Wednesday, 22 January 2014

A Clergyman in Black

A Clergyman in Black
by S.J. Forrest

'I can always spot an extreme clergyman, there is something so black about
his garb'.—remark by a suburban Lady


I never, never like to see
A clergyman in black.
It speaks of dark disloyalty,
And clandestine attack;
Of sabotage, conspiracy,
And stabbings in the back.

This black fanaticism bears
The label of the Beast;
An aping of the Romanists,
A masquerade at least,
That makes a clergyman appear
To be a real priest.

Though ministers are difficult
To sift and classify
I finds the deeds of darkness
In the men of deepest dye;
And those in black are normally
So very, very high.

Although I do not like high church
I'd stomach one or two
(The Church of England's big enough
To tolerate a few).
If only they would not behave
As if their faith were true.

A clergyman in corduroys
Or dressed in Harris tweed,
Will generally compromise,
And readily accede;
His safety and his sympathy,
Are wholly guaranteed.

So let us warn our ordinands
Of folly and excess,
And only pass the ministers
Who honestly profess
A variegated churchmanship,
In varicoloured dress.

Tuesday, 21 January 2014

Week of prayer for Christian Unity: some thoughts from St Ignatius of Antioch

From the Letter to the Ephesians by Saint Ignatius of Antioch, bishop and martyr, written some time before AD 117:

The harmony of unity

"It is right for you to give glory in every way to Jesus Christ who has given glory to you; you must be made holy in all things by being united in perfect obedience, in submission to the bishop and the presbyters.
"I am not giving you orders as if I were a person of importance. Even if I am a prisoner for the name of Christ, I am not yet made perfect in Jesus Christ. I am now beginning to be a disciple and I am speaking to you as my fellow-disciples. It is you who should be strengthening me by your faith, your encouragement, your patience, your serenity. But since love will not allow me to be silent about you, I am taking the opportunity to urge you to be united in conformity with the mind of God. For Jesus Christ, our life, without whom we cannot live, is the mind of the Father, just as the bishops, appointed over the whole earth, are in conformity with the mind of Jesus Christ.
"It is fitting, therefore, that you should be in agreement with the mind of the bishop as in fact you are. Your excellent presbyters, who are a credit to God, are as suited to the bishop as strings to a harp. So in your harmony of mind and heart the song you sing is Jesus Christ. Every one of you should form a choir, so that, in harmony of sound through harmony of hearts, and in unity taking the note from God, you may sing with one voice through Jesus Christ to the Father. If you do this, he will listen to you and see from your good works that you are members of his Son. It is then an advantage to you to live in perfect unity, so that at all times you may share in God.
"If in a short space of time I have become so close a friend of your bishop – in a friendship not based on nature but on spiritual grounds – how much more blessed do I judge you to be, for you are as united with him as the Church is to Jesus Christ, and Jesus Christ to the Father, so that all things are in harmony through unity. Let no one make any mistake: unless a person is within the sanctuary, he is deprived of God’s bread. For if the prayer of one or two has such power, how much more has the prayer of the bishop and the whole Church."

Repent! Epiphany 3

"Repent, for the kingdom of God is at hand," says the Lord in this Sunday's Gospel (Matthew 4:12-23).

Is it? 

Looking around, especially if you watch any TV, you would hardly believe that the kingdom of peace and love is about to descend upon our world. Yet here is Jesus, boldly telling us that it is just around the corner.

So, where is it, then?

Well, for a start, Galilee. That is where Jesus went straight after proclaiming the coming of the Kingdom. It would sound funnier if you were a first century Palestinian. Galilee was a place regarded as an uncivilised backwater where everyone spoke with a daft accent. In other words, Dudley (I can just about get away with saying that because my family is from round there). That's right, the kingdom of God is coming first to Dudley. 

You get the point that Jesus is making here. The kingdom of God is coming to the places that the cultured classes consider most irrelevant, to the people they sneer and jeer at. 

