Wednesday, May 16, 2018

Inspiration for Mary's Month of May

There are a couple of blogs I look at every day. One of them is that of Father John Hunwicke, now a priest of the Ordinariate of Our Lady of Walsingham. He continues to produce the Church Union Ordo - the most reliable ordo available for both Anglicans and Roman Catholics. A few days ago he told us on his blog that he recently made a bonfire of some old homilies, but decided to give this one from 2011 “a last outing” on the blog. He serialised it. I put the bits together so as to share it with you as one piece. It is a wonderful reflection for Mary’s Month of May.

The photograph above is the shrine of Our Lady at the side of the Rood Screen in my parish Church of All Saints, Benhilton (Sutton). It is such a blessing to see how many parishioners pray at this Shrine.

In lots of places, in the old days, there was a custom of fixing a card to the Paschal Candle giving some dates and times. This year (i.e. 2011) the ‘Charta’ would have told you that it was the 1978th year since the Lord’s Death and Resurrection; the 2011th since his Birth; and also the 2025th since the Birth of the Blessed Virgin Mary. Tot it up: you’ll see that, according to tradition, our Blessed Lady was 14 when she became God’s Mother. There’s a picture I find very moving - of a little girl, not much more than a child herself, leaning over the cradle of her baby Son, and murmuring the first endearments that a mother utters to the little thing that was part of her own body only minutes ago ... bonding, as they call it. And, as Divine Baby grew into Divine Toddler, I think we can actually put our finger on some of the things Mary said to her Son. The official language of that time was Greek, but I think that mothers and babies and people in bedrooms and kitchens used, in Palestine, a different languge: Aramaic. I don’t think I have much doubt about one word Mary used to our blessed Lord. Imagine him - sitting in whatever sort of high chair they used to feed toddlers in. I think what Mary said was what most parents say: “Open wide”. The little mouth opens, and one deftly manoeuvres the spoonful in before it shuts again. And the Aramaic for “Open wide” is Ephphatha. And so, when years later the Redeemer was healing a mute, S Mark tells us that he slipped from talking Greek into Aramaic and said “Ephphatha”.

And I think I know another Aramaic word that Mary said to her Saviour. It was while she was teaching him his prayers and telling him about God the Father. She taught him to call God “Abba”; which some philologists translate as “Daddy”. In other words, she taught him to keep the Daddy-word, not for S Joseph, but for God the Father of Heaven. And we know Jesus called him “Abba”; he used that word in the Garden of Gethsemane before his arrest: “ Abba, not my will but thine be done”.

And there’s another thing about that Mother and that Baby that people often don’t spot. Our God and Lord Jesus Christ didn’t have an earthly, human father; his Father was the First Person of the Blessed Trinity. Now: you know how it is with an ordinary baby: “Cor - he’s got his mother’s nose”. “Look: she’s got her father’s ears”. But this Baby ... there’s only one person he could look like: Mary. If you could have seen them side by side, I’m sure you would have spotted the uncanny similarities; the distance between the eyes, perhaps; the curl of the lips; the shape of the fingernails; some indefinable likeness in the way each of them walked. Just as identical twins are so very like each other, I suspect that Mother and that Son must have been very strikingly similar. And, as our Lord took his humanity solely and uniquely from Mary’s, I wonder if his human mind ran along the same tracks as hers; so that each often felt they knew what the other was thinking before anybody actually said anything ... as happens with some identical twins.

I don’t think Jesus changes; our Saviour God, Scripture tells us, is the same yesterday, today, and always. And I know Mary must be the same, yesterday, today, and always. I was privileged - together with the Archbishop of Canterbury and several hundred other Church of England people - to go on pilgrimage to Lourdes in the year of the 150th anniversary of the Appearances of the Mother of God to S Bernardette Soubirous. We prayed at a little cleft in a rocky cliffside, called the Grotto, which is where S Bernardette had her vision. The Archbishop bent forward full-length on the cold, damp rock of the little cave and prayed there for some minutes. A few feet above his head was the fissure, the slit where our Lady appeared. At the time, S Bernardette was 14 years old - just the same age as Mary was when she became God’s Mother - and Bernardette described the Lady of her vision as”no bigger than me”. It is as though, through all eternity, Mary is to be seen of men as she was at that moment when she did the Great Thing which all the millennia had been looking forward to and brought God into his own world as her own Baby. She is for ever the One-giving-birth-to-God, Theotokos. And she was, so S Bernardette said, very beautiful. Beautiful, we might say, like her Son who is the fairest among the Sons of Adam.

