Sunday, 25 June 2017

Terror all around

Terror all around. Words from the prophet Jeremiah in today's first reading at Mass which resound with us in London: terror in Westminster, on London Bridge; terror at the hate crime on Finsbury Mosque; terror in the flames of Grenfall Tower. The prophet calls for vengeance, denunciation, and we are seeing plenty of that. The Psalmist, in our next reading, continues in this line, demanding a swift response from God: answer me, O Lord!

So what might God’s response to all this terror be? And what might our own? 
It goes without saying that terror is nothing new, nor man’s desperation for God’s voice in the midst of it. Scorsese’s recent film of Endo Shusaku’s novel Silence gives us one historic instance, the persecution of Christians of 17th century Japan. In the story, a young Jesuit priest goes there in search of his former master, rumoured to have apostatised. He finds hidden communities of Christians whom he tends until his inevitable capture, whereon the rumours about his master are confirmed to be true. He is determined to be a martyr to the faith, but the Japanese inquisitor is wise to his ways, and offers him that glory only with one formidable qualification: he will be allowed to die only after he has watched the execution of his flock. If he apostatises by trampling on an image of the virgin and child, they will be released. 

Every day the young priest prays for a solution to this dilemma, and every day the authorities execute more and more of his faithful. God’s response can be gleaned from the title of the film, until the moment comes when he is led out to trample. His foot hovers over the image, and then he hears a voice: “Trample.” And so he does. A cock crows.

The authorities keep their word, allowing the apostate priest to marry and giving him a job at the docks, sifting through foreign imports to make sure that no Christian literature or devotional artefacts make it through to the mainland. He dies a natural death. At this point, the film deviates from the book. We see the priest’s funeral. He is being cremated, the Japanese way. The camera zooms in on his casket, and then goes inside, to where the body is burning; and clutched in his hand, we see a little crucifix. In the film version, at least, it seems he kept some vestige of his faith, hidden away in his heart. 

So did he do the right thing? It’s tempting to believe so. He saved all those peasant converts, after all, and still kept the faith in his heart. Perhaps that was the most Christ-like thing to do. 

But are we not left with the cock’s crow echoing in our ears? That voice he heard: it might have been Christ’s. But it might equally have been his own. It might even have been the Devil’s. 

Yes, he saved the lives of many villagers, but what does his apostasy mean for the villagers he had already watched die for the faith he had taught them? What does it say about that faith, the faith in the film version he supposedly kept hidden to the end? It turns out to be exactly the kind of faith -  a private, inoffensive matter of conscience - which the Japanese authorities wanted. 
Make no mistake, this is the kind of faith so many of our modern authorities want to encourage, too. The Church on its better days can cope with a variety of opinion, but it seems that Tim Farron’s views are incompatible with the orthodoxy of public life. David Cameron’s ‘Radio 3 in the Chilterns,’ intermittent Anglicanism of the shires was just about tolerable to the press. The ideal view is that of Jeremy Corbyn, who would own everything publicly except faith, which he says is a purely private matter with no place in public discourse, which is why he wants to close church schools. I suspect his real answer to the question  of faith would cost him too much of the Labour Muslim vote to say out loud, but just in case he is a closet believer in something higher than himself and the proletariat, he is wise not to announce it: the Today Programme relishes ridiculing Christian politicians who let slip that prayer forms any part of their decision-making process, as though they were basing their policy on voices in their heads (Muslim MPs, I’ve noticed, are allowed use the ‘p’-word unchallenged, so we might want to make allies of them). The overall message is that in this country, you can believe whatever you want -  as long as it doesn’t get in the way. As long as it doesn’t challenge secular orthodoxies. In short, as long as it doesn’t actually do anything. 

