Friday, December 29, 2017

The Incarnation itself an act of Sacrifice (Michael Ramsey)

These beautiful words, from THE GOSPEL AND THE CATHOLIC CHURCH (p.21) by Michael Ramsey (1904-1988), the 100th Archbishop of Canterbury, remind us not to over-compartmentalise the aspects of the person and work of Christ

His selfhood is so laid down, that His power and authority centre in His humiliation. Such is the impression of the earthly life of Jesus. But this seIf-abandonment does not belong to that earthly life alone, for it is the expression in history of the self-giving of the eternal God. Saint Paul makes it clear that the first and great act of humiliation is the act whereby the Son of God is made man.

“Have this mind in you, which was also in Christ Jesus; who, being in the form of God, counted it not a prize to be on an equality with God, but emptied himself, taking the form of a servant, being made in the likeness of men; and being found in fashion as a man, he humbled himself, becoming obedient unto death, yea, the death of the cross.” (Phil. 2:5-7)

Thus, before the humiliations of the Messiah in His life and death upon earth, there is the divine self-emptying whereby He "came" and “was sent." For St. Paul the Incarnation is in itself an act of sacrifice than which none is greater; Christmas is as costly in self-giving as is Good Friday. Only the crucifixion is the deepest visible point of the divine self-giving which entered history at Bethlehem and which begins in heaven itself. "There was a Calvary above which was the mother of it all." #

# Here Ramsey quotes the Congregationalist P. T. Forsythe (1848-1921)

Monday, December 25, 2017

BY GRACE THINGS CAN BE BETTER - Archbishop Anthony Fisher's Christmas Homily

One of the truly great Christian leaders of our time is Anthony Fisher OP, Roman Catholic Archbishop of Sydney. In 1985 he entered the Dominicans, (the “Order of Preachers”), dedicated to preaching the Catholic faith in the context of a life of study, prayer and community. He studied for the priesthood in Melbourne, receiving an honours degree in Theology, having already received degrees in History and Law from the University of Sydney and practising law in a city firm. He gained a Doctorate in Bioethics at the University of Oxford, lectured at the Australian Catholic University and was an Adjunct Professor at The University of Notre Dame Australia. Archbishop Fisher has published extensively in bioethics and moral theology. He was the Foundation Director of the John Paul II Institute for Marriage and the Family in Melbourne, and served as Chaplain to the Parliament of Victoria. He became an Auxiliary Bishop in Sydney in 2003, Bishop of Parramatta in 2010, and Archbishop of Sydney in 2014.

Following is the homily Archbishop Fisher preached in St Mary's Cathedral, Sydney, on Christmas Day, 2017. It has been reproduced from the Sydney Catholic website.

Genealogy is all the rage. There are plenty of websites and search companies to help: some search birth and death, migration and marriage, council and electoral records for you; others even investigate your DNA. People construct family trees, join historical societies, organize big reunions. Europeans look for the blood of aristocrats or great historic figures in their veins, whereas Aussies hope to find a convict or bushranger in the family line! 

The first words of the New Testament are in fact “The genealogy of Jesus Christ, son of David, son of Abraham” and thereafter follows a long list of Jesus’ ancestors, often recited at the Christmas Masses before midnight (Mt 1:1-25). St Matthew sought thereby to highlight that the Baby born of Mary was indeed “of the Holy Spirit” but was also a real human being, with an extended family, history, culture and geography. His account picks and chooses a bit, as it traces 14 generations of ancestors between Abraham and David, when they became the royal family of Israel; 14 more until the exile, when they lost their position; and another 14 generations until kingship was definitively restored in Jesus Christ. Jesus is presented, then, as the cause and site for the reign of God. Make Him yours, make yourself His, as “God’s kingdom comes, on earth as it is in heaven”.

And so we meet the greats of Jewish history: Abraham, our Father in faith; the patriarchs Isaac and Jacob; the illustrious king David; Solomon the wise and Josiah the pious; the honourable Joseph and faithful Mary. Jesus is presented as the culmination of all that is best in our history, the patriarchs, prophets, priests, potentates and parents. It seems a rather European style of family tree, then, full of the great and good. Yet beneath the surface is a rather more Aussie-looking family gumtree: for Jesus’ tree is full of non-entities, and those whose names mean anything to us are a very mixed bunch indeed!

At the top of the tree are, of course, Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, later known as Israel. But Jacob, we know, conspired with his mother to trick his blind father and thus steal his place in the line from his brother Esau. He was conned in turn, taking the wrong girl for wife, and so fathered Judah. Judah was also tricked, in his case by his own daughter-in-law Tamar; having lost several husbands, most recently the infamous Onan, she played the harlot, lured Judah to her bed and so conceived Perez, her son and brother-in-law. Hearing his daughter-in-law was a pregnant lush, Judah ordered her execution, only to learn he was the father. So there’s a lot packed into an innocent-sounding line like “Isaac was the father of Jacob, Jacob the father of Judah and his brothers, Judah was the father of Perez and Zerah, Tamar being their mother.”

