Tuesday, June 28, 2022

One of our greatest links with the ancient Church - S. Irenaeus of Lyons

Today - 28th June - is when our Church commemorates the great Bishop Irenaeus, who was born in Asia Minor somewhere in the period 105 AD to 130 AD. According to his own testimony he learned the Christian faith from Polycarp, the bishop of Smyrna, who was himself a disciple of the Apostle John:

'I can tell the very place in which the blessed Polycarp used to sit when he preached his sermons, how he came in and went out, the manner of his life, what he looked like, the sermons he delivered to the people, and how he used to report his association with John and the others who had seen the Lord, how he would relate their words, and the things concerning the Lord he had heard from them, about His miracles, and teachings. Polycarp had received all this from eyewitnesses of the Word of life, and related all these things in accordance with the Scriptures. I listened eagerly to these things at the time, by God’s mercy which was bestowed on me, and I made notes of them not on paper, but in my heart, and constantly by the grace of God I mediate on them faithfully.' (Quoted by N. R. Needham, 2000 Years of Christ’s Power: Part One: The Age of the Early Church Fathers, pp. 97-98)

There was a good deal of trade between Asia Minor and Gaul, especially in Marseilles, and with the traders came the Christian faith. Missionaries were sent from Asia Minor to evangelise the people of Gaul. It was Polycarp who sent Bishop Pothinus to Gaul, who based himself at Lyons. After studying in Rome, the young Irenaeus joined Pothinus. He showed himself to be an exceptional priest, and was sent to Rome in 177 AD, in order to hand deliver a letter to Pope Eleutherius regarding the dangers of Montanism.

In that same year under the emperor Marcus Aurelius there was a violent persecution of the Church in Gaul, resulting in the martyrdom of Bishop Pothinus and a number of the clergy. Irenaeus was consecrated Bishop of Lyons in 178 AD. 

That particular persecution was mercifully brief, and so the next twenty years was a time of growth and peace. Irenaeus was a kind pastor, who grew the church spiritually and numerically. He became completely one with the people he served, even learning to speak to them in their own language rather than in Latin or Greek, and he encouraged the rest of the clergy to do likewise.

In 190 AD Irenaeus persuaded Pope Victor I to lift his excommunication of Churches in the East that followed the Jewish calendar in their dating of Easter instead of the practice of the Roman Church. In his letter to Victor, Irenaeus pointed out that the Eastern Churches were following their Apostolic tradition, and that this had not prevented Polycarp and many other Eastern bishops from staying in communion. Irenaeus was clearly successful, because by the time of Jerome in the 4th century many of the Eastern bishops were still following the ancient Jewish calendar, with schism having been avoided.

Irenaeus is thought of today primarily as a theologian, due largely to his Against the Heresies in which he outlined and criticised the different kinds of Gnosticism that were popular in his day. He used Scripture, especially the writings Paul, Peter, and John to refute Gnosticism and destroy its influence on the growing Church. He was also the first teacher to give the rationale for accepting or rejecting books into the canon of Scripture. He emphasized the unity of the Old and New Testaments, together with the divine and human natures of Our Lord.

Irenaeus was martyred at Lyons about the year 202.

Written around 185 AD, Against the Heresies is very valuable to scholars because in criticising Gnosticism on the basis of what Christians of his day believed, Irenaeus unintentionally gives us a snapshot of ordinary church teaching in the period between the apostolic age and the coming of the imperial church (i.e. 200 years before the "outer limits" of the New Testament canon were definitely fixed). We note the appeal to Scripture and to an incarnational understanding of the sacraments, the sacredness of matter in the Church’s celebration of the sacraments, the Eucharist as the Church's great Sacrifice, the apostolic succession, and the charismatic gifts of the Holy Spirit.

