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How to make a Holy Family

Family. Authority. Obedience. How very Victorian. The theme of the gospel for the Feast of the Holy Family might make modern liberals blanche over their skinny de-caf soya lattes, yet it may be just the remedy for the indiscipline of modern times. 
Compare and contrast: the Individual. Choice. Self-discovery. Now we're back into happy modern territory. Surely happier, at any rate, than the 1950s, that mythical decade wherein Guardianistas fondly sneer that Mail readers all wish to dwell, in saecula saeculorum. After all "family," we are repeatedly told, is the primary locus of emotional and sexual abuse; "authority" is never to be trusted, since everyone is out on the make; and "obedience" is sheep-like and undignified, because nobody could possibly know better than I. So it is the individual trumps the wicked family, personal choice overrides all authority, and nobody deserves the obedience which would impede my personal voyage of self-discovery. 
Peop…

Advent and Apocalyptic Rivalry

An obscure group camped out in the Middle East believes the end of the world is nigh. Their bearded rabble-rouser of a prophet is proclaiming ancient, apocalyptic scriptures, and he says that the promised Messiah who will judge the living and the dead is coming soon, any minute now. They've been waiting a long time, so long that they start to wonder if their prophet is that Messiah, but he says not. The world is showing no signs of ending, and so many zealots want to take matters into their own hands, accelerate the end of days, do God's work by expelling the pagan occupation. At every setback, their leader tells them to be patient, because the judgment will most certainly come to pass. It is God's will. He will send a Spirit of fire to cleanse and purify. And for you, he says, for you who live righteously and believe, this is Good News: for He will judge justly.

I'm talking about John, of course. But which one: the Baptist, or the Jihadi?

Many of the Baptist's co…

Good news, you brood of vipers!

Advent 3, and this week, as last, the star of the Gospel passage is John the Baptist.
The contrast between the first line and the last are almost comical. Hairy old John begins by shouting at those queuing up for baptism "you brood of vipers!" and goes on to tell them that their Abrahamic ancestry counts for nothing, because God has his axe at the root of the tree just waiting to cut them off and lob them into the fire. "So," the Gospel concludes, "he proclaimed the good news to the people."
"What an uplifting sermon, Father," said the congregation as they shook hands after the service and left the bank of the Jordan.
I cannot imagine many bishops nowadays counselling their clergy to adopt John's homiletic style, though I'd love to see the look on the faces of people bringing their children to a baptism if I tried it.
There's nothing remotely risible about John's message, however, and it's one which hits us all with its seve…

Thy Kingdom Come

"Thy Kingdom come," we pray every Sunday, and rather more often, I hope. What do we mean?

Jesus reluctantly admits to Pilate that He is indeed a King, but His Kingdom is not of this world: not of fighting, not of political power, but of truth. Elsewhere, He tells us that this Kingdom is already here, within us. And yet He tells us to pray for the Kingdom to come. So, we are left with a Kingdom of truth, a Kingdom of the heart, which is in one sense already here, yet in another, yet to come.

C.S. Lewis explains this paradox as something like living in enemy territory even after the war has been won, like those Japanese soldiers stranded for decades in the jungle who never realised that they'd lost the war. And prayer is a kind of spiritual warfare. It's warfare against sin, certainly, and especially against the sort of sin that leads to the violence committed by earthly kingdoms and caliphates, satrapies and soviets. But it's a war that begins internally, with th…

2 before Advent: My, what large stones you have! Or, the Temple that will never fall

The disciples were almost incredulous at the size of the stones the Temple was made of, and well they might be.
Some weighed more than 100 tonnes, and the walls were twenty storeys high. But, you might wonder, hadn't they been there before? Perhaps not. None of them were local to Jerusalem. For them, going there was much like going to the Vatican or Hagia Sophia for the first time might be to us, but without the benefit of guide books or photographs beforehand. Even their parents or grandparents' reminiscences might not have lived up to the reality, since the Temple had been extensively and opulently rebuilt by King Herod fifty years before, surrounded by soaring Greek columns and vast cloisters. It's not surprising that it exceeded their visual expectations; but what the Temple meant to them, their symbolic preconception of it, would have been very clear indeed, and only magnified by the staggering immensity of its architecture, because the Temple meant nothing less than t…