Drop a few lines down and we’re told “Salmon was the father of Boaz, Rahab being his mother. Boaz was the father of Obed, Ruth being his mother.” Again it sounds ordinary enough until we realize that grandma Rahab was another notorious prostitute who betrayed her own people to massacre. And as for Ruth, so determined was she to carry on the line that she slipped into Boaz’s bed though she was not his wife. But because the baby Obed was to be King David’s grandfather, all was forgiven as the family line wound its serpentine way towards Jesus. It seems that God can indeed “write straight with crooked lines”, working not just through the great and the good, but also despite and even through the not-so-good.

As the final report of the Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse recently revealed the shocking deeds of some clergy, religious and lay church-workers and inaction of some church leaders, we ache with shame and sorrow for the young people who were so terribly hurt; we rededicate ourselves to bringing such justice and healing to them as we can; and we resolve to do all in our power to ensure this is never repeated. But we are confronted yet again with the fact that there have been more-than-a-few rotten apples in our Church’s history, all the way back to Jesus and before, and more than a few failures of leadership. Ours is a family that needs periodic and radical renewal… a family that needs Christmas.

So much for Part One: Part Two of the genealogy turns out to be equally seedy. David is Jesus’ most famous ancestor, a shepherd-boy become king, poet-musician, slayer of giants, all-round great guy. But scratch the surface and you find a ruthless bandit who through various intrigues and murders secured power for his family. A voyeur, he had an affair with a married woman, murdered her husband, took her for his wife, and sired Solomon by her. Unsurprisingly, Solomon was no great example of “family values”: he took 700 princesses as wives and kept 300 commoners on the side as concubines!

No wonder he had so many descendants! But next in the line that stretches to Jesus is Rehoboam, a reprobate who introduced pagan rites and male prostitution into the Temple. The royal descendants continued thereafter as a most unseemly crew: idolaters, assassins, a mass murderer or two, even a wizard who engaged in child sacrifice, as well as more mundane examples of lust and ambition, greed and mismanagement… As our culture is riven by debates over life and love, and our politics all-too-often descends into fiasco, we might recall that God’s plan has often been worked out not just by the peace-loving and pure-hearted, but in polities and cultures muddled about values and led by the ruthless and irreligious…

So the line of Jesus carries forward, until we come at last to the sentimental story of Christmas, with angels, shepherds and kings, with fields, animals and manger, with mother, father and Babe (Luke 2:1-20). Yet even that romance is far from tidy: the mother is dogged by suspicion and snub; the angels sing of joy and peace even as Herod sets about killing the little children; the kings of earth shower gifts on the Babe, yet the family find no welcome at the inn and ultimately flee to Egypt. Their story echoes through the ages to our time, in which asylum-seekers, including desperate young men, pregnant women and newborn babies, still risk all in search of a safe inn. It resonates in the emotional complexities of Christmas for many, where families are hurting or bored, where someone is missed or would like to be. It resounds in our time in the terrorist killings of children this year in Manchester, Mogadishu and Manhattan, leaving populations grieving and terrified as in Bethlehem of old. And it echoes still today in Bethlehem, where high concrete security walls and check points confront residents and pilgrims alike… When I was there recently I saw a painting on the wall of a white peace dove wearing a flack-jacket and jailhouse graffiti saying “Make hummus not walls”.

The Christmas story, then, has everything. All human life is there, gathered around the cradle of a Child: light and dark, joys and heart-breaks, hopes and fears, angels and devils. And so the patriarchs are there beside the three kings, the nobodies and worse with the shepherds, all attending this Vigil in search of hope, good will, peace. If you are ever disappointed with your family, your country, your Church: that some lack faith or don’t practice what they preach; or if there’s mental illness, addiction or abuse, feuding, promiscuity or poor communication; if there’s financial stress or work stress, cooling passion or too much passion: whatever it is, rather than imagining you and yours are uniquely cursed, remember it was all there, and worse, in Jesus’ own family tree. Rather than the perfect, Jesus came to join a family just like yours; indeed, yours is the very family He connects with this Christmas.

But Jesus joins you this Christmas not to say that sin and sadness are all there is, that human beings are doomed to be mired in such things, and the best He can offer is to stand beside you. No, God-made-Baby says that by grace things can be better: humanity can be united to divinity and transformed by it. A new page is turned today; a new start given. The genealogy of Jesus Christ, Son of David, Son of Abraham continues: for of Him was born the Church and onto that family are grafted all the baptised and our hopes for every person.

* * * * * * * * * * * *
Word of Thanks after the Mass of the Day of the Lord's Nativity St Mary's Cathedral, Sydney Thanks to all those who contributed to today’s beautiful celebration of the Lord’s Nativity, especially our deacons. Our Dean Fr Don Richardson, Master of Ceremonies Fr Emmanuel Seo, Precinct Manager Helen Morassut and Sacristan Chris Backhouse, and their teams of celebrants and confessors, acolytes and servers, extraordinary ministers and lectors, ushers, staff and volunteers, ensure that our liturgical and devotional life are worthy and our cathedral always welcoming. Our Director of Music, Thomas Wilson, and our wonderful choir and organists, let us glimpse the glory of God in the highest and the harmonies possible amongst people of good will. Many others assist in the daily life of this great cathedral and I thank them all.

Some of you are regulars here; others less frequent; some visitors from overseas, from other parishes, even from other faith traditions. Please know that you are always welcome in this basilica and the other churches of Sydney. The God whose family tree has room for everyone wants you to be grafted onto his family, especially through acts of worship and then action to make our world a more just and loving place.