Let me tell you another thing about Mary that doesn’t seem to change. It’s the way she talks. Just as she murmured to her Baby, not in Greek, the international language of Big People in government and politics, but in Aramaic, the language of ephphatha and Abba, so, when she appeared at Lourdes, she didn’t speak to Bernardette in some grand language of the great affairs of men. There in Lourdes, in the Grotto, two or three feet above where Archbishop Rowan got his cassock damp from lying on the rock underneath the statue of our Lady, they’ve written the words Mary said when Bernardette asked her who she was: Que soy era Immaculado Concepcion. And that’s not French. It’s the local dialect, a branch of an ancient and almost extinct language they spoke in the South of France centuries before they spoke French there. It’s called Gascon, and it’s the language little girls like Bernardette still used among themselves. Que soy era Immaculado Concepcion: I am the Immaculate Conception. 

Throughout history, Mary comes to us as the Immaculate Conception; the one whom God preserved from Original Sin so that she could be the perfect and flawless Mother of God the Divine Son; so that she could give God back his own gift to her by giving him a perfect and flawless humanity to unite inseparably with his Divinity. And Mary comes to us as our Mother too, as well as the Mother of Jesus. Because if we are one with Christ, one in Christ, as S Paul teaches, then Christ’s Mother is our Mother too. When we kneel at the Altar to receive the Lord’s Body and Blood, what the priest puts upon our lips is the Body that Jesus took from Mary and the Blood which flowed in her veins before it flowed in his. Mary is our Mother; and what is it that mothers give their children, soon after birth, except food? Our Mother Mary brings food for her children “in this our exile”, food neatly packaged for the journey we are making through this Vale of Tears; food to give us strength until we reach our True Native Land. beth lehem is Hebrew for House of Bread; and when we come to Communion the Mother of this House, the Great Mother of God Mary Most Holy, brings from her cupboard and sets within us the Blessed Fruit of her womb Jesus. Because Mary is not locked away in Bethlehem or Nazareth; she’s not even a fixture who only made it as far as Lourdes. Mary walks down the centuries and across the seas and countries and hurries to make her way to this country of England in this our Mary Month of May; she comes this afternoon to this place and to this moment of time; comes to be your Mother and your merciful guide and advocate, here, in your own land.

Saturday, May 5, 2018

Surrendering to his love

Back in 2009 a neighbour who was not a believer, and certainly had no time for ‘organised religion’, asked me in the supermarket near where our church met in Brisbane (Australia), ‘What makes you lot tick?’ She had noticed the wide variety of people who, after Holy Mass each Sunday, would converge on a particular al fresco coffee shop for refreshments and a chat that often resulted in most of us staying for lunch!

I said to her, ‘It’s simple, really; we’re just ordinary people who have come to know for ourselves the unconditional, forgiving love of the risen Jesus. Encountering him has renewed our lives, and made us into brothers and sisters.’

She was quite interested, and not put off by an honest and forthright answer! So, in the short conversation that followed, I assured her that like everyone else, followers of Jesus sometimes feel miserable, make really big mistakes, fail disastrously, argue with each other, and face enormous difficulties every now and then.

Yet we also know that our encounter with God’s love gives to our complicated human lives a deep-seated ‘joy.’ Jesus speaks about this on the night before he dies (John 16:22). S. Paul teaches that it is one of the fruit of the Holy Spirit in our lives (Galatians 5:22). This joy is an underlying reality, even when things are not working out well for us, and even when we feel as if we are being crushed by our circumstances. 

So, we’re not talking about a flippant, superficial ‘cheesy’ happiness! We’re talking about an awareness of a Presence, a ‘mystical’ sense of belonging, formed in us by the love that has touched our lives. This love, and the joy it produces, helps us to persevere in times of real trouble, anxiety and stress. We even find ourselves able to say with Nehemiah in the Old Testament - who had more than his fair share of problems - ‘The joy of the Lord is my strength’ (Nehemiah 8:10).

