Monday, 12 March 2018

The Divine Image of Motherhood

Despite the fourth commandment (or fifth, depending on how you count them), Jesus did not make many positive comments about biological parenthood. 

On one occasion, according to Matthew’s gospel, when Mary and members of his family come to see Him, he leaves them standing outside, and says that real mother and brother are his disciples. Elsewhere, Jesus says that anyone who loves his mother or father more than they love Him is not worthy of Him. Matthew’s Jesus also tells us to "call no man your father on earth, for you have one Father, who is in heaven," and even says that He came to "set a man against his father, and a daughter against her mother.” So much for ‘Christian family values’ so far.    

Still, Jesus and His Apostles do offer some more favourable visions of family life. Jesus did describe his disciples as his family, and St Paul writes to the Corinthians that he was made their "father in Christ Jesus through the Gospel." Along with Paul, Peter and John repeatedly write to their fellow Christians as "children" and "sons." And emphatically, on the point of crucifixion, we heard in today’s reading from S. John’s gospel how Jesus gives Mary over to be the mother of John and his Christian community. 

So, according to Jesus teaching, the Christian family is the Church, and has known spiritual mothers and fathers since New Testament times. This is the positive model of parenthood" offered by Jesus in the Bible. 

That said, the Gospel is formed not only (and not even primarily) of Christ’s teachings, but of his example. What we know of God, we know through the life and person of Jesus. His Crucifixion reveals that God is like someone who risks pain and even death to give new life to people, unknown people who may not even recognise the gift he is giving them - an image which men can know only second-hand, but which is an analogue of the painful and dangerous life-giving act of the mother in childbirth. Mothers do therefore share in a special, particular way in the divine image which men cannot fully grasp. This is a potent reminder that, for all we refer to God by masculine terms such as “He," “Father,” or “ on,” God is beyond gender, and as much our mother as our father. 

The New Testament claims that our true parents and true family are the ones who nurture us spiritually, in a relationship that leads us beyond ourselves and to God, whether this happens to coincide with our biological relationships or not. So let us give thanks to God for our mothers – but also for anyone who gives us the spiritual motherhood we need to help us grow, for the gift of mother Church, for the Blessed Virgin Mary, whom Christ has given to be mother of his Church, and for God who is both mother and father of all.

Wednesday, 7 March 2018

Why Chad won't get the Benz

O Lord, won't you buy me a Mercedes-Benz,
My friends all have Porsches, I must make amends.
Worked hard all my lifetime, no help from my friends.
O Lord, won't you buy me a Mercedes-Benz.

Ironic that Janice Joplin's anti-consumerism protest song actually ended up in a Mercedes ad. And more ironic still that there are some Christians who seem to believe that God really works like this: just pray hard enough, be a good boy, and you'll stack up points on your celestial loyalty card. Just believe in Jesus, and all your troubles will go away. You’ll get your Mercedes-Benz. 
Well, that's not the kind of Christianity I believe in. Nor was it the Christianity of St Chad.
Chad, I hope you know, was the very first bishop of Lichfield, and the founder of the first for school here some 1300 years ago. The reason I bring him up is that 2 Marchlast Friday, was St Chad's feast day. Various institutions associated with him spent the weekend celebrating. Things were a little muted here thanks to the weather, but the feast was kept, and even though we don't have Chad's head here any more, we did have a little procession with his icon, which you can see in the shrine at the East end of the cathedral.
The students of St Chad's College in Durham University celebrate every year by getting up at 6.30, dressing up in their college colour of green, parading around Durham banging drums to wake the other colleges, having a green-themed breakfast with green milk, green porridge and some special glasses of green fizz, and then going in their green tutus, mankinis and onesies for a service of blessing in Durham Cathedral. Perhaps we should do something similar in Lichfield next year (minus the mankinis).
So, who was this Chad? To be honest, we don't know a huge amount about him. He did die in AD 672, after all. What we do know is that this was a time of plague. And Vikings: invading, marauding, pillaging, et cetera. Not, then, an easy time. And we know that it was a time of dispute in the British church between the native Celtic Christian tradition and the relatively new arrival of the Roman Church.
Now this affected St Chad directly. Chad was a British monk who had been taught the faith by St Aidan on the Holy Isle of Lindisfarne, not to far from Durham. This Celtic Christianity was the faith he had fallen in love with, so much so that he was eventually made Bishop of York. But then, along came a new Archbishop of Canterbury, Theodore of Tarsus, fresh from Rome, who questioned the validity of native British ordination ceremonies. Chad was told to step down: and he did. Completely willingly, humbly and obediently. The archbishop was so impressed with our patron saint's humility that he made him Bishop of Mercia. That was when Chad founded his diocesan cathedral, here in Lichfield.
But it is not just history and heritage which link Chad to us today. Time is, after all, just a passing thing. The firmer link is the Cross of Christ, which was an event in time but which nonetheless is rooted in eternity. You see, Chad was not motivated by the things of this world: by power, wealth, even high office in the Church. Even if they'd had a nice S650 cabriolet back in the 650s AD, Chad wouldn't have wanted to get the Benz – because he knew that the greatest reward for a Christian is Crucifixion.
I don't mean that literally, for Chad or for us: he did not have to die for his faith, and I hope that none us will, though people still do. Rather, I mean that we find our selves not in getting, but in giving ourselves, offering ourselves for others. That is the Cross for us, of we choose it, and it is on that cross that we can find the deep, everlasting joy which carried Chad through trial and humiliation.
St Chad had his own, distinctive cross, which you can find on the arms of the Durham college which bears his name, of Selwyn College in Cambridge, and on the badge of our school uniforms. I urge you to consider the cost, not just to Our Lord himself but to Chad and all the saints between Christ's time and our own, of bringing us the sign that we now wear: a price higher than any number of Mercedes-Benz.