On behalf of all of us at St Mary’s Cathedral I wish you and your loved ones every blessing of this holy season of Christmas and of the New Year of Grace 2018.

Wednesday, December 20, 2017

Saying "Yes" to God

For some years, the logo used by the Anglican Shrine of Our Lady of Walsingham had embedded in it the words, "Say Yes to God." It was in every Walsingham Review, and turned up on everything else they published.

As part of our preparation for the celebration of the birth of Jesus, the Church reflects today on the coming of the angel to Mary and Mary’s “Yes”. Saying “Yes” to God is sometimes very hard. We are apprehensive, fearful, and worried that stepping out in faith and obedience will have disastrous consequences, humanly speaking. Well, the bad news is that sometimes it does!  It can mean sacrifice, pain, misunderstanding, and cruel opposition from those closest to us, as Jesus himself predicted.

Mary uttered her "yes" at a cruel and difficult time in Middle Eastern history. St Luke’s Gospel tells us that Mary was “greatly troubled” at the angel’s greeting. But it also tells us that “the angel said to her, ‘Do not be afraid, Mary . . .’” It is a recurring pattern in the  Scriptures, that when a new epoch of salvation history is about to begin, God reveals himself in a special way, and this revelation is accompanied with an encouragement not to be afraid.

Mary is our hero. As Wordsworth put it, she is “Our sinful nature’s solitary boast.” She became the Mother of Jesus. She is our Sister in Christ. She is the Mother of all her Son’s people. We seek her intercession as we so often struggle in our response to God’s love. 

But, while we recognise Mary's unique role in the story of salvation, we don't see her as being APART from us and our experience of grace. Indeed, her life of saying "yes" to God is the primordial Christian life of discipleship. The Gospel account strongly emphasises that God's work in her life - the fulness of grace she had been given - did not mean that she was free from having to exercise sometimes trembling faith in God’s promises just as we do. She really WAS “greatly troubled.” 

There has been nearly two thousand years of Christian meditation of the way that her “Yes” to God, began the great reversal of all that had gone wrong through the “No” uttered by Eve, the mother of all the living.  From this angle Mary is known as the “second Eve” or the “new Eve”, the mother of all who have been brought to life by the dying and rising of her Son.

May each of us be moved to "Say yes to God" afresh, not just for ourselves, but so as to become - like Mary - channels of his healing love for others.

It is in connection with these thoughts that I share with you the amazing crayon and coloured pencil drawing at the top of this post. Originally drawn to illustrate a Christmas card, it is the work of Trappist Sister Grace Remington of the Sisters of the Mississippi Abbey. In 2005 Abbess Columba Guare of the same community wrote this poem to accompany the drawing. Mary addresses Eve with hope and gladness:

O Eve!
My mother, my daughter, life-giving Eve,
Do not be ashamed, do not grieve.
The former things have passed away,
Our God has brought us to a New Day.
See, I am with Child,
Through whom all will be reconciled.
O Eve! My sister, my friend,
We will rejoice together
Life without end.

Also capturing the immensity of our Lady's fiat is this passage from today's Office of Readings. It comes from a sermon of St Bernard (1090-1153):

"You have heard, O Virgin, that you will conceive and bear a son; you have heard that it will not be by man but by the Holy Spirit. The angel awaits an answer; it is time for him to return to God who sent him. We too are waiting, O Lady, for your word of compassion; the sentence of condemnation weighs heavily upon us.

"The price of our salvation is offered to you. We shall be set free at once if you consent. In the eternal Word of God we all came to be, and behold, we die. In your brief response we are to be remade in order to be recalled to life.

"Tearful Adam with his sorrowing family begs this of you, O loving Virgin, in their exile from Paradise. Abraham begs it, David begs it. All the other holy patriarchs, your ancestors, ask it of you, as they dwell in the country of the shadow of death. This is what the whole earth waits for, prostrate at your feet. 

"It is right in doing so, for on your word depends comfort for the wretched, ransom for the captive, freedom for the condemned, indeed, salvation for all the sons of Adam, the whole of your race.

"Answer quickly, O Virgin. Reply in haste to the angel, or rather through the angel to the Lord. Answer with a word, receive the Word of God. Speak your own word, conceive the divine Word. Breathe a passing word, embrace the eternal Word.

"Why do you delay, why are you afraid? Believe, give praise, and receive. Let humility be bold, let modesty be confident. This is no time for virginal simplicity to forget prudence. In this matter alone, O prudent Virgin, do not fear to be presumptuous. Though modest silence is pleasing, dutiful speech is now more necessary. Open your heart to faith, O blessed Virgin, your lips to praise, your womb to the Creator. See, the desired of all nations is at your door, knocking to enter. If he should pass by because of your delay, in sorrow you would begin to seek him afresh, the One whom your soul loves. Arise, hasten, open. Arise in faith, hasten in devotion, open in praise and thanksgiving.

"Behold, the handmaid of the Lord, she says, be it done to me according to your word." 