That’s what makes us tick.

I said to my neighbour that at different points in our lives most people experience ‘little hints of transcendence’ - a sense of being drawn by a reality greater than ourselves into a relationship - in Christian language -  into ‘communion.’ This happens in all sorts of different ways. For some it’s a kind of mystical awareness; for others it might be the effect of art, music, beauty, goodness, or love; for still others it can be the result of a lifetime of intellectual agonising about the meaning of existence. Some people discover it when they attend Christian worship, or receive the sacraments or read the Bible. It can even in the midst of a great tragedy that we experience what can only be described as a surge of divine love trying to reach us. However it happens, it is reminiscent of the Biblical image of the risen Lord Jesus knocking on the door of our lives.

Sooner or later each of us has to decide whether or not to open that door and surrender to his love.

I do not know if anything came of the conversation with my neighbour. I moved from Brisbane not long afterwards. 

What I do know is that God has given you and me the terrible freedom to push him and his wonderful love away, out of our lives, because our ‘Yes’, our surrender to him, in order to be a real response of love, must be freely given, just as Mary’s ‘Yes’ was freely given when the angel came to her so long ago.

I do not underestimate the real turmoil deep within that many experience before eventually giving in to God’s love. We weigh things up, we struggle wth our faith. And when we do start to believe, we struggle even more with the challenge to hand the reins of our life over to the Lord and try to live according to his will. Charlotte Elliot (1789-1871) in her well-known hymn, ‘Just as I am’, manages to express both the struggle and the joy of surrender in words that have resonated with so many since her time:

Just as I am, though tossed about
With many a conflict, many a doubt,
Fightings within, and fears without,
O Lamb of God, I come.

Just as I am poor, wretched, blind;
Sight, riches, healing of the mind,
Yea all I need, in thee to find,
O Lamb of God, I come.

Just as I am, thou wilt receive,
Wilt welcome, pardon, cleanse, relieve:
Because thy promise I believe,
O Lamb of God, I come! I come!

Just as I am (thy love unknown
Has broken every barrier down),
Now to be thine, yea thine alone,
O Lamb of God, I come. 

Followers of Jesus don’t spend all their time looking back to this or that moment of surrender to God’s love, because we know that our being swept up in his love is an ongoing thing. As brothers and sisters together we surrender to God’s love each time we come to Mass, because it is in Holy Communion that he comes among us so completely, and we “feed on him in our hearts with thanksgiving.” We surrender to his love by praying and reading the Bible, by deepening our friendships in the church community, and by reaching out to the needy and distressed.

St Paul reminds us that it is because God pours his love into our hearts by the Holy Spirit (Romans 5:5) we can “abound” in joy and hope.

And that brings us to the Gospel Reading for today, in which Jesus gives us his “new commandment” to love one another as he has loved us.

He goes on to say that the greatest manifestation of love is the sacrifice of one’s life for the sake of another. This was certainly the essence of his love for us. He died for us, “even death on the cross” (Philippians 2:8).

We know that ALL genuine love is sacrificial in one way or another.

Loving others as he has loved us not only involves staying open to the Holy Spirit. It means embracing the way of the cross, denying ourselves, learning to give in to God when HIS will crosses OUR will, such as when he challenges us to be loving towards someone who has deeply hurt us, or someone we don’t particularly like. We all know what a struggle that can be. But God has reserved special blessings for those so consumed by HIS love that they are determined to persevere in reaching out to others.

In what I think is one of the loveliest passages of the New Testament, Jesus says to those who will do this that he now calls them his “friends” rather than his “servants.”

When we really live according to the “new commandment” of love in relation to our families, our colleagues, our brothers and sisters in Christ and our enemies, the fruit we bear will last for eternity.

Wednesday, May 2, 2018

"In the Psalter you learn about yourself" - St Athanasius

“In the Psalter you learn about yourself. 
You find depicted in it all the movements of your soul, 
all its changes, its ups and downs, its failures and recoveries.”