Here are some significant passages from his work:

'We have learned the plan of our salvation from none other than those through whom the gospel came down to us. Indeed, they first preached the gospel, and afterwards, by the will of God, they handed it down to us in the Scriptures . . . Matthew also issued among the Hebrews a written Gospel in their own language, while Peter and Paul were evangelizing in Rome and laying the foundation of the Church. After their departure, Mark, the disciple and interpreter of Peter, also handed down to us in writing what had been preached by Peter. Luke also, the companion of Paul, set down in a book the Gospel preached by him. Afterwards, John, the disciple of the Lord who reclined at His bosom also published a Gospel, while he was residing at Ephesus in Asia' (3.1.1)

'He took from among creation that which is bread, and gave thanks, saying, ‘This is my body.’ The cup likewise, which is from among the creation to which we belong, he confessed to be his blood. He taught the new sacrifice of the new covenant, of which Malachi, one of the twelve [minor] prophets, had signified beforehand: ‘You do not do my will, says the Lord Almighty, and I will not accept a sacrifice at your hands. For from the rising of the sun to its setting my name is glorified among the Gentiles, and in every place incense is offered to my name, and a pure sacrifice; for great is my name among the Gentiles, says the Lord Almighty’ (Malachi 1:10–11). By these words he makes it plain that the former people will cease to make offerings to God; but that in every place sacrifice will be offered to him, and indeed, a pure one, for his name is glorified among the Gentiles' (4:17:5).

'If the Lord were from other than the Father, how could he rightly take bread, which is of the same creation as our own, and confess it to be his body and affirm that the mixture in the cup is his blood?' (4:32–33)

'But what consistency is there in those who hold that the bread over which thanks have been given is the body of their Lord, and the cup his blood, if they do not acknowledge that He is the Son of the Creator... How can they say that the flesh which has been nourished by the body of the Lord and by his blood gives way to corruption and does not partake of life? ...For as the bread from the earth, receiving the invocation of God, is no longer common bread but the Eucharist, consisting of two elements, earthly and heavenly... ' (4:18:4-5).

'If the body be not saved, then, in fact, neither did the Lord redeem us with His blood; and neither is the cup of the Eucharist the partaking of his blood, nor is the bread which we break the partaking of his body...He has declared the cup, a part of creation, to be his own blood, from which He causes our blood to flow; and the bread, a part of creation, he has established as his own body, from which He gives increase to our bodies. When, therefore, the mixed cup and the baked bread receives the Word of God and becomes the Eucharist, the body of Christ, and from these the substance of our flesh is increased and supported, how can they say that the flesh is not capable of receiving the gift of God, which is eternal life - flesh which is nourished by the body and blood of the Lord...receiving the Word of God, becomes the Eucharist, which is the body and blood of Christ…' (5:2:2-3).

'True knowledge is that which consists in the doctrine of the apostles, and the ancient constitution of the Church throughout all the world, and the distinctive manifestation of the body of Christ according to the successions of the bishops, by which they have handed down that Church which exists in every place' (4:33:7–8)

'For some do certainly and truly drive out devils, so that those who have thus been cleansed from evil spirits frequently both believe [in Christ], and join themselves to the Church. Others have foreknowledge of things to come; they see visions, and utter prophetic expressions. Others still, heal the sick by laying their hands upon them, and they are made whole. Yea, moreover, as I have said, the dead even have been raised up, and remained among us for many years. And what shall I more say? Is it not possible to name the number of gifts which the Church, [scattered] throughout the whole world, has received from God' (2.32.4).

'In like manner we do also hear many brethren in the Church, who possess prophetic gifts, and who through the Spirit speak all kinds of languages, and bring to light for the general benefit the hidden things of men, and declare the mysteries of God' (5.6.1).

'The glory of God is man fully alive; moreover man's life is the vision of God: if God's revelation through creation has already obtained life for all the beings that dwell on earth, how much more will the Word's manifestation of the Father obtain life for those who see God' (4.20.7).