Ex Homilíis sancti Bernárdi abbátis in Láudibus Vírginis Matris (Hom. 4, 8-9: Opera omnia, Edit. Cisterc. 4 [1966], 53-54)

Tuesday, December 19, 2017

Geoffrey Rowell on the Oxford Movement and the modern English celebration of Christmas

The title page of the first edition of A CHRISTMAS TALE, by Charles Dickens (1843)

This article, published in HISTORY TODAY on 21st December, 1993, was written by Geoffrey Rowell (1943-2017), who was at the time Fellow, Chaplain and Tutor in Theology at Keble College, Oxford. He eventually became the Church of England Bishop of Europe. Widely renowned as a specialist in 19th century Church history in general, and the Oxford Movement in particular, Geoffrey Rowell was a loving and orthodox bishop, and a member of The Society of St Wilfred and St Hilda. In this article he gives us a fascinating thumbnail sketch of the modern English observance of Christmas, emphasising the role of the Oxford Movement in its development.

The entire article is well worth reading. I share with you here just a few paragraphs on the special Christmas celebrations at Dr Pusey's church, St Saviour's Leeds:

Although Christmas was a time of festivity its church celebration in the nineteenth century owed much to the Oxford Movement. A significant feature of the concerns of the Tractarians was the revival and enrichment of the Prayer Book forms of service, and a proper observance of the seasons and festivals of the church calendar. It was no accident that John Keble's influential book of poems of 1827 entitled The Christian Year, providing verses and meditations on the Prayer Book services and on the Sundays and holy days observed by the Church of England. At St Saviour's, the church built by Dr Pusey in the slums of Leeds, a midnight Eucharist was celebrated on Christmas Eve in contrast to Leeds Parish Church where W.F. Hook had begun a mid- night Eucharist on New Year's Eve, as an Anglican response to Methodist watch-night services. J.H. Pollen, who served as a curate in the parish, wrote of the St Saviour's Christmas in 1849. The church was decked with boughs, banners and flowers:

". . . Large brass candelabra were placed before the altar full of lights; three tapers were put in the place of one in the sconces of the chancel; red hangings on the walls, a rich carpet on the floor, flowers on the altar screen, a white embroidered altar frontal.

". . . The Evensong was at nine with a meditative Sermon. At twelve, the Eucharist was celebrated and a Sermon preached on the mystery of the Incarnation. The Church was lighted, and before the Service the whole choir proceeded round the Church two and two, singing the hymn –

"Ye faithful, approach ye,
Joyfully triumphing,
O come ye, O come ye to Bethlehem."

(The unfamiliar opening of 'O come, all ye faithful', is from the translation of Adeste fideles made by Frederick Oakeley in 1841 for use at the Margaret Chapel in London.)

St Saviour’s also laid on a Christmas feast:

"Here was a vast tree fifteen feet high, all covered with lights, and hung with pictures, lolly-pops, 'spaice whistles', [i.e. barley-sugar whistles], ... On the steps at the end, a rough picture ... of a 'Presepio' (i.e. a nativity scene) was covered round with green boughs, and lighted up.

"Hostile observers were to misinterpret this picture as implying the worship of 'Adam and Eve' or 'Cain and Abel'. The 'Presepio', or nativity scene anticipates the Christmas 'crib', a custom going back to Francis of Assisi, which began to appear in English churches in the later nineteenth century. So accepted has this become that the word 'crib', which originally meant the 'manger' or 'rack' in a stable, and then a child's bed, is now used simply to refer to the representation in churches at Christmas of the birth of Christ at Bethlehem."

Bishop Geoffrey Rowell (1943-2017)

Thursday, December 14, 2017

St John of the Cross - Poet of God's Love

Today the Church gives thanks to the Lord for Juan de Yepes, known to us as St John of the Cross, who was born in Spain in 1542. From the beginning of his life he understood the mystery of love and sacrifice. His father, from a wealthy Spanish family, was disowned and disinherited when he married the daughter of a poor weaver. Then, just after John was born his father died. John’s mother, utterly destitute, managed to keep her homeless family together as they wandered in search of work. When he was fourteen, John got a job in a hospital, looking after patients who suffered from incurable diseases and madness.

So, it was in the context of poverty and suffering that he sought to know God. 

In 1563 John took the habit of the Carmelite friars in Medina. The following year he was professed and went to the University in Salamanca to study arts and theology. In 1567 he was ordained to the priesthood, and in the same year Teresa of Avila asked him to help her Reform movement. John supported her belief that the order should return to its life of prayer. 

But many Carmelites and their sympathisers felt threatened by the Reform, and on 2nd December 1577 some members of John’s own order kidnapped him. At the Toledo priory he was locked in a cell six feet wide and ten feet long for nine months, with no light except that which filtered through a slit high up in the wall. During those months of darkness, John could have become bitter, vengeful, or filled with despair at the rejection of his ministry. But instead, he remained open to God, knowing that there was not a prison anywhere that could separate him from God’s love. During this time he had many experiences and encounters with the Lord in prayer. He described them in his poetry. He later forgave those who had imprisoned him, saying, “Where there is no love, put love, and you will find love.” 

After nine months, in 1578, John escaped by unscrewing the lock on his door and creeping past the guard. Taking only the spiritual poetry he had written in his cell, he climbed out a window using a rope made of strips of blankets. With no idea where he was, he followed a dog to civilization. He hid from pursuers in a convent infirmary where he read his poetry to the nuns. He went to southern Spain to join the reformed Carmelites, and devoted his life to helping people discover the transformative power of God’s love. 