If we want it to come among us, then we need to humble ourselves: to accept being rejected, mocked and taunted, as Jesus was. Perhaps we also need (and I should take my own advice here!) to take ourselves a bit less seriously — but other people more so. 

Repent, allow God truly to turn your heart, and the seed of the kingdom will grow there, whoever or whatever you are.

Thursday, 16 January 2014

A Second Lamb for the Oppressed in Egypt

"John saw Jesus coming towards him and declared, ‘Behold the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world!" 

In Egypt, Wednesday marked a day of great opportunity and great danger. The elections held there were not only to oust former President Morsi's supporters, but to vote for a constitution guaranteeing rights that we in England take for granted: freedom of belief, equality in law of men and women, the prohibition of political parties being formed based on race or religion. 

Egypt may seem rather distant to us, even though modern technology brings it right into our living rooms. More distant, I suspect, than it seemed to those crowding round the banks of the Jordan with Jesus to be baptised by John. And not just because of simple geographical proximity, but because of their shared history with Egypt, as Jews. It was from Egypt, generations ago, that their ancestors had escaped slavery, thanks to the pure sacrifice of the Passover Lamb. And that connexion would have been driven home when Our Lord approached and John proclaimed that here, come among them, was that very Lamb of God, the sacrificial victim who would liberate their people again. 

But the kind of liberation they expected was not the kind that Jesus was to bring. Nor was it for them alone. The Passover Lamb had brought the Jewish people freedom from their Egyptian oppressors, and so the Jews naturally hoped that this new Lamb of God, the Messiah, would bring them similar freedom from the Romans who ruled their land. But Jesus' freedom would be for all people, and it would be a freedom from a far greater oppressor even than the ancient Egyptians or the Romans, an oppressor which binds and shackles us all: the Devil and his weapon of sin. 

Sin is the one disease that afflicts all humanity. It ravages Egypt still, as men fall to the lust for power and violence. The Muslim Brotherhood is not content with a constitution which would keeps Islam as the national religion but allow for freedom of belief. They want absolute dominion, theocracy, and in the past their supporters have bombed churches and schools to achieve it, closed ballot boxes and prevented people from voting. Their tactic this time is to boycott the vote in the hope that only a minority will pass the new constitution, because then they will be able to blame that minority and accuse them of illegitimacy. And that minority are, by and large, Christians. Whatever the outcome of the vote, there will be attempts at reprisal, and Christians will doubtless suffer. 

But if sin is the one disease that afflicts us all, by the grace of God there is also one cure for it: one Lord, one faith, one baptism. A baptism we share "together with all those who in every place call on the name of our Lord Jesus Christ," as St Paul writes to the Corinthians. However far away they may seem, the Coptic Christians are our brothers and sisters in Christ through the baptism they share with us and with Him. And it is His sacrifice as the Lamb of God which offers the cure for all sin, offers reconciliation with the Father not just to our English church or just to the Coptic Church or even just to all Christians — not like the Passover Lamb was offered only for the Jewish people — but to all Creation. It is cosmic in its scale, infinite in its power, because it is the sacrifice of God's own self, God the Son to God the Father.

We are called to believe that it is that once-and-for-all sacrifice that Jesus offers through us and all Christians today and whenever we offer the Eucharist. He offers it as we offer it, not just for ourselves who receive His Body and Blood here, but for each other, for our brothers and sisters throughout the world, and for all creation. Bishop Angaelos of the Coptic Church in the United Kingdom has asked for our prayers for his people in Egypt at this fragile moment. So, as we begin the week of Prayer for Christian Unity, I ask you to offer today's sacrifice with me for peace in Egypt and for our brothers and sisters there. 

Saturday, 11 January 2014

The Baptism of the Lord

In the Church year, a lot has happened since Christmas, though you'd be forgiven for not noticing it in the rush. In the space of less than two weeks, the Church has celebrated not only the birth of Jesus, but also His naming and circumcision, the visit of the Magi at Epiphany, and now we fast-forward some thirty years to His baptism by John. Somewhere in there, in the Epiphany season, is His first miracle as well, the changing of water into wine during the wedding at Cana. 