Tuesday, June 21, 2022

Paul Kingsnorth in conversation with Justin Brierley and Rowan Williams

Last year I posted Paul Kingsnorth's inspiring account of his journey of faith HERE.

Today I share with you a recently broadcast conversation he had with Justin Brierley and Rowan Williams about pilgrimage, Orthdodoxy, the nature of belief and the presence of God.

Saturday, June 18, 2022

The Miracle of Holy Communion and Corpus Christi


Back in the late 1960s and early 1970s there was a huge sign painted on the side of a building facing the railway line between Redfern Station and Central in inner Sydney. Tens of thousands saw it daily on their way to work. I read it almost every day for my first two years at University. I cannot remember the product being advertised, but the sign said: ‘WHAT YOU EAT AND DRINK TODAY WALKS AND TALKS TOMORROW.’

It always made me smile and think of S. Augustine, bishop of Hippo in Northern Africa in the 4th century. Some friends and I had begun to study him. It was he who said that as we eat the Body of Christ in Holy Communion, we become the Body of Christ in the world. We also know that as he gave Holy Communion to his people, Augustine would actually say to them, ‘Eat what you are, and become what you eat’! 

The solemnity of Corpus Christi celebrates in a special way the Real Presence of Jesus in the Blessed Sacrament. With the vast majority of mainstream Christians down through the ages we affirm our belief that he comes to us supernaturally as FOOD so as to share his life with us, to deepen our union with him and with one another, to strengthen us for our lives here in this world, and to sustain us on our journey to heaven. He comes as Food to nourish and transform us.


‘But it’s just symbolic’ is what some Christians still say, and they criticise what they sometimes call 'that high church catholic nonsense'!

Well, the extraordinary realism of S. Paul’s language in 1 Corinthians 11, also in the Gospel narratives of the institution of the Eucharist, and in John 6 where Jesus feeds the five thousand and then explains that he himself is the ‘Bread of Life’ seems to be very clear. So clear that one of my predecessors here at All Saints  Benhilton, Father Marcus Donovan, Vicar from 1945 to 1961, could write:

‘In the Holy Sacrament Jesus conceals Himself under the veils of bread and wine. He is as truly present as in Bethlehem or in Galilee. Outwardly the “veils” are all we can see, but after the Consecration they become the Body and Blood of Christ. He chose the most ordinary things ("elements” as they are called) in which to give us this treasure. In Holy Communion we receive the life of Christ, and so we must regard the Most Holy Sacrament with the utmost reverence. It is the greatest of all Sacraments, for while they give us grace, Holy Communion gives us the Author of grace Himself.’ (in Faith and Practice SPCK, 1950

Is this really the faith of the Church? Well, if we have any doubts about that, we can turn to those generations of the early Church nearest to the apostles for an indication of how the New Testament’s language about Holy Communion was understood in their day.


Writing between 80 AD and 110 AD, - most likely while the Apostle John is still alive - S. Ignatius, Bishop of Antioch, calls the bread of Holy Communion, 

‘the flesh of our Saviour Jesus Christ, the flesh which suffered for our sins and which the Father, in his graciousness, raised from the dead.’ (Letter to the Smyrnaeans, 6)


S. Justin Martyr says the same kind of thing a little later on - around 150 AD: 

‘We do not consume the Eucharistic bread and wine as if it were ordinary food and drink, for we have been taught that as Jesus Christ our Saviour became a man of flesh and blood by the power of the Word of God, so also the food that our flesh and blood assimilates for its nourishment becomes the flesh and blood of the incarnate Jesus by the power of his own words contained in the Eucharistic prayer.’ (First Apology)


And then,  in 189 A.D., S. Irenaeus, Bishop of Lyons writes: 

‘If the Lord were from other than the Father, how could he rightly take bread, which is of the same creation as our own, and confess it to be his body and affirm that the mixture in the cup is his blood?’ (Against Heresies 4:33–32)

He also writes: 

‘He has declared the cup, a part of creation, to be his own blood, from which he causes our blood to flow; and the bread, a part of creation, he has established as his own body, from which he gives increase unto our bodies. When, therefore, the mixed cup [wine and water] and the baked bread receives the Word of God and becomes the Eucharist, the body of Christ, and from these the substance of our flesh is increased and supported, how can they say that the flesh is not capable of receiving the gift of God, which is eternal life - flesh which is nourished by the body and blood of the Lord, and is in fact a member of him?’ (ibid., 5:2). 