The best known of his books are: The Ascent of Mount Carmel, The Dark Night of the Soul and A Spiritual Canticle of the Soul and the Bridegroom Christ. He is regarded as a great spiritual guide in the Catholic tradition, understanding the reality of God's love in the human experience of light as well as darkness. He is also regarded as a significant Spanish poet. 

St John of the Cross died at the age of 49 on 14th December 1591 at Ubeda as he was preparing for assignment to Mexico. He was canonised in 1726 by Pope Benedict XIII, and is a Doctor of the Church.

Here are a few of his sayings:

“If a man wishes to be sure of the road he treads on, he must close his eyes and walk in the dark.” (From The Dark Night of the Soul)

“In the evening of life, we will be judged on love alone.” (From Sayings of Light and Love 64)

“It is great wisdom to know how to be silent and to look at neither the remarks, nor the deeds, nor the lives of others.” (From Sayings of Light and Love 110)

“In tribulation immediately draw near to God with confidence, and you will receive strength, enlightenment, and instruction.” (From Sayings of Light and Love 64)

O living flame of love
that tenderly wounds my soul
in its deepest centre! Since
now you are not oppressive,
now consummate! if it be your will:
tear through the veil of this sweet encounter!

O sweet cautery,
O delightful wound!
O gentle hand! O delicate touch
that tastes of eternal life
and pays every debt!
In killing you changed death to life. 

O lamps of fire!
in whose splendours
the deep caverns of feeling,
once obscure and blind,
now give forth, so rarely, so exquisitely,
both warmth and light to their Beloved.

How gently and lovingly
you wake in my heart,
where in secret you dwell alone;
and in your sweet breathing,
filled with good and glory,
how tenderly you swell my heart with love. 

My Beloved is like the mountains.
Like the lonely valleys full of woods
The strange islands
The rivers with their sound
The whisper of the lovely air!

The night, appeased and hushed
About the rising of the dawn
The music stilled
The sounding solitude
The supper that rebuilds my life.
And brings me love.

Our bed of flowers
Surrounded by the lions’ dens
Makes us a purple tent,
Is built of peace.
Our bed is crowned with a thousand shields of gold!

Fast-flying birds
Lions, harts and leaping does*
Mountains, banks and vales
Streams, breezes, heats of day
And terrors watching in the night:

By the sweet lyres and by the siren’s song
I conjure you: let angers end!
And do not touch the wall

But let the bride be safe: let her sleep on!

Go HERE to read the entire poem.

Wednesday, December 13, 2017

St Lucy's Day

Festa di S. Lucia

Today the Church honours St Lucy. She was a young virgin martyr in Syracuse, Sicily, born in 283 A.D. and put to death in 304, during the  Diocletian  persecution.  She was, according to legend, tortured by eye-gouging and so is the patron saint of all those who suffer with eye trouble or blindness. Excavation in Syracuse revealed a tomb dating to the 4th century with an inscription that it belonged to St Lucy. (Her relics were removed hundreds of years after her death and are believed now to be in Venice). 

Beyond this, little factual information is known about St Lucy. Her name, “Lucia” in Italian, is seems to be derived from the Latin “Lux”, or “light.” The earliest known written information about her story is from the late 400s Acts of the Martyrs, which indicates that St Lucy was already venerated by that time. By the 6th century, legends about her had spread throughout Italy and other parts of Europe. Although the stories vary, their common theme is that St Lucy dedicated herself to Christ and to serving the poor, which angered the non-Christian man to whom she was betrothed. He denounced her as a Christian to the authorities, who then attempted first to drag her to a brothel and then, when they could not physically move her, to burn her – which was also a failure. Ultimately, they ended St Lucy’s life with a dagger or sword to her throat.

It is also said that St Lucy, in the darkness of night, gave wheat and bread to the poor and house-bound, even to Christians staying in the catacombs. She would carry a lamp or wear a crown of candles to light her way. Hence the lamp and wreath of candles among the her symbols. 

One thing is certain. St Lucy gave her life to the Lord and and his people. Her courage and devotion were acclaimed in the early Church, and she is one of the women saints in the old Roman Canon of the Mass.

Here is Thomas Merton’s poem for St Lucy’s Day:

Lucy, whose day is in our darkest season,
(Although your name is full of light,)
We walkers in the murk and rain and flesh and sense,
Lost in the midnight of our dead world’s winter solstice
Look for the fogs to open on your friendly star.

We have long since cut down the summer of our history;
Our cheerful towns have all gone out like fireflies in October.
The fields are flooded and the vines are bare:
How have our long days dwindled, and now the world is frozen!

Locked in the cold jails of our stubborn will,
Oh, hear the shovels growling in the gravel.
This is the way they’ll make our beds forever,
Ours, whose Decembers have put out the sun:
Doors of whose souls are shut against the summertime!

Martyr, whose short day sees our winter and our Calvary,
Show us some light, who seem forsaken by the sky;
We have so dwelt in darkness that our eyes are screened
and dim,
And all but blinded by the weakest ray.

Hallow the vespers and December of our life, O
martyred Lucy:
Console our solstice with your friendly day.