The Gospel reading today does offer a response to the terror all around. It is not Jeremiah’s answer, calling for vengeance and denunciation. It is not to form a rabble and bay for blood on the streets, as John McDonnell demands. Nor is the Psalmist’s demand for answers. It is not to resort to scapegoating, the search for an instant solution, not to make political capital out of the tragedy of others. It is not to engage in juvenile political posturing, putting up abusive stickers in public places and waving banners, posting cartoons of the Prime Minister as though she were personally responsible for acts of terror and dangerous cladding. It is not to chant the platitudinous litany of instant answers expected from every politician, pundit and pulpit whenever disaster strikes: nothing to do with Islam, it’s Theresa May’s fault, London is not afraid, etc. Many of the people in Camden have been told to pack for four weeks and evacuated to sports centres, and other people living in tower blocks fear the same well happen to them. Of course we are afraid. We would be stupid not to be.

God's response is not silence, but the person of Jesus Christ, the Word made Flesh: a man who was executed for failing to comply with the prevailing orthodoxy and for speaking out. We are told in today's Gospel to proclaim him on the rooftops, the ancient Israelite equivalent of over the garden fence. And following his example, while we must seek justice, we are surely not to create new enemies, resorting to hatred of political opponents. Rather we must see where our real enemies are and take the truly radical and dangerous step of loving them - even if it means loving them to our detriment, or loving them to our death. 

Love your enemies. We are seeing precious little of that at present. 

Sunday, 7 May 2017

Mary, Patrilineage and Sexuality


I was not the only one to announce a move last Sunday. A nearby friend who has served the Church for 30 years also announced that he too would be moving on - but to no further priestly duties. You see, he and his partner of many years had dared to get married. His partner being another man, this marriage breached the clergy disciplinary rules of the Church of England. The authorities could not actually throw him out of his parish, but made life difficult by refusing to give him a curate and warning him that when he left, he would never be able to get another post as a priest. So now that he has decided to leave, he is taking early retirement, and will not be licensed anywhere to exercise any priestly ministry at all, even unpaid. He will effectively be debarred from celebrating the Mass or any other sacrament.You could of course say that this is quite right and proper: he knew the result, deliberately contravened clergy discipline, and now must face the consequences. You could add that the Church has made this decision to avoid schism over issues of sexuality. But this line of reasoning falls too readily into the modern tendency to view opinions as absolute, and argument as nothing but the mutually irreconcilable expression of personal and ultimately unchangeable views - two parties shouting at one other from separate hilltops. Moderns resist getting back to first principles and seeking truth: but that is what I want to do today. As we make our May devotions, I want to get back to the biblical narrative of the Blessed Virgin Mary, and suggest that it gives our Catholic faith the potential to be the most gay-friendly religion of all.
You cannot hope to understand the New Testament without some understanding of the Old, and Mary’s story is no exception. The Jews were always great storytellers, and they still are - take Sigmund Freud and Woody Allen for a start – and Mary’s story is a quintessentially Jewish story of a mother and her son. Mary and Jesus became the most famous parent-child pair in Christian tradition, but their story builds on and challenges a far older analogue, namely the story of the father and son from whom Jews, Christians and Muslims alike claim lineage: Abraham and Isaac.
You may well recall that story with a shudder: the horror of a man submitting to God’s instruction to sacrifice his only son as a burnt offering. But it is not just a horror story of old, or a Sunday school parable about the extremes of true faith. Christians are called to read the Old Testament through the lens of the New. So, let’s take Abraham’s story in parallel with Mary’s. There is that divine command and expression of consent: Abraham’s “Here I am, Lord,” and Mary’s Fiat, “Be it unto me according to thy Word.” There is that same foreknowledge of what will happen, the prophecy that Mary’s heart will be pierced as she sees her own son suffer. But the ends are quite opposite. An angel appears, a deus ex machina, to save Isaac and offer a ram in his place. But the angels do not save Jesus. Mary is there at the foot of the Cross to watch her only son die.