Today the Church honours St Athanasius, one of the most influential of our early theologians. Of course, he is best remembered for his relentless championing of the real divinity of Christ in opposition to Arius who taught that Christ was a created being. Athanasius stood against Arius, and at great personal cost defended the Faith which he explains in On the IncarnationArianism was extremely popular throughout the Church of his day, and as a result, Athanasius was severely persecuted. He was exiled five times!  He attended the Council of Nicea (325 A.D.), and died as Patriarch of Alexandria in A.D. 373. 

It is generally thought that one of the best English translations of Athanasius' “On the Incarnation” is that of “A Religious of C.S.M.V.”, with an introduction by C.S. Lewis. [New York: The Macmillan Company, 1946. Reprinted: Crestwood, New York: St Vladimir’s Orthodox Theological Seminary, 1989.] It contains this letter from Athanasius to Marcellinus - probably a monk, perhaps a deacon in Alexandria -  on the value of praying the Psalms (pp. 97, 103, 105, 107-109, 114, 116):

My Dear Marcellinus,

I once talked with a certain studious old man, who had bestowed much labour on the Psalter, and discoursed to me about it with great persuasiveness and charm, expressing himself clearly too, and holding a copy of it in his hand the while he spoke. So I am going to write down for you the things he said.

Son, all the books of Scripture, both Old Testament and New, are inspired by God and useful for instruction, as the apostle says; but to those who really study it the Psalter yields especial treasure. Within it are represented and portrayed in all their great variety the movements of the human soul. It is like a picture, in which you see yourself portrayed and, seeing, may understand and consequently form yourself upon the pattern given.  

In the Psalter you learn about yourself.  You find depicted in it all the movements of your soul, all its changes, its ups and downs, its failures and recoveries. Moreover, whatever your particular need or trouble, from this same book you can select a form of words to fit it, so that you do not merely hear and then pass on, but learn the way to remedy your ill. Prohibitions of evildoing are plentiful in Scripture, but only the Psalter tells you how to obey these orders and refrain from sin.

But the marvel with the Psalter is that . . . the reader takes all its words upon his lips as though they were his own, written for his special benefit . . . 

But the marvel with the Psalter is that, barring those prophecies about the Saviour and some about the Gentiles, the reader takes all its words upon his lips as though they were his own, written for his special benefit, and takes them and recites them, not as though someone else were speaking or another person’s feelings being described, but as himself speaking of himself, offering the words to God as his own heart’s utterance, just as though he himself had made them up.

It is possible for us, therefore to find in the Psalter not only the reflection of our own soul’s state, together with precept and example for all possible conditions, but also a fit form of words wherewith to please the Lord on each of life’s occasions, words both of repentance and of thankfulness, so that we fall not into sin; for it is not for our actions only that we must give account before the Judge, but also for our every idle word.

So, then, my son, let whoever reads this book of Psalms take the things in it quite simply as God-inspired. 

When you would give thanks to God at your affliction’s end, sing Psalm 4, Psalm 75 and Psalm 116. When you see the wicked wanting to ensnare you and you wish your prayer to reach God’s ears then wake up early and sing Psalm 5.  

For victory over the enemy and the saving of created things, take not glory to yourself but, knowing that it is the Son of God who has thus brought things to a happy issue, say to Him Psalm 9; and when you see the boundless pride of man, and evil passing great, so that among men (so it seems) no holy thing remains, take refuge with the Lord and say Psalm 12. And if this state of things be long drawn out, be not faint-hearted, as though God had forgotten you, but call upon Him with Psalm 27. 

If you want to know how Moses prayed, you have the 90th Psalm. When you have been delivered from these enemies and oppressors, then sing Psalm 18; and when you marvel at the order of creation and God’s good providence therein and at the holy precepts of the law, Psalm 19 and Psalm 24 will voice your prayer; while Psalm 20 will give you words to comfort and to pray with others in distress.  

When you yourself are fed and guided by the Lord and, seeing it, rejoice, the 23rd Psalm awaits you. Do enemies surround you?  Then lift up your heart to God and say Psalm 25, and you will surely see the sinners put to rout. And when you want the right way of approach to God in thankfulness, with spiritual understanding sing Psalm 29.

So, then, my son, let whoever reads this book of Psalms take the things in it quite simply as God-inspired. In every case the words you want are written down for you, and you can say them as your own.