Thursday, December 7, 2017

St Ambrose and the Call of God - a sermon by Fr Alexander Men (1935-1990)

Today is when the Church commemorates the great Bishop, St Ambrose of Milan. So, I share with you a sermon on him preached by Father Alexander Men (1935-1990) an influential parish priest and evangelist in Russia who wrote, lectured widely, and eventually appeared on radio and television, becoming a nationally known figure. He started the first Russian Sunday-school as soon as the communist persecution ceased, established a university, made a film, and started volunteer work at a children’s hospital. He personally baptized thousands, and though he had a huge following of ordinary people he was called “the apostle to the intellectuals.”

He was assassinated in 1990.

You can go to a website dedicated to him HERE. Of particular note is the article by Irina Yaziova We are Moving into an Age of Love summarising his life and work.

Here is Father Men's sermon on St Ambrose of Milan, taken from the Russian Orthodox website 

In the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit!

In earlier times it was customary that a bishop would be chosen for his ministry by his own flock, by the people of the Church themselves, and only thereafter would his consecration – that is, his ordination – take place in church.

Once in ancient Italy, in the city of Milan – which was then called Mediolanum ­– the head of the local Church died and elections for a new bishop began. As with all elections, this was a tumultuous assembly. For several days there were disputes, with first one person being put forward and then another. Opinions were divided among people and clashes even broke out between disputants. Then, in order to maintain peace in the sizeable crowd, the local prefect or chief of police was called in. He was a just and kind man, well known in the city, who had not yet been baptized. As was then the custom, he belonged to the catechumenate – that is, he was preparing for baptism – although he was already in his fourth decade of life.

This chief of police, whose name was Ambrose, came to church to restore order during the tumultuous and noisy disputes about the election of the bishop. Then suddenly, during the discussion of the candidates, someone cried out (perhaps it was a wag or a child): “Ambrose will be bishop!” The crowd went silent for a moment, and then everyone cried out; both the clergy and the people turned to this Ambrose.

The entire Church of Mediolanum unanimously decided that this very person, who did not have a theological education and was not yet baptized, should be their bishop. He himself, of course, was very confused and bewildered: he had never prepared for ecclesiastical duties and had long put off his own baptism, but he took this as God’s calling and obeyed the people’s will. As if through the mouth of that child or anonymous person who had cried out his name, the Lord called him: “Ambrose, follow Me!” He accepted unwaveringly and within a few days was baptized and then, a few days after that, was entrusted with his omophorion from the bishops, becoming the Bishop of Milan or Mediolanum.

Many, many centuries have since passed, and the Church holds sacred the memory of Ambrose of Milan. Today we are celebrating his feast day, inasmuch as he was numbered among the ranks of the saints.

He was a great man of the Church: he was an organizer, a steward, and a remarkable poet who composed church hymns. According to tradition, the famous hymn we sing during the moleben, “We praise Thee, O God,” was composed by Ambrose of Milan. He also wrote commentaries on the Holy Scriptures for us.

It was then the practice to baptize everyone on Pascha, for which people prepared throughout Great Lent. Each day Ambrose sat in church, where those preparing for baptism gathered, and read the Bible to them from beginning to end, explaining the meaning of the word of God. Scribes recorded his talks, and these formed the many books of St. Ambrose of Milan.

You see what an enormous step he took from unbaptized chief of police to bishop, holy hierarch, and later saint of the Universal Church! Why did it happen this way? Because he accepted that call as the voice of God. Each of us often hears the voice of God in our lives, but we neither hear nor listen to it. We rarely reflect on how to act, what to do, where to go, to whom to turn; we waver and fool around, while life passes by and time runs out. But we must always be attentive to the Lord, in order to say to him: “I’m listening to You, I’m coming! Tell me, Lord, which path to take!”

If you are visited by illness or grief, this is God’s call to patience. If the person next to you is experiencing difficulties, this is also God’s call. If you make the choice whether to act basely or nobly, this is also clearly God’s call. If you wake up in the morning, as if risen from the deathly sleep of night, then God is calling you to labor this morning.

Strive to reflect on the events and circumstances of your life, to look back on the years that have gone by, and you will see how often the Lord has called us. But we have not responded: we have continued to doze and to walk through life half asleep, not giving thought to how we are living or why we are laboring. God’s voice is quiet and seemingly inaudible; yet, at the same time, if we are attentive, it is powerful, calling each of us by our names, reproaching our conscience, strengthening us, and saying to us in difficult times: “Fear not, I am with you.”

Today we heard the Gospel reading about the healing of the leper. Leprosy was a terrible disease, which we only recently learned how to treat. Even one hundred years ago it was untreatable. There were islands to which the sick were taken and cast to the mercy of fate. They lived there, rotting alive, losing their fingers and ears. Frightful to behold and abandoned, devastated both spiritually and morally, they lived in huts like animals.

Ships on which missionaries were travelling to preach the word of God to savages and heathens sometimes passed by these islands. On one of these ships was a very young priest from Belgium, Damien de Veuster, who was not much more than twenty years old. He had also gone to preach the Gospel to the pagans, but when he learned that there was an island nearby where people lived as though in hell, he could not go any further. He felt that God’s voice was calling him. He left his ship and stayed on that island forever. And he, as they say, raised these people from the dead: he got them to build houses, he built them a church, and he raised their spirits. They began to live like human beings. This island was transformed, its life becoming completely different, although he himself caught leprosy and died. But he had done his duty!