That word “only” - the “only” son - is important, in both stories. Abraham actually had another son, Ishmael, but by another woman. The phrase ‘only son’ in the Bible means the heir, the one who would inherit the father’s birthright and continue the family line. This is also the sense of Jesus being God’s and Mary’s “only” son. Isaac and Jesus are the true heirs of their fathers and will continue the family line.
Except, of course, that Jesus does not.
This is where Mary and Jesus’ story becomes a direct challenge to the Jewish story of Abraham. For the Sadducees especially, who denied the resurrection, the only way to live forever was through your descendants. This kind of ‘eternal life’ was marked by your name - that is to say, the man’s name - being passed on through the generations. So in the Old Testament story, Sarah rather vanishes from view once her job of producing Isaac is done. We do not hear about her again until Abraham buries her.
But in the New Testament, it is quite the opposite. It is Joseph who vanished from the plot, and Jesus even keeps being referred to not as Joseph’s but as “Mary’s son.” And then, even more scandalously, he does not marry, does reproduce, does not continue his adoptive father’s line of David. In his preaching, he rails against family, calling his disciples his true mother and siblings, saying that he will set fathers and sons against one another. All this is utterly opposed to the religious worldview of most of his Jewish contemporaries. Jesus preaches not about the physical fruits of love, but about its spiritual fruits - a theme taken to the extreme by St Paul, who condemns marriage with very faint praise.
We do not have to rely on proof negative. Mary’s relationship with God the Father gives a positive value to loving relationships which are not predicated on sex. Theirs is a relationship not of sex, but of love and of mutual consent. Christians are called to emulate Mary’s relationship with the Father and so to give spiritual birth to Christ ourselves. We also see in their relationship an analogue of the trinitarian love between the Father and the Son, which overflows into creation as the Holy Spirit. That is what our human marriages are about, too: the growth and overflow of love between one another, for the parturition of spiritual fruits. Marriage is as much for the hallowing of sexual instincts and for mutual comfort as for the "increase of mankind." This is not how the Christian vision has always ended up being interpreted. The Church has at times reverted to the old patriarchal ways demanded not only by ancient Jewish and pagan religion, but also by Charles Darwin. The French author Michel Houllebecq’s recent novel ‘Submission’ fantasises almost approvingly about a Europe in which Islam effectively outbreeds Christianity by men perpetuating their patriarchal line through multiple wives; the image of Victorian patriarchs with vast beards going forth and multiplying still finds expression in Amish and Mormon communities to this day; and there are many in the West who bang the drum for “Christian family values,” whether or not they have any real commitment to Christ Himself. And yet the story of Mary and Our Lord’s own teaching militate against this patriarchal view, apparently setting us up for evolutionary failure, precisely so that we might trust in God’s supernatural agency rather than in our own natural reproductive abilities - for it is the Resurrection, not childbirth, which gives us eternal life.
So I put it to you that Christianity is absolutely not about perpetuating our parents’ or grandparents’ line, or even their values; that Mary’s story is God’s direct challenge to patriarchal lineage, rebutting the importance even of the kingly line of David; and that we Christians are not a genetic race from a patriarchal line, but God’s own spiritual offspring given true birth in the waters of baptism by sharing in the death of Christ.
And I suggest that our religion, so ambiguous about the status of physical procreation, and so clear about the importance of the fruits of love, is far more sympathetic to loving homosexual partnerships than it has historically allowed. I wonder when the Christian Church will take the New Testament seriously enough to live up to its full potential. 