So here we are, still decked out in our glorious white and gold, with the pretty crib only just put away, and memories of Christmas turkey, mulled wine, time with the family and the Coronation Street omnibus still fresh in our minds. I leave it to you do decide the relative merits of each of those for yourselves. But what I'm getting at is that it's at least meant to have been a time of celebration and joy. 

So forgive me for putting a bit of dampener on it, and this might tell you more about my psychological makeup than I really want you to know, but after the joy of Christmas, I can't help seeing in all of these jolly Epiphany stories a bit of a dark side, a twist in the tale, if you will. Yes, I know, Epiphany is all about light: the Greek 'phaneia' means "shining" and 'epi' means "upon," so it's all about Christ's light shining out on us. Sure. But light does cast a shadow. 

Take the visit of the Magi, for a start. Nao and I have a little one on the way, so friends and family have started knitting cardies and cruising TK Maxx for bargain baby gifts. I don't think they'll find any discount gold and frankincense, although either of those would be quite welcome. Myrrh, though, we can really do without. I mean, what did the wise man say to Mary when he presented her with that? "Here you go, love, have some of this oil to rub into dead bodies." A pretty odd gift for a baby. You see what I mean by a dark side to the story. 

Or there's the Wedding at Cana, another part of the Epiphany narrative. It all seems pretty innocuous, an innocent tale, doesn't it: them running out of wine and Jesus doing his famous party trick. But then there are those rather chilling words: "My hour has not yet come." Imagine if your child had said that. "My hour has not yet come." Time to call the Exorcist. 

And here we are now at the Baptism of Our Lord. Now surely even I'm not going to find a dark side here? Jesus goes to John, joining the ranks of sinners waiting to be purified by his baptism, John protests, Jesus insists, the heavens open, the Holy Spirit descends like a dove, God announces Jesus' divine sonship. Powerful stuff, but all pretty positive, no?

Except... It raises certain questions. Such as, given that the Jewish baptism of John was a cleansing rite, to wash away sin, a ritual you could go through as many times as you liked, not a once-and-forever initiation rite like our Christian baptism— why on earth does the sinless Son of God need to be dunked? It's not as if He needs to repent. Or another question: this opening of the heavens, this coming of the Holy Spirit: what does that remind us of? 

Well, the first question can be answered by saying that Jesus is taking our humanity with Him into the waters, that it is us He is cleansing, and even that, by dipping into it, He cleanses the water itself and all of creation. But you and I know, in hindsight, that it is going to take more than just a baptism for Jesus ultimately to achieve this. 

And this leads us to second question. The time the heavens will open will be when Jesus ascends into them, and the time when the Holy Spirit comes will be at Pentecost, when the Apostles speak in tongues.  But of course, all of this can happen only after one event, one event that, for all Our Lord's light, casts a long shadow over His entire earthly life. We are being pointed, right from the start, to the Crucifixion and Resurrection, here in Epiphany already looking onwards to Good Friday and Easter Day. That is when the myrrh will anoint Him for death, that is when His hour will come, that is when the cleansing gift of His Baptism will be empowered to wash the sins of all humanity, all creation. Through His sacrifice on the Cross. Through His glorious Resurrection.

This is why, following St Paul, we call our baptism a death to sin, because it is a sharing in Jesus' death on the Cross. But is is at the same time a rebirth, to sinless and eternal glory. And yet, baptism is no more the end of our self-offering to the Father than Jesus' was. For us as for Jesus it marks only the beginning of a life of sacrifice. 