Thus, God’s voice calls us in the most unexpected moments. We might think about and await one thing, but find another. We might begin building our plans in one way, but if the Lord calls us, then let His will be accomplished! Do not forget those words from the “Our Father” – few in words but great in meaning – that to us are immortal and precious: “Thy will be done!” Amen.

Fr Alexander Men

Wednesday, December 6, 2017

Thinking about St Nicholas

Here are some thoughts for St Nicholas' Day. Of course, St Nicholas is more than topical in the lead-up to Christmas. But his loving witness to the Gospel in a hostile environment is a great example for us today. (The following was preached at the invitation of Canon Andrew Stevens SSC, Vicar of St Nicholas Plumstead, at that parish's Feast of Title in 2015.) 

It is a great privilege to be here in this ancient Parish Church of St Nicholas. Coming from Australia where buildings that have stood for 150 years are considered “old” it is a bit overwhelming to know that in the oldest part of this building - just there - worship has been offered to the Lord much as we are doing today since 960 AD! For all that time, this church has been a beacon witnessing to the Gospel and the Catholic Faith.

Being under his heaveny patronage, you probably know everything there is to know about St Nicholas. Nevertheless, today I want to look at aspects of his life and witness, and see how they speak to us in our time. 

We are told that Nicholas was born somewhere between 265 and 280 AD into a wealthy Christian family in Patara, a small village near the coastal city of Myra, in modern day Turkey, which was a centre for the worship of the Roman God, Diana. Nicholas’ family were probably merchants trading with the ships that visited the nearby port. The Church community in Myra dated back 200 years to when St Paul had passed through as a prisoner on his way to Rome. He is said to have preached there. It’s a tribute to our ancient brothers and sisters that despite all their hardships this local Church that had been planted during the apostolic age was still going strong 200 years later when Nicholas was born.

An only child, he grew up knowing and loving the Lord. He grew up knowing the Gospel of God’s love. He grew up familiar with the Scriptures, and joining in singing the Psalms in Church. He grew up with the ancient Christian conviction that whenever his Church family gathered for the Eucharist (as we have gathered here today) they were all swept into the worship of heaven and made part of the movement of love from Jesus to the Father in the eternal Spirit. Of course, even at that stage, they would still have been going to Mass in a large house – perhaps even the house of Nicholas’ parents? - (except for those occasions when they gathered at the local cemetery as a way of celebrating the resurrection).

But even after 200 years it wasn’t easy for them to be Christians. It was dangerous. We know that a few years before Nicholas was born, some Church members in Myra were viciously killed by the authorities for refusing to offer sacrifice to the Roman gods. Nicholas grew up fully aware of how risky it was to be a Christian. But along with his family and their closest friends, he also grew up understanding persecution as a real sharing in the sufferings of Jesus, making their own pain and trials redemptive (1 Peter 4:13).

So, nurtured in a real relationship with the Lord from childhood, Nicholas wanted to live for Jesus. He resisted the temptations available to the affluent in Roman society - money, sex, and politicking for power. The Lord’s hand was on his life, and he knew it. His heart was open to God. His thinking was shaped by Gospel truth. He was one of those saints who never strayed. From childhood he was noted for his holiness, and his love for God was seen, even then, in the Christlike compassion with which he treated others.

Sadly, his parents died in an outbreak of plague when he was still in his teens. So Nicholas was alone. You might say that he was well set up due to his large inheritance. But even in that respect his holiness shone through. Rather than squander his inheritance like the Prodigal Son, or develop a lavish lifestyle of business and financial investment as many would have done, he prayed so as to know how he should give both his life and his resources to the Lord.

In Roman society at the time, it was usual for people to look after their own families, but not to care very much about anyone else. Historians tell us that the early Christian communities deeply shocked those around them by caring indiscriminately for the needy, whoever they were, including those rejected by society, such as prisoners, widows, and orphans. 

We tend to look back on previous times through the lens of our own values which, in fact, have been formed largely by the Gospel. Hence our shock when we discover some of the real differences between the ancient world at its best, and our culture, even in its post-Christian guise. In a filmed interview with John Dickson, the eminent historian Edwin Judge recently explained why ancient Greeks and Romans could never have approved of “compassion” and why modern Westerners do; why Stoic “courtesy” (the high point of Greco-Roman morality) is a world apart from Christian “love and charity”, and how the contemporary West is a bit like Christianity’s overconfident “teenage son”, inescapably made in the family likeness but rebellious and certain his parents have given him nothing.)

It is significant in the light of that that our culture still celebrates the way Nicholas took seriously the call of Jesus to care sacrificially for others, whoever they were and whatever they believed. This kind of giving, inspired by the Gospel, nurtured among the early Christians and personified in St Nicholas made a huge impact in a culture of patronage that knew nothing of anonymous gifts, and in which if a wealthy benefactor helped someone, the receiver would be obligated for life. Clearly some of the stories about Nicholas and his giving are legendary, but the reason they have come to us is because of the impact of his life and ministry.

