Sunday, 27 December 2015

How to make a Holy Family

© Viz
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. 
People who argue against infant baptism and religious education in schools often argue along these lines. The young, they say, should be able to make their own minds up about such things when they get older. On what grounds they will make their decisions when all information and reasoned debate is withheld from them, I do not know; and if we take the principle to its logical extent, presumably the kiddy winkies will be allowed to choose to eat rusty nails and bubble-wrap if they like, and left until later in life to debate the relative merits of stabbing each other with scissors or playing on motorways. 
Yet there is much that children do not choose, such as their nationality, their sex, their sleeping patterns, or for that matter to be born. One of the points of being a parent is that you make certain choices. Sprog may reject those choices in due course, but the parent still makes the decision in the first place: and choosing to make no decision is a decision in itself. So, like it or not, the family is a unit of authority and obedience. 
What a remarkable counterexample to an age obsessed with self-empowerment that the all-powerful God submitted to the authority of mortal parents. I could bang on about the horror that the almost joyous dismantling of the family and the pathological contempt for authority have wreaked over the decades, but anyone without ideological blinkers or myopic optimism can see that for themselves. Better to think about what kind of authority Jesus was submitting to in his family and community, and what hope it might bring. 
His community's authority was not simply for authority's sake, the authority of "because I say so:" Jesus was debating with his elders and religious superiors when Mary and Joseph found Him. The gospel here commend an authority secure enough to allow dissent, knowing enough to answer questions, mature enough not to resort to anger when challenged. 
Jesus' family had given him the freedom to go off on his own. At first, Mary and Joseph were not worried, certainly not wrapping him in cotton wool. So theirs was the sort of authority that inspires freely willed obedience rather than forces it. Obedience which is unreasoningly enforced is really not obedience at all, but a kind of enslavement. There are times when you do have to enforce it - you can't reason a toddler out of sticking her fingers in the electric socket. But the emergency exception should not set the rule. Good authority sets the boundaries needed for independent flourishing. 
Most importantly, Luke describes a family interrelationship which helped Jesus reach wisdom. Wisdom resides in truth, a concept dismissed by the modern cult of self-fulfilment. The absence of moral truth becomes an excuse for people to use and abuse one another, to break off and start up successions of "relationships" without an afterthought for the detritus they leave behind, and they are bolstered in this by online "friends" who just happen to support them without challenge in everything they do or say or think. Since the wealthy and the middle-aged can afford to make mistakes, the fallout of this indiscipline and folly tends to hit the poorest and the youngest hardest. 
Where many people have found wisdom is in those who have submitted, like Jesus, to the rule of a person or community in which they find the love and knowledge of God, and who have stuck with it; in those who pray often and plenty in a disciplined routine and who give themselves in loving service to one other. If we can offer to our biological families and to our greater family of the Church anything like the nurturing authority Mary and Joseph gave to Jesus, then we will be doing God's work. 

Sunday, 13 December 2015

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 congregation were expecting a military Messiah. There were men who claimed the title and rebelled against the hated Romans. The Old Testament tribal chiefs had no difficulty massacring women and children to achieve their political hegemony, and these were the rebels' God-given inspiration. And when Siefeddine Rezgui Yacoubi opened fire on 38 tourists on the beach in Tunisia in January this year, he did so believing that he was not a murderer but a martyr, and the bombers in Beirut and Paris no doubt thought the same thing.

Like John the Baptist's group, the jihadis in Syria also believe that the apocalypse is nigh. This is not some eccentric minority view. According to recent research, more than half of the Muslims in nine Muslim-majority countries think that they will live to see the apocalypse. Some 42% of Islamic State propaganda is based on this belief, a belief startlingly close to that of the early Church represented by that other John, the Evangelist: that soon, within their lifetime, there will be a final battle between good and evil, with the Messiah leading God's forces against the Antichrist, whereafter Jesus will sit in judgment on us all.

The immediacy of the Apocalypse is such an important part of ISIS ideology that their slick magazine, 'Dabiq,' is named after the town in Syria where the Quran says this final battle will happen – it's the exact equivalent of naming a Christian magazine 'Armageddon.' And their leaders, too, tell them that although there will be setbacks, they must have patience, because God's will is predestined and will come true, and will be good news for those on the right side – which, incidentally, doesn’t include most Muslims, whom they view as apostate traitors.

Roman military might did not ultimately crush the little apocalyptic sect that would become Christianity. If anything, the martyrdoms only strengthened the Church. The bombing of Syria may or may not achieve much, and you will doubtless have formed your own opinions. But surely nobody believes that it will ultimately eliminate the threat of Islamic terrorism, because that threat is the product of an ideology, of a dream which expands far beyond any territorial borders. The Islamic State proper is a nation of the mind, and minds cannot be bombed. But it has conquered the imagination of countless Muslims worldwide, many of them young, able and idealistic.

The political philosopher Edmund Burke observed in the 18th century that "it is one thing to make an idea clear, and another to make it affecting to the imagination." It doesn't matter who has the best idea, the best ideology, whether secular democracy, international socialism or a worldwide Islamic Caliphate: only the one which appeals to the imagination is going to last. And be in no doubt, the myth peddled by the Islamic State is doing just that. It's based on a widespread sense of estrangement among Muslims from a world dominated by liberal western powers which have not only abandoned traditional values but actively persecute those who try to promote them, a feeling of being bullied and humiliated for keeping the faith. Don't Christians feel much the same, whenever another Catholic adoption agency is closed, or the Bible is desecrated in an art exhibition, or a nurse banned from wearing a crucifix? The difference is that we still feel we can compromise and just about function in the modern world. For many Muslims, on the other hand, modernity is an enemy that needs to be stood up to. The Caliphate, says ISIS, is the answer: one God, one Caliphate, one Islamic people, standing nobly and chivalrously like Saladin against the Crusaders.

ISIS have the myth to capture the imagination. What they also have, which the early Christians lacked, is the means to promote that myth on an unprecedented scale. There's no