Sunday, 30 April 2017

Annual Report for the ADCM

In the weeks after Easter the disciples meet the Risen Lord in a variety of ways. But there is one constant in their experiences: they all at first fail to recognise him. It takes some word or action to open their eyes to his presence, and the trigger is something different for each of them, whether it is Mary being called by name, Thomas recognising the wounds, or the pair on the Emmaus road in the breaking of bread. Jesus calls to each of them, reveals himself to each of them, in different ways according to who they are.
We have achieved a lot this year, and I mean ‘we.’ We are an Anglo-Catholic church with a high view of priesthood and a tradition of expecting the clergy to be in charge, I know – but this doesn’t mean we have to have a low theology of baptism. We are all baptised to fulfil God’s potential in us as he calls us one by one, and my vision for this church is one in which everyone here discerns and fulfils his or her own particular vocation, hears Our Lord calling in each of our particular ways. I’ve challenged you over the year to find where Christ is calling you, to find your role – and you have done it. Let’s remind ourselves of what has happened as a result.
We have offered more worship, and a greater variety: We have new Taizé and Vespers services. An additional two masses in the week bring up our midweek attendance to around 40, and we are up to the mid-80s most Sunday mornings now, thanks to the good offices of our sidesmen and welcomers. We had Holy Hour in Advent, Stations in Lent. We have had two weddings, three people have been baptised and five confirmed, two of them newcomers to the faith. I have also been out saying mass for a Japanese church elsewhere in London.
We have done more socially: Sharline has put on new Sunday meet-ups. We had a relaunch party and so far I have invited church cleaners, the choir and legal drop-in volunteers to the Vicarage for drinks. Nick has introduced Theology in the Pub. More volunteers have stepped up to make coffee after mass (including two men). Andrea and her Catechists brought people together with new, inspiring ideas for Sundays at 12. Our annual Youth Holiday has brought children and teenagers together for First Communion and Confirmation classes.
We have done more volunteering: Jane has built up the Legal Drop-in and Cathy has started running a Homeless Drop-in for around 15 regular guests. Marion has built up a new team of garden volunteers. Richard Miller has multiplied the choir fivefold following his successful come-and-sing last November, and I think you’ll agree that the musical standards are high at the moment, thanks to our singers and organists. John Cochrane has had tour guides trained, who have given over 50 tours. In total, our active volunteers number over 60, at least ten of them newcomers in the last year, of whom I must make special mention of Nicholas Pomerantz for his hard work as a newcomer to the team.
We have improved our governance: Our Church Warden, Deputy and Treasurer in particular have worked extraordinary hours behind the scenes on top of demanding day-jobs. They have balanced our accounts, launched a more efficient scheme of Planned Giving, and liaised with architects, church restorers and our neighbours, to keep the church running with gentle but effective leadership and invaluable expertise. Our DCC has met 6 times and given careful consideration before authorising several new schemes and projects, including poring over the volunteer restructuring plans and role descriptions. Thanks to countless hours of pro-bono help from Martin Moore and Karen Fonseka, we now have role descriptions, safeguarding policy and a structure for volunteers, and have held a Volunteer Day, with more to come.
We have started improving our communication: We have a new Communications Officer, Matthew Johnston, who has worked with our DCC Secretary to make sure that DCC minutes are now published in hard copy after every meeting at the back of church. There will soon be an online archive of all of these, too. There is a monthly Parish Newsletter. We have active Twitter and Facebook accounts and all my sermons have been posted online. Plans are afoot for more hard-copy publications to help those without computer access and the hard of hearing, including printed sermons and a calendar of forthcoming events at the back of church. Jay has been spreading news of us around the university campuses.
We have improved our facilities: Thanks to our newly employed Verger, Richard Gosnold, the rats have been evicted, we have new portaloos, a tidy storeroom, new signage and weekly building maintenance.
We have gained the chance to become a live music venue: After much legal wrangling and ambiguous press interest in November, Brendan Collins, Jim Moreton and Richard Gosnold, with the help of our lawyer Stephen Thomas, managed to gain permission from Camden Council to hold live music in the church, potentially a source of outreach and of much-needed funding.
...And this is just the new things that have happened in the year. With all this going on, we have still managed to keep the usual work of the church going, too. It is thanks to you that the church gets cleaned, the flower arranged, the linen washed, the altar served, the readings and prayers read, the housebound visited, the strangers welcomed, the minutes typed, the drinks served, the library maintained, the children taught in Sunday school, the Michaelmas Fair organised and delivered, the pewsheets and posters printed. You know who you are.
So, thank you. You have a lot to be proud of this year.
There have been losses, too. I valued Fr Simon as a colleague and was sorry to see him leave in June, and am grateful to Susan Webster who left us after many years of work in our garden. Helena will be leaving us as Pastoral Assistant soon, after two years of hard work.
And there have been challenges. Looking back over the past year’s calendar, I can see a lot of things that have happened at St Michael’s in which – to put it mildly – I somewhat struggled to see Christ at the time. Many of these come with the territory of Camden Town and its less stable denizens, but I am sorry that some of our volunteers have suffered as a result, and want to make sure that we can improve the experience of volunteering here, as well as trying to help those who come through our doors. Jane, Jeannie and Nicholas have borne a disproportionate brunt of abusive and anti-social behaviour, and the risk to our volunteers has given me sleepless nights. That is why I am so keen to get what might seem like the boring details of our infrastructure and policy right – a wing and a prayer are not enough. I hope that you are starting to see some of the fruits of these labours, launched at our Volunteer Day.
Still, we have exciting times ahead. Our church’s tagline is “making a family out of strangers,” and I think that’s a good start. But looking for Our Lord in the events of the past year, I see more to St Michael’s than just that. My vision is of a place of sanctuary amid the bustle of Camden Town – a place where we offer healing from the social ills of isolation and self-hatred that beset our city to friend and stranger alike. That’s why I want every person here to listen deeply for Christ within, to seek the specific, tailored sign that he is sending you of his resurrected life, which is life in its fulness: a life of growth to the full adult stature of humanity which we see in His divinity