The realism of this language is startling. It comes from a time when the successors of the Apostles were defending the Gospel and the Faith, which is all about the coming of God into real human life and joining himself to it (and to the creation of which human life is part) in order to redeem, renew and transfigure it. And who were they arguing with? You guessed it . . . the SPIRITUALISERS who couldn’t conceive that ‘the flesh’ could be saved. So - did these early Christian leaders expect to be taken ‘literally’ in their language about Holy Communion? You bet they did!

Since the dying and rising of Jesus, his followers have gathered at the altar Sunday by Sunday (and where possible more often than that!) in order to receive him in what is the most precious, sacred, awesome, life-giving encounter possible this side of heaven.

'O come, let us adore Him - Christ the Lord.'

Thursday, June 16, 2022

Dr John Macquarrie on Benediction of the Blessed Sacrament

Outdoor Benediction - at the May 2016 National Pilgrimage 
to the Shrine of Our Lady of Walsingham 

Originally ordained to the Presbyterian ministry, the Scottish theologian and philosopher John Macquarrie (1919-2007) became an Anglican in 1962. He is best known as a key existential theologian. Among his many works are Principles of Christian Theology (1966), Jesus Christ in Modern Thought (1991) and Mary for All Christians (1991). Macquarrie was Lady Margaret Professor of Divinity at the University of Oxford, and a Canon of Christ Church, Oxford.

In this paragraph Macquarrie tells of a time when his world was falling apart and he discovered the little service of Benediction (which, in the Anglican tradition usually follows Evensong):

I was serving in the British army and had received notice of posting overseas. On the Sunday evening before we sailed, I was wandering through the streets of a sprawling suburban area near to where we were stationed. I came to an Anglican Church. The bell was summoning the people, and I went in. The first part of the service was familiar to me, for it was Evensong. But then followed something new to me - the Benediction of the Blessed Sacrament. This new service meant a great deal to me. I did not know what lay ahead of me or when I might come back to these shores again, but I had been assured of our Lord’s presence and had received his sacramental blessing. I was reminded of Jacob, when he was far from home at Bethel and he heard the divine voice: 'Behold, I am with you and will keep you wherever you go, and will bring you back to this land; for I will not leave you until I have done that of which I have spoken to you.'

Subsequently, in a pamphlet on Benediction, Macquarrie writes:

Benediction is a beautiful word. It means a blessing, a greeting, and expression of kindness and love. Benediction is also a beautiful service of the Church. It is a service that makes real to us in an impressive way the fact that God is always reaching out to us, to bless, to strengthen, to assure us of his loving kindness toward us. 

The greatest blessing that God could ever bestow upon mankind was the sending of his Son. That was like the beginning of a new day for the human race, like a new sunrise bringing light and hope. And it is a day that will never end, a sun that will never set, for the Eternal Son has promised to be with us until the end of the world. 

He is no longer with us in the physical body that was his in Palestine many centuries ago, but we believe that he is really present among us in the Sacrament which he appointed. 'This is my Body', he said over the bread at the Last Supper with his disciples. The same words are said over the bread at every Eucharist, that it may be to us the Body of the Lord, so that he may come again among us today as he came at his first appearing in Palestine. And just as that first appearing was like the rising of the the sun over a darkened world, so today when the Host is lifted up either in the Mass itself or in Benediction, it is like the rising of the sun upon us and we receive the radiance and warmth of God's blessing through him whom he has sent. 