We offer that sacrifice now, in our Eucharist today. Or, strictly speaking, we join in Christ's sacrifice through the Eucharist, in the same way as through baptism we were joined with his death: really, the sacrifice we call "ours" is Christ's, sacrificing Himself eternally to the Father through His Body, the Church. In the Eucharist, we are drawn in to that, we participate in His self-offering, and that is why our baptism makes all Christians part of Christ's priesthood. Our High Priest, Christ, offers Himself to the Father through us, taking us with Him.

What this means for us is that, honouring our baptism and the grave responsibility it puts on us, we must make sure that our offering is pure and spotless. We must continue to repent, and if there is anything we are doing that we know we should not be, anything that dirties the glorious image of God in which we are all made, we must confess it and truly ask God to help us change our ways before we make our offering at this Mass. There is no cheap grace; baptism marks the beginning, but it points very clearly to the truth that Christ wins us eternal life only through suffering and the Cross. 

So rejoice today, at the very end of Christmastide, in the light of Christ; but get ready also to walk through the shadows. For that is the way His Baptism points us if we would reach the fulness of His glory and see the Father face-to-face.

Thursday, 2 January 2014

Christmas homily

In the beginning was — nothing: deeper than any nothing we can imagine: no time, no space, no matter. Sheer, absolute nothing. And from this nothing, the silent whisper of God's Word exploded : exploded into everything. The world came into being through him. From one infinitely tiny spark of no space and no time came the infinite greatness of all space and all time, the cosmos, stars, planets, our world, the vast chaos of oceans, volcanic lands and life: plants, amoebae, sea creatures, reptiles, birds, mammals, and eventually, us. All from nothing. ALL from nothing, by the Word. And that Word was God. 

From nothing, but not "for" nothing. For, millions upon millions of years after the beginning of time from a second nothing, the emptiness of a virgin's womb, God's Word spoke anew, but this time in the language of flesh and bone and blood: a baby boy, a Word spelt out in birth, in life, in teachings and in actions, and in death the secret, silent mystery and meaning of creation. The God who spoke first the language of the stars, of carbon and the molecules of which all things are made, translates Himself into Jesus, a Word we can understand, a light brighter than any star, as John the Baptist was first to hear and testify. 

To testify that, this sacred night, God was born to Mary. To testify that, this sacred night, the One beyond all time and space entered time and space, to walk among us, to walk with us, to show us the Way, to be the Way. The Way along which Jesus, God the Son, leads us with Him back to God the Father. From time back to eternity. From creation back to the creator. From darkness into light.

In Jesus, God walked among us, but we did not know him, we did not accept him, we did not receive him. Yet we can receive Him now. We can receive him by walking his Way: the Way He offered us on His Cross. This night, at Christmas, God gives himself to us in life, the life of a baby boy. But we know that he will also give himself to us in death, even as we kill Him, on Good Friday. And that is where a third and final nothing, a final emptiness comes in: after the first nothing before creation, after the second nothing of the virgin's empty womb, comes the last nothing of the empty tomb. But after that, there can be no more emptiness, no more nothingness: because from the tomb Springs the Word anew, the fulness of love which overcomes all emptiness, lightens all darkness, even the emptiness and darkness of death. 

This night and always, God offers life and love to all who will receive Him; to all who will empty themselves and be filled with Him. He offers it in creation, in making us and giving us the opportunity to live and love. He offers it in His birth and life in Jesus Christ, being born a human for us and showing us the Way that we must walk. He offers it in his death, in His flesh and blood offered for us on the Cross, and here, today in bread and wine at the Altar. Advent was a time of repenting, emptying ourselves, preparing like Our Lady Mary to be filled with Him so that we too can bring Him forth in the world. There will be birth-pangs, there will be suffering, for that is the Way of the Cross. But to all who receive him, to all who believe in his holy Name, he gives power to become children of God. The Word became flesh and dwelt among us, God joined humanity, so that humanity might join God in the fulness of grace and truth. I pray that you receive Him tonight in the words of Holy Scripture; receive Him in the love of your friends and families; receive Him at this Altar in bread and wine; and bring forth some of his love, his peace, his joy this Christmastime and always.