Blackwell Companion to Christian Ethics

I'm now now reading the Blackwell Companion to Christian Ethics, which is not the dull primer it sounds like. Rather, it is an intriguing compilation of essays edited by Stanley Hauerwas and Sam Wells arguing that we must derive Christian ethics directly from the narrative and pattern of the Eucharist. Worth a read, especially if you want to embed your Christian life, parish work and preaching more deeply in the Catholic conviction of the centrality of the Mass.

All Saints, All Ears

"Listen:" the first word of the Rule of St Benedict, one of the oldest rules of life for monks and nuns. One word, carefully chosen, one simple order given as the basis for the entire spiritual life. Benedict could have chosen another word, like obey, or pray, or preach, or work, but his experience told him that all that comes later. First, just listen. I think it's harder than ever really to listen, there's so much to distract us nowadays.
We do spend a lot of time pretending to listen, though. How many times have you heard politicians being interviewed saying "I hear you?" - and you know full well that what they really mean is, I hear you, but I haven't got time actually to listen to you. Your words have passed through my ears, but I'm not going to bother to process them now, because what I've got to say is more important.
But it's not just politicians - most of us are guilty. You visit an ailing and elderly relative, and you're sick …

"Bible Sunday"

I should probably be more patient, but this is how I feel every year on the Last Sunday of Trinity: at last, Ordinary Time is coming to an end! The long green monotony is about to make way for All Saints and All Souls, the Feast of Christ the King and before we know it, deepest purple Advent, with which the new Church Year begins.
The Last after Trinity does have one perk, however: its Collect, a modern version of the Prayer Book's Collect for Advent 2. In my view, this is one of Archbishop Cranmer's finest prayers:
"Blessed Lord, who hast caused all holy Scriptures to be written for our learning; Grant that we may in such wise hear them, read, mark, learn, and inwardly digest them, that by patience and comfort of thy holy Word, we may embrace, and ever hold fast, the blessed hope of everlasting life, which thou hast given us in our Saviour Jesus Christ. Amen."
I like this thoroughly Anglican prayer for what it does not say as much as for what it does. It does not …

Monarchy: servant leadership

James and John ask to be the leaders of the nascent Church. Jesus does not say that there is anything wrong with this per se, but he tells them that they don't really know what they are asking. If they want to lead, they will have to be baptised with the baptism he is going to be baptised with: that is, his death on the Cross. "You are not to be like the Gentile rulers and tyrants who lord it over their people," he says. "The great among you must be servants, and the greatest a slave to all."
Songs by the Sex Pistols, Hollywood movies and the consensus of sneering, metropolitan comedians might tempt you to believe that the villainous tyrants to whom Jesus objects are kings and queens. Yet compare the behaviour of American presidential candidates with that of our Queen, and you can quickly dispel the myth of republican superiority. Her commitment to selfless public service is indisputable even by the most hardline critics of the Crown. Forgive me for aiming at s…

St Francis - fret ye not!

Sometimes I wonder whether modernity has somehow tumbled out of the mind of Thomas Gradgrind, the headmaster in Dicken's Hard Times who believed in nothing but Facts, nothing that could not be weighed and measured. Our computers, our 'phones, even our watches nowadays produce reams of data about us, weighing and measuring the minutiae of our lives. We've got apps to tell us how many paces we've walked, how fast our heart is beating, how many calories we've eaten, what we've spent our money on. And all that data flies off automatically to some Gradgrindish machine in California which then berates us remotely for the woeful inefficiency of our lives. Is it any wonder we're all so worried?
Of course, there are things we should be worried about. As Christians, we should definitely be worried about the plight of the poor and the decline of our nation into unthinking heathenism. We might also be justified in worrying about such things as sacramental assurance and…

Is it lawful for a man to divorce his wife?

