human being letting himself be crucified for someone else—in this case for the world. How high can the foolishness of love go? How deep, how wide? That’s the foolishness he wants us to assume.

There was a little Franciscan brother, Juniper, who used to play see-saw with children; people thought it funny for a man to do that. He did it specifically so that people would ridicule him. Lots of saints went about being ridiculed. The Russian urodivoi—fools for Christ—loved to open themselves to ridicule. They wanted to play the fool to atone for those who call Christ a fool.

Those are extremes of people falling in love with God so totally that they desire ridicule. But what about us? Are we going to allow Lent to give us the Holy Spirit’s immense gift of fortitude? It is a gift that is little spoken of and is neglected. Fortitude is courage, the courage of our convictions. Christ said, “Who is not with me is against me.”

Lent is here to remind us that the mercy of God is ours, provided we embrace his law of love; provided we realize that it’s going to hurt, and hurt plenty, but that the very hurting will be a healing. That is the paradox of God, that while you hurt, you heal. That’s true healing.

The sea of his mercy is open before us. Lent definitely and inexorably leads us to it and makes us think about what it takes to swim in it. Lent also reminds us that each of our hearts can be a sea of mercy and forgiveness to others. This is a very great shortcut to God’s heart.

Wednesday, February 10, 2016

Ash Wednesday and our healing

LENT begins today, ideally a subdued day on which we all go to church. During today's Mass the priest marks our foreheads with blessed ashes, saying: "Remember O man that you are dust, and to dust you will return."

These words are from the Genesis account of our creation and fall. The ceremony reminds us of the mortality and frailty of human life. Vanity and foolish pride are silenced by that terrible formula: "to dust you will return."

We're not trying to be gloomy! We are just facing facts. In her wisdom, the Church does not pretend, or let us pretend that we do not die. During Lent the Church makes us face up to the dysfunctionality of our relationship with God, and on Ash Wednesday she forces us to come to terms with the fact of our mortality . . . that one day we will die. But she also points to what God, in his love and compassion, has done for us.

Through the sin and the gloom a light shines - the light of Jesus, who came to give us "life in all its fullness" - and the Church points to that light. The very ashes placed on our foreheads, a symbol of the dissolution and decay of our material bodies, are, in the Anglican tradition, imposed in the form of the life-giving Cross where life conquered death and love conquered hatred.

There IS a way out of the shadows - the way of the Cross and Resurrection, to which we journey during Lent, the "healing time" par excellence of the Christian year.

So, dust and ashes we are . . . but not merely dust and ashes! In Jesus we partake in that new creation into which we are being transformed.

May God the Father, in his mercy, grant all of you,
like the prodigal Son,
the joy of returning home. Amen.

May Christ, our model of prayer and life,
guide you through this Lent
to true conversion of heart. Amen.

May the Spirit of wisdom and strength
sustain you in your struggle against evil,
and enable you to celebrate with Christ the victory of Easter. Amen.

May the blessing of God almighty,
the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit,
be amongst you, and remain with you always. Amen.