Tuesday, 27 February 2018

Find yourself

People seek to find themselves in all sorts of ways. 

It was once fashionable for the children of the wealthy to go on gap years to India or the foothills of Nepal in search of themselves. Nowadays, possessed by the Gradgrindish spirit of the age, school leavers are more likely to seek themselves in work experience at some bluechip company, eager to devote every minute to useful and profitable endeavour. My sympathies are firmly with the former, but while wealth may be a duplicitous measure of human worth, one need not travel as far as India to find oneself either.

On the second Sunday of Lent, Jesus's words remind us that to find ourselves, we have to deny ourselves: to "take up our cross" and follow him.

This is not just a case of good, old-fashioned Christian masochism. Nor is it a moral teaching: Jesus was not primarily a moral teacher and certainly never spoke in terms of the nebulous fantasy of "Christian values." It is, rather, a teaching about the paradoxical reality of things and our place within that reality.

Not only Jesus's words, but his entire life and the manner of his death are like icons revealing the divine nature beneath the surface of creation. Many religions have intuited a source of eternal compassion at the heart of all things. In Jesus, this divine compassion is given clearer, closer definition. God (an inadequate word we use only because we have none better) is love, but in the precise sense shown in the life of Christ: a love which not only gives of itself in the act of creation, but even to the extent of utter self-sacrifice for the sake of others. Christ reveals that the true reality we call God is nothing less than absolute self-gift.

So, denying oneself, giving oneself for others without counting the cost, is not just a bit of Lenten miserablism. Rather, it is by giving the self that one finds the true self, which is the divine image of love hidden in every human heart. 

Jesus has opened for us the door of the true self, and that door is the Cross. We enter it through penitence, prayer and faith.