Sunday, 23 April 2017

Restoring the national memory


A friend of mine used to joke about a certain priest’s sermons which went something like this: “I walked into the supermarket yesterday, and it reminded me of Jesus. Amen.” Well, my sermon today may be a little longer than that (sorry), but I’m going to start in a not entirely dissimilar way.
Not, admittedly, in a supermarket, but in a shoe shop, J.D. Sports in Camden Town, in fact, where I found myself on Good Friday, all cassocked up like a faithful priest. Now before you raise your eyebrows in horror that I was out shopping on Good Friday, a day of fasting and weeping and all that, I should point out that I was trying to get a pair of trainers for a homeless man whose shoes had worn out. But I’m not here to “virtue signal.” I just want to tell you what a juxtaposition it was, leaving the tomb-like stillness of my church and going into J.D. Sports. The church was bare, the altars stripped, the people silent and contemplative; but the shoe shop was jam-packed full of people from all around the world practically pushing each other out of the way for bargains, waiting impatiently in long queues, tapping away on mobile ‘phones, and all the while trying to speak over the monstrous cacophony of something vaguely related to music which was booming out throughout the shop.
While I was waiting (also impatiently, to be fair), I had the strange sense that if Jesus had walked in there - even with a robe of purple, a crown of thorns on his head, and bleeding wounds in his hands, feet and side - people would not even have recognised him; and if they had, frankly, I don’t know whether they would have cared. Everything they wanted at that moment was there, in J.D. Sports.
Coming back to supermarkets for a moment, Tesco got into trouble for advertising that they could “Make Good Friday better.” Better than the promise of eternal life won for us on the Cross. Well, I suppose we should be grateful that anyone bothered to complain. Give it another generation, and I don’t know if non-churchgoers will have a clue what Good Friday is, anyway. There will just be a collective blank look: no recognition.
Mary Magdalene famously meets Jesus outside his tomb, and mistakes him for the gardener. It takes her a moment to recognise him. Like an amnesiac, she sees the world through a fuzzy cloud as she grieves. But like so many of the suffers of dementia or Alzheimer’s I have spent time with, Mary is suddenly woken from her stupor by some trigger, something intangible, and I picture her face coming back to life in that moment of recognition. “Mary,” says Jesus, calling her by name – and she remembers. For other disciples, when the Risen Lord appears to them, it will be other things - the breaking of bread, the opening of scriptures, the showing of wounds - but for Mary, it is simply her name that sparks that recognition.
It has been said that our society is suffering from a collective amnesia, generation by generation losing any recognition of what came before. There is no doubt that modern technology decreases individuals’ attention spans, but I am talking about a societal phenomenon that goes back much further than the advent of the iPhone. You could trace it as far back as the Reformation, that first and decisive stripping of the altars, when the King and clergy erased the wall paintings, burnt the statues, took away the raucous plays and festivals which had had kept the faith alive in the Englishman’s imagination - and replaced them all with books, the Bible and Prayer Book, which only the educated few could even read. An old man in James I’s reign was asked about Jesus Christ, and said that he had heard of him, yes, because he had seen him in the village Corpus Christi play at Kendal when he was a child. But that was the extent of his knowledge, because those plays had since been banned by the Reformers, and the result is clear as mud: the English people who had known Jesus for over a thousand years barely even recognised him any more. And that was four hundred years ago.