Many people have the idea that Benediction has become out of date in the course of the liturgical renewal of the past few years. It is true that Benediction has now less prominence than it once had in Catholic worship, but it would be sad indeed if this service were to be undervalued for it is a very helpful item in our spiritual heritage and it has special contributions to make toward building up the life of prayer and devotion in these busy noisy times in which we live. 

Let me now say something about the meaning of Benediction. 1 shall do this by developing more fully the thought that the blessing conveyed to us in this service today is simply the vivid renewal of that great blessing of God in the sending of Jesus Christ. Just as men in ancient times were waiting for the Lord, eager for a glimmer of light through the gloom, so those who come to Benediction come with waiting, expectant hearts. 

Benediction is a popular service, that is to say, a people's service. The clever and sophisticated do not come much to Benediction, but the simple, the poor, those who acknowledge an emptiness in their lives that only God can fill. Even those who might not come to Holy Communion will sometimes come to Benediction where God reaches out to them though they think they are only on the fringes. I think of some of those with whom I have knelt at Benediction: harassed city-dwellers in New York, working- class people from the back streets of Dublin, soldiers serving in the deserts of North Africa, Indian Christians living as a tiny minority in a great Hindu city . . . They have all had the grace of humility - a quality which, alas, is not greatly encouraged in our new liturgies. But those who seek a blessing come with empty hands. 'How blessed are those who know their need of God' ' (Matthew 5:3 NEB). God cannot give a blessing to the proud, the self- sufficient, the superior, those who secretly despise the simple devotion of their brethren. So we can only come to Benediction waiting and expectant. As we sing the hymns and look upon the Host, we open our hearts to God, knowing that he who sent the blessing of his Son to lighten the darkness of the world still sends through the same Son his blessing to us. 

We do not wait on God in vain. Lifting up the Host in a monstrance (sometimes in a ciborium) the Those quiet opening moments of Benediction are very precious indeed. We take time to compose ourselves, to put ourselves together, as it were. These may be only a few minutes, but they have something of the quality of eternity. We put aside our own busy plans, policies, activities, and remain passive before God so that his voice may be heard and his grace received. This brief time of quiet alone is of inestimable value in that crazy hurried world in which we all have to live nowdays. officiating priest makes the sign of the cross in blessing over the worshippers. Christ, the Light of the world, shines upon us, and my comparison with the rising sun was appropriate because the monstrance is usually fashioned to resemble the sun's disc, with rays streaming out in all directions. Through Christ, God bestows his blessing upon us and all who are willing to receive it, just as the sun shines on all, bringing light and health. 

The seekers, the pilgrims, the weary are assured of the blessing of God in Christ, and every time Christ comes to men and women it is with the promise of a new life of hope and freedom. 'The people who walked in darkness have seen a great light; those who dwelt in a land of deep darkness, on them has light shined' (Isaiah 9:2). 

Then a very remarkable thing happens. For we find ourselves saying the words of the Divine Praises: 'Blessed be God', 'Blessed be his holy Name' We came seeking God's blessing, and now we find that we are blessing God! This belongs so naturally to what might be called the spiritual logic of Benediction. A benediction is not something that we can selfishly keep for ourselves. It makes us too want to give a benediction. 'We love, because he first loved us' (1 John 4:19). We begin by coming in our need to God, seeking his blessing. He gives us that blessing, and our response is to bless and adore him. This is indeed the goal of all our worshipping - that we may come to love God better. And we cannot love God without loving our neighbours who are God's children, so that in seeking God's blessing, we are praying that in blessing us he will make us a blessing to others. This is how it has been since the very beginning of the people of God, when the Lord said to Abraham, 'I will bless you, so that you will be a blessing . . .' (Genesis 12:3). 

These, then, are some of the meanings contained in the service of Benediction and some of the reasons for prizing it. Let us not miss this time of precious quiet while we wait upon God in humility. Let us not miss the blessing he bestows through the Christ who conies into our midst. For in such acts of devotion we learn to love him better, and he can make us a benediction to all whom we meet.