Monday, 12 February 2018

Patience! Monday before Ash Wednesday 2018

Patience is a virtue easily lost today. Food, news, replies to email, everything has to be fast. The hunger for the next instant fix seems insatiable: forty days seems a lifetime. Lent is an exercise in patience. Many will dismiss it as irrelevant or ignore it altogether, but perhaps it really is more relevant now than ever, when the world craves a Tweet-length ‘sign.’
The impatience of our age does not seem to be making us happier. Rarely do you see the faces of those who constantly tap out their addiction on glowing screens glow with equal ardour. Generally their faces are harassed and tense, anxious as the little red message count rises, so engrossed in their virtual world that the real world of, say, families and children becomes an obstacle met with frustration. Parents get angry with their children for interrupting the non-stop screen time, then wonder why the little ones grow up incapable of meaningful relationships or even basic social interaction.
Patience is certainly not my forte (as my wife will tell you). It is what twenty-somethings call a ‘first world problem,’ but much of it is to do with the sheer range of choices available in almost every aspect of life. Which TV streaming service should I choose, which internet provider, which train company for my upcoming trip, which supermarket for dinner? There are those who would say that these are nice problems to have. Yet under the illusion that choice equals freedom, we can end up trapped in a cycle of administrating our lives rather than living them.
How does Lent address this? By encouraging us to fast. This is an ancient discipline common to many religions, which might cause confusion. So, before we can be clear about what it means, let us consider for a moment what it absolutely does not mean.
Fasting does not mean earning God’s favour by doing a good deed, even when we give the money we save by fasting as alms to charity. Nor does it mean giving up on fatty foods so that we can get bikini-ready for summer.
In fact, it means quite the opposite. Fasting is a way of removing the attachments we have to things which get in the way of our relationship with God. If we are fasting for any other reason than to get closer to God, then we are merely perpetuating the capital sin of idolatry: putting something of creation in the creator’s proper place.
Rather, fasting is about entering the suffering of Christ. For many religions, suffering is something to be overcome, an undesirable necessity. This is where we find Christianity’s USP - and not a very marketable one. For Christians, suffering has a purpose, and the path to wisdom is found by entering that suffering. Some enter it deeply, such as the monastics who give up all worldly goods to live in solidarity with the poor, or the many Christians who give up their time and money as volunteers to share and ease the suffering of others. We too can enter it by giving up something which we love but which risks distracting our hearts and minds from union with God.
So ask yourself this Lent, what is it that draws me away from God? Away from inner peace? Away from the love of my friends and family? It may be chocolate or alcohol, I suppose: but perhaps there is some more significant attachment to remove. And when it is removed, perhaps you will find more time and energy to spend with God (in prayer) and with neighbour (in love).
I can promise this: the more honest the penance, the greater the joy of forgiveness; the greater the fasting, the greater the joy of Eastertide when it comes.

Sunday, 28 January 2018

Jeremiah's calling and yours

Jeremiah was born in the Kingdom of Judah, just outside its capital, Jerusalem, seven centuries before Christ. These were times of political and religious unrest. The small Jewish nation was under threat from great empires which surrounded it, including Egypt, Assyria and, to the North, Babylon.

Early in his life, as we heard, Jeremiah received his calling as a prophet. It is important to understand what that means. We tend to think of prophets as something like fortune-tellers predicting the future. Although they often did foreshadow future events, that was not the main role of biblical prophets. Jeremiah was not some kind of Mystic Meg. Prophets were called not so much as to forecast the distant future, but to look into the present and speak hard truths about it, especially to the people with the power to make changes before disaster struck - and a recurring theme in the biblical books of the prophets is that powerful people do not always like hearing the truth.
The several kings whom Jeremiah outlived did not always hear his message favourably. Several times, he criticised the policies they were pursuing. He told them that the rampant social injustice they were inflicting on the poor, widows, orphans and immigrants went against the Law of God. He told them that worshipping other gods - some were even taking part in the horror of child sacrifice enjoined by local cults - was a kind of adultery, cheating on God. And he warned them that their policies and injustice would lead Babylon conquering Jerusalem and destroying the Temple. This, he said, would be God’s judgment on them. The kings and priests in charge were not particularly amused. Jeremiah was rejected and punished.
The rulers were even less amused when Jeremiah’s prediction came true. Babylon conquered, and the rulers of Israel were exiled from their homeland for seventy years. Jeremiah stayed on and encouraged the people to stay at peace with their occupiers, watching the signs and prophesying that Babylon, too, would fall: as it did.
Jeremiah’s story from 2700 years ago is not just a matter of quaint historical interest. It is the part of the story of the Jewish people, a repeated story of faithfulness and infidelity to God, of exile from and attempts to restore a homeland, of defiance and resilience of this small race against the attempts of powerful regimes to dilute their religion or even to destroy them forever. The exile of Israel to Babylon foreshadows the Jews’ status as a homeless and hated people through most of the past two thousand years, culminating in the Holocaust of Nazi Germany. We might note that Jeremiah never lost his trust in God even throughout the horrors of his time, just as so many Jewish survivors of the concentration camps and their descendants still keep their faith today, not allowing Babylon or Hitler to destroy it.
And yet, for all Jeremiah’s faith, he was at first reluctant to receive God’s call. He felt the passion for justice and truth pulling at his heart, but he did not think he was up to the task. “I’m just a boy,” he said: but the God who knew him before he was born had always had this role in mind for him, and gave him the courage and grace to perform it. 

What is it that only you can do? 
What is your unique purpose? 
What is holding you back from it? 
Can you learn, like Jeremiah, to trust in God to help you become who you truly are?