"Jesus said, 'I am the way, the truth and the life,' not 'I am the way, the social convention and the life.'"
In case you think I'm about to wuss out of controversy, those words didn't come from me, but from that arch-liberal 6th-century Pope St Gregory the Great. Yet it's funny how in every generation the popular truths of Christianity seem to echo the moral preoccupations of our grandparents. They're often sold as "Christian values," a handy way of agreeing with the bits of Christian teaching that happen to accord to one's particular prejudices without having to go to the intellectual effort of thinking about all of that supernatural mumbo-jumbo.
But Christianity isn't a list of values. The Bible isn't a Haynes manual. It's the God's life-story, and life's more complex than a clapped-out Anglia. Imagine if someone tried to take your life, the relations you've had, everything you've said and done, an…

Spiritual Terrorism

Ah, angels. Tricky subject. Maybe they're best just left looking pretty on Christmas cards. Take them more seriously and it all gets a bit "Mind, Body and Spirit," really, doesn't it?
But they are biblical, so what are we to make of them? "Angel" of course means "messenger," from the Greek "angelos." And that's what they are in relation to us, bearers of messages from God. But they do other things, too. The angel Raphael heals Tobit, for example, and in Revelation, Michael leads the heavenly armies of angels in warfare against Satan. So Pope St Gregory the Great, who sent St Augustine of Canterbury to be the first Archbishop of these isles, says that "angel" describes their function, rather than what they actually are: it's basically a job title. (By the way, part of the reasons Gregory sent Augustine over here was that he thought the natives looked angelic. Seeing some English blonds up for grabs on the slave market, …

Matter matters

"If you put together all the relics of the True Cross, you'd have enough lumber to build a merchant ship!" A good punchline from the 16th century Humanist Erasmus. Maybe you've heard it before. It would be funnier if it were true. But in 1870, a French scholar named de Fleury measured all of the extant fragments and calculated their volume, and he worked out that altogether, they wouldn't make up even a tenth of a Roman cross. Definitely not enough to carry freight. Not even enough to crucify a man. But then, to paraphrase Einstein, common sense isn't much more than the prejudices we acquire by the age of eighteen.

Our cynicism about relics of the Cross was not shared by the ancients. In the early fourth century, St Helena, wife of Emperor Constantine, reputedly excavated three crosses hidden by Christians under the streets of forcibly paganized Jerusalem. By the end of that century, even the great St Ambrose, Bishop of Milan and mentor of St Augustine, had …

It is good to be here

From a sermon on the transfiguration of the Lord by Anastasius of Sinai, bishop
Let us be caught up like Peter to behold the divine vision and to be transfigured by that glorious transfiguration. Let us retire from the world, stand aloof from the earth, rise above the body, detach ourselves from creatures and turn to the creator, to whom Peter in ecstasy exclaimed: Lord, it is good for us to be here.     It is indeed good to be here, as you have said, Peter. It is good to be with Jesus and to remain here for ever. What greater happiness or higher honour could we have than to be with God, to be made like him and to live in his light?     Therefore, since each of us possesses God in his heart and is being transformed into his divine image, we also should cry out with joy: It is good for us to be here – here where all things shine with divine radiance, where there is joy and gladness and exultation; where there is nothing in our hearts but peace, serenity and stillness; where God is seen. F…

Christ as the measure of all things

If Amos had been a good boy and known his place, he would never have become the first of the Old Testament prophets. You see, back in his native, 8th-century BC Judah, prophecy was a family business, and if you weren't born into it, you were expected to keep your mouth shut. And true to form, it seems his own people weren't that interested in what he had to say, because he ended up prophesying not in his native Judah, but heading up north to the wealthier Kingdom of Israel – which should, I hope, ring a bell, if we remember last week's Gospel: a prophet is without honour in his homeland. Jesus made no headway in Galilee and so sent out his Apostles elsewhere. And it's no coincidence, because this week's texts continue with last week's theme, which is mission.

Amos was a new kind of prophet, a missionary prophet, an outsider to the establishment and even to the nation he prophesied in, and that's why his story was interesting enough to be recorded as the ea…

Trinity 3 - Who cares?