When Nicholas was a young man a particularly cruel and well-organised persecution of Christians took place under the Roman emperor Diocletian, who needed a scapegoat to blame for the empire’s economic recession. Nicholas seems to have been studying for the priesthood at the time when the Bishop of Myra was killed. One night in 295 AD, the senior bishops from around that region gathered in prayer to seek the will of God, and as a result Nicholas was chosen, consecrated and became one of the youngest bishops ever in the Church, a man of the people and a man of God, who ministered according to the example of loving humility seen in Jesus. 

Not long after his consecration, he was arrested, put in prison, beaten and tortured. It was common in those days to blind the right eye of a Christian prisoner and cut the sinews of his left ankle. Nicholas bore these scars of his torture for Jesus, even though he was not called to martyrdom. And for much of the time he was Bishop of Myra, Christians were still a hated minority, suffering abuse at the hands of violent mobs and being persecuted at the Emperor’s whim. 

Then under the Emperor Constantine, a great change took place. Christianity went almost overnight from being a despised minority to the most influential religion of the Empire. But the Church had its problems. In 325 Constantine called together the Council of Nicaea, three hundred or so bishops, who gathered for discussion and debate. Picture that meeting. You have to use your imagination when reading Church history. It wasn’t like a meeting of modern bureaucratic bishops with the photocopier in the corner! Many of those present were bent-over elderly men, with eyes and even limbs missing because of the persecution they had been through. And they debated with vigour. (It is even said that Nicholas slapped the heretic Arius in the face!)  Of course, the real issue at Nicaea was whether Jesus really is God in the flesh, or just a slightly more inspired version of you and me with a “deep spirituality.” The Council affirmed the Gospel truth about who Jesus is, and that’s why it is so important. 

Nicholas died in the 330s.

We are literally part of the same body of Christ as St Nicholas - as well as of those countless others who make up the great cloud of witnesses surrounding us and joining us at the altar today. We have been baptized in the same Baptism, plunged into the dying and rising of Jesus so as to live his risen life. We have been anointed with the same Holy Spirit in Confirmation, and nourished with the very same Body and Blood of Christ in the Eucharist, the Sacrament of his Love. We have been formed by the same Word of God in Scripture.

And if St Nicholas lived in dangerous times when the Faith was under attack from several directions, so do we. You don’t need me to tell you that. 

But St Nicholas did what St Paul said to do in Ephesians 6. He put on the breastplate of righteousness, he shod his feet with the Gospel of peace, he buckled on the shield of faith, he put on the helmet of salvation, and he took up firmly the sword of the Spirit, which is the Word of God, praying at all times “in the Spirit”, and persevering against all the odds. The whole armour of God enabled St Nicholas and all the holy ones down through the ages to live in the victory of Jesus over the principalities, powers, and rulers of the darkness of this present age.

The challenges we face today include: 

radical secularism and its desire to expunge the Gospel even from our cultural memory, 

an epidemic crumbling of relationships – in families, neighbourhoods, and even Church communities – and the resulting loneliness and isolation that is fast becoming normal all around us. 

the constant temptation to abandon the Faith of Jesus, the Faith that comes to us from the apostles . . . and, sadly, today this temptation comes not just from our secular society, but also from certain quarters within the Church itself. 

And there IS religious persecution . . . the real persecution and even martyrdom that so many of our brothers and sisters in Christ in different parts of the world suffer at the hands of violent extremists. Will the same thing happen to us or to our children . . . in the next generation or the one after? Who knows! What we DO know is that the whole amour of God will avail for us as it did for St Nicholas, and as it has for our brothers and sisters over the last 2000 years.

May Our Lady, St. Nicholas and all the saints in that great multitude that no man can number pray for us, so that we, too, will have the grace to thrive in the struggle, to withstand in the evil day, and having done all, to stand, to bear witness to God’s truth – the only truth that sets us free, and to keep loving with the love that has been poured into our hearts by the Holy Spirit.

Lord Jesus Christ, 
reigning in the glory of heaven, 
living in the hearts of your people, 
and truly present in the Blessed Sacrament, 
we thank you for making us your people 
and drawing us into your love.

We thank you for all the blessings you give us 
to strengthen us 
as we journey through this life. 

Lord Jesus, our Eternal and merciful King, 
Word made Flesh, 
you came among us in great humility, 
you gave us healing and new life, 
you died on the cross and rose victorious from the dead.

Lord, you are our Eucharistic King, 
foretold by the prophets, 
in whom, with the Father and the Holy Spirit we are one. 
Your Kingdom is not from this world. 
You are the Beginning and the End, 
the Alpha and the Omega, 
who will come upon the clouds of Heaven 
with Power and Great Glory. 
Reign in our hearts. 

Lord Jesus, whose Throne of Grace, 
we are to approach with confidence, 
who, hanging on the cross, 
gave your Mother Mary to be our Mother also, 
you desire to heal us of division and disunity, 
you pour out the Holy Spirit upon your people, 
you send the Holy Angels to protect us. 

Lord Jesus,
before whom every knee shall bow, 
whose reign will never end. 
Reign in our hearts. 
Reign in your Church. 
Reign in this parish of St Nicholas.

Holy Mary, 
Saint Nicholas and all the Saints  
Pray for us.