Benediction at S. Luke's Kingston, April 2015

Saturday, June 11, 2022

Some blockbuster insights for Trinity Sunday!

Happy Trinity Sunday, everybody! 

Today in our Church we emphasise the greatest revelation of all: At the heart of the universe is not a vacuum, an impersonal force, a solitary uncreated being (whether lawgiver, intelligent designer, or omnipotent cosmic control-freak), but the MYSTERY OF SELF-GIVING LOVE that everlastingly surges through and overflows creation and redemption, reaching even us, and divinising our 'ordinary' lives.

Commenting on the passages in St John's Gospel in which Jesus - after the Last Supper - teaches about the Holy Spirit, Michael Ramsey (the 100th Archbishop of Canterbury) writes: 'A Trinitarian doctrine of God is here inescapable. It is inescapable as touching the activity of God in history, for the glorifying of the Father by Jesus is perfected only in the glorifying of Jesus by the Spirit. It is inescapable as touching the being of God in Himself, for the sharing of the Son in all that the Father has is parallelled by the sharing of the Spirit in all that the Son has. The revelation of the glory of God to the disciples involves their coming to perceive that the Spirit is all that the Son is - namely God indeed.' (The Glory of God and the Transfiguration of Christ, pages 74-75) 

In Romans 8:14-17, St Paul says: 'All who are led by the Spirit of God are sons of God. For you did not receive the spirit of slavery to fall back into fear, but you have received the spirit of sonship. When we cry, "Abba! Father!" it is the Spirit himself bearing witness with our spirit that we are children of God, and if children, then heirs, heirs of God and fellow heirs with Christ, provided we suffer with him in order that we may also be glorified with him.' Later on, in verse 26 he says: 'Likewise the Spirit helps us in our weakness; for we do not know how to pray as we ought, but the Spirit himself intercedes for us with sighs too deep for words.'

Ramsey comments further: 'We learn from St Paul's prayers how the great themes of the Lord's Prayer prevail in the prayer of the early Christians. As the apostolic age proceeds, a Trinitarian pattern of prayer becomes apparent. Prayer is to the Father, and Jesus is not only the one through whom Christians pray, but also the one who evokes a devotion that would be idolatrous if he were not indeed divine. It is the Holy Spirit who enables Christians to pray "Abba - Father" (Romans 8:15), and to acknowledge the lordship of Jesus. Experiencing a threefold relationship to God in their prayer, Christians encounter a threefold relationship with God Himself; and the discourses and prayer in St John's Gospel begins to unveil this. It is within the Trinitarian character of Christian prayer that the theology of the Trinity grows.' (Be Still and Know, page 42)  

Along the same lines, here are some words from Father Thomas Hopko: 
'The Holy Eucharist, is the actual experience of all Christian people led to communion with God the Father by the power of the Holy Spirit through Christ the Son who is present in the Word of the Gospel  and in the Passover Meal of His Body and Blood eaten in remembrance of Him. The very movement of the Divine Liturgy - towards the Father through Christ the Word and the Lamb, in the power of the Holy Spirit - is the living sacramental symbol of our eternal movement in and toward God, the Blessed Trinity. Even Christian prayer is the revelation of the Trinity, accomplished within the third person of the Godhead. Inspired by the Holy Spirit, we can call God “our Father” only because of the Son who has taught us and enabled us to do so. Thus, the true prayer of Christians is not the calling out of our souls in earthly isolation to a far-away God. It is the prayer in us of the divine Son of God made to His Father, accomplished in us by the Holy Spirit who himself is also divine.' (The Orthodox Faith, Volume I - Doctrine : The Holy Trinity - available online HERE)

And finally, from Austin Farrer 
(quoted from The Philosophical Theology of Austin Farrer, pp. 108-109):