"Don't you care?"
Half the world's looking like it's heading for a shipwreck, if it hasn't happened already, or in more modern usage, a car crash: millions are in danger of starvation, sickness, terrorism, tyranny, abuse; in Africa, in the Middle East, here in Britain in their own homes. We hear of people literally out at sea, fleeing the horrors of their homelands and in great peril. And what to say of the great ship of the Church, lurching so perilously between the Scylla of scandal and the Charybdis of indifference, while the ageing timbers splinter and groan? Tempting to ask the Lord, isn't it, that question the disciples asked Him when a storm threatened their lives at sea: "don't you care?"
We're a literate society, we engage with each other and with God in part through texts, and so we tend to expect answers to our questions in words. I must say, when people come to me in distress, I cannot give the answer Jesus gave, which amount…

'Only' Spiritual?

On Sunday, we celebrated Corpus Christi, and I preached briefly on how Christ is present in the bread and wine of the Eucharist: if you missed it, you can read it here. I thought that it might be useful to build a little on last Sunday's teaching in this parish email.
First, it's important to recognise that Christ is present in the Eucharist in four different ways: First, in us, His gathered Body; second, as the Divine Word in the human words of the Bible, and especially in His words recorded in the Gospels; third, in the priest who represents Him at the Altar; and fourth, in the Eucharistic gifts of bread and wine.

At the Reformation, the fourth of these modes of Christ's presence became controversial. Protestant thinkers questioned the precise definition of transubstantiation as it was taught by the Roman Catholic Church at the time, whereby the entire substance of the gifts is replaced with the body and blood of Christ, leaving only the outward appearance or 'a…

Corpus Christi

Are we guilty of a pick'n'mix religion? In A Portrait of the the Artist as a Young Man, James Joyce's Catholic protagonist loses his faith. A friend asks him if, then, he means to become a Protestant; to which he replies by asking why he would "forsake an absurdity which is logical and coherent" only to "embrace one which is illogical and incoherent." At Corpus Christi, I think this hits the mark.

I have never understood how so-called 'Bible-based' Christians can happily believe that God has the power to enter the Blessed Virgin's womb, to go among us performing all sorts of spectacular miracles, to rise from the dead, ascend into heaven, give His disciples the power to speak in tongues - and yet deny the plain meaning of God's own words at the Last Supper: "This is my body. This is my blood." Everything else is to be taken at face value, but not this, and that does seem to me quite illogical and incoherent.

There were doubter…

Now the dust has settled...

Whatever your politics, there was one good result from the General Elections: the gap that it revealed between the real world and the shadowy demi-monde of social media - though "antisocial media" might be nearer the mark. The squawking predictions of the Twitterati, to whom our media and politicians gave such ample ear, simply did not translate into political reality. Social media users proved not to be representative of the British people at large, which is just as well, given the sheer hatred they have been spewing at each other since. If people behaved to one another on the streets the same as they do on screen, I'd be afraid to go out.

Perhaps the screen is part of the problem. The nastiest bullying that happens at boarding school is after the lights go out, because it's much easier to say hurtful things to someone when you can't see their face. How much easier, then, when you've got a plastic display dividing you from the reality of a person who may be…

Christmas Backwards - Ascension, Liturgy and Life

"We saw his light break through the cloud of glory Whilst we were rooted still in time and place As earth became a part of Heaven’s story And heaven opened to his human face."
These words from the contemporary Cambridge poet and priest Malcolm Guite admirably sum up what happens to the universe in Jesus Christ, and is made finally manifest at His Ascension: heaven and earth become part of each other's story. Creation meets creator in the one who is both heavenly and human.
But there is more than just a meeting, there is a movement, too, and one which contradicts our earth-rooted rules: for in this case, what has come down must go back up. Moreover, God's pattern of descent and ascent is the pattern we are called to follow in our worship and our lives. It is the light that can transfigure us here below and make us light – as feathers, to float into union with the Divine.
In the topsy-turvy logic of heaven, Christ had to come down before He could rise. His descent begins w…