Things did get better in the Victorian age, under the steam of the Evangelicals and the Anglo-Catholics, who built three of our churches in the Parish of Old St Pancras. People like Fr Basil Jellicoe restored the images and ceremonial, started guilds, built schools for the education of the poor and their instruction in the faith. The heyday was in the 1930s, when tens of thousands gathered in London for mass at the Anglo-Catholic congresses. But that has all gone now. Particularly since the State purloined schools paid for by Victorian Christians, the teaching of the faith has been mostly reduced to a matter of show-and-tell, comparing the funny things one religious group, say Christians, does, with the practices of another religion, of course all from a “neutral” standpoint which suggests that it’s all just a matter of choice anyway: you can choose your religion in much the same way as you choose your trainers, or choose whether to shop in Tesco or Morrison’s. Twenty minutes on Wikipedia, read a few reviews, and you should be able to make your mind up. The result: Christianity becomes a take-it-or-leave-it lifestyle choice.
The problem is, you can’t choose what you don’t even recognise. We used to be able to take it for granted that people at least knew what the Christian religion was before they rejected it. Nowadays, even young Cambridge undergraduates have never even learnt the Lord’s Prayer. Words that used to evoke a great wealth meaning, words like “wood” and “nails,” are being stripped of their significance; let alone words like “Crown” or “nation” or “family.” Our language is losing meaning, our ability even to communicate with each other at anything more than the most prosaic and dull level is rapidly diminishing because we can no longer assume we have anything in common with one another. People are making their “decision” based on atrophied, misinformed perceptions, groping about for meaning in our collective amnesiac fog. We don’t recognise each other, let alone Christ.
Christians could respond to this by saying, well, so what? The early Christians lived as a little minority, a rebel sect, so let’s keep the fire burning discretely and keep to our own, let the world go its own way. We could. But that would be giving in to the modern worldview of religion as a supermarket commodity, and it would be letting our nation down. I would go further and say that we would be complicit in the gradual erosion of identity and even meaning that is happening throughout Europe at the moment. We are heading into a world without society, a world of complete individualism, isolation and self-orientation, where every man and woman is an island. You can see the effects of this isolation on the streets of Camden Town, people staggering about in isolation without family, friends or home. And yet our Lord tells us that the people around us are our brothers and sisters: we have no right as Christians to let our family, our country, our world go this way.
Yet this is Easter, the time of the Resurrection. There is hope. Not for a return to the Christendom of the Middle Ages or Queen Victoria, nor even to the 1950s, none of which were perfect. But there are signs, like them or not, that people are seeking meaning and identity: the tribes marked by people’s clothing, tattoos, band or football t-shirts, the causes they sign up to on Twitter, the rise of the SNP and even the urge for “Brexit.” Tomorrow is St George’s day, and the English flag will no doubt fly from many vans and be daubed on many faces.
The Church would be foolish indeed to sneer at these signs. Our job is to fill in the gaps, to preserve and to restore the memory of our nation: to bring out the Cross at the heart of our flag, to revive the memory of the English people of our historical, intellectual and spiritual roots, and to spark the recognition in every human heart of the Lord above every prince or prelate who commanded us to love one another, and to do what we are about to do in Remembrance of Him.

Sunday, 16 April 2017

Easter and the Martyrs

Alleluia! Christ is Risen. And just as well.
This time last week, we were processing around the block with palms in our hands, a short but powerful proclamation of Our Saviour’s entry to Jerusalem: powerful enough that passers-by joined our number, and I hope that some of you have come back here to celebrate His rising from the dead and triumph over death today with us.
But at the same time, while we were singing our way through the back of Sainsbury’s, far away in Egypt, a church full of our brothers and sisters kept Palm Sunday in a very different way. We may feel that we are making ourselves a target by parading publicly as Christians out in Camden Town, but those Egyptian Christians in that awful bomb attack, even as they were beginning to celebrate their Lord’s victory over death, died for the faith we share.
We are right to be horrified and to mourn, but it is important not to lose sight, especially on Easter Day, of what it was we and our Egyptian brethren were proclaiming last week when they died. We do them a disservice if we now lose hope and join the rest of the world in believing that they are no more and death has won the day. For today we proclaim the deepest truth of the Christian faith, the truth towards which the Incarnation at Christmas and the Cross and Passion of Holy Week lead: the truth of the Resurrection.
Claims of truth are mistrusted in what has, I think misleadingly, been called a “post-truth” age. So let me first be clear: the truth of the Resurrection is not merely a proclamation of dogma, something for your list of 100 impossible things to believe before breakfast. Belief in the Resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead is not something you merely sign up to to please God or the Church. It is first of all a matter of trust, trust in people: the people who first saw the empty tomb, the people who saw Jesus variously risen and appearing to them from the dead, the people who wrote this down in what would later become the Bible. People chosen by God and inspired by God. And if you ask, “why should we trust them - what were their vested interests?”, the most powerful answer I can give is that so many of them chose to die rather than give up on proclaiming what they had seen. These Christian martyrs did not take anyone else with them - suicide-bombers do not follow a man who ordered his disciples to put away their swords - but they let themselves be tortured and killed rather than deny their Risen Lord. They could have joined any number of Greek or Roman mystery cults promising eternal life, even wealth here and now, but they stuck to the vision of the executed criminal who promised them a resurrection like the one they had seen with their own eyes. Truly, the seed of the Church was sown in the blood of the martyrs.
It might surprise you to hear that the second generation of Christians did not for the most part worship in churches. Nor did most of them even worship in private homes, as is often thought. More recent scholarship shows that around 95% of these Christians worshipped weekly outdoors in graveyards, especially at the gravesides of martyrs. And the nature of their worship was much what we are doing today, and our Egyptian brothers and sisters were doing when they were martyred last week: celebrating the Eucharist.
Now this is something that horrified many non-Christians, especially Jews, for whom the dead were unclean. The idea of praying and offering a sacrifice for the dead was not new, but to do it among the dead, and even to eat among them was beyond the pale. But that is what our early Christian forebears did, whatever later reformers might think about prayers for the dead, and not just incidentally as an aside to more conventional indoor Eucharists, but as the main form of worship for the overwhelming majority of Christians every week. So why?
The answer is simply that the Eucharist was for Christians a matter of life and death. It is the way that Christ has given us to participate in his death on the Cross and his resurrection to eternal life.
In one way this is a great and supernatural paradox and miraculous exchange: God, who cannot die, does die, so that we, who cannot live forever, can live forever. And so it was natural for the early Christians to worship near those who had received the Eucharist before them, and whose mortal remains were therefore destined for resurrected life. Hence the cult of relics, and the reason why relics of martyrs are to this day placed in churches’ altar stones.
But in another way, it is the revelation of something miraculous but nonetheless completely natural: the cycle of death and birth. Imagine a grain sown into the earth. It grows to wheat and the grain is no more. The wheat is cut and ground to be made into dough. The dough is mixed with yeast to rise and then baked into bread for our sustenance. Just so, Christ died, was cut down from the Cross and was buried in the earth, then rose to life by the yeast and fire of the Holy Spirit. We have the bread which sustains our mortal life only because the grain dies and gives wheat. We have the Resurrection to eternal life only because Jesus dies and yields to us his immortality.
What we are doing here, and Christians throughout time and the world are doing whenever they celebrate mass, is nothing other than preparing for death. The historian St Bede writes of several early British saints, such as Hilda, Caedmon and Cuthbert, that they received the Sacrament as close as possible to the moment of their own deaths, ideally surrounded by their fellow Christians. St Dunstan, 10th century Archbishop of Canterbury, during mass in the Easter octave, surrounded by the singing of psalms, received the precious Body of Christ and then, it is written, “gave up his spirit,” so joining his departure with Our Lord’s on the Cross. It may sound strange to the world, but for a Christian, there can be no better way to die.
So now, my brothers and sisters, I urge you to give thanks today at our altar for the blood of the martyrs, even the most recent ones, confident in their Resurrection to life with Our Lord; to offer his sacrifice for them here as our forebears have ever done; and now and at every Mass to prepare also for your own death, praying for God’s grace to transform you into the fulness of Resurrected Life in which he wills you to rejoice.
Alleluia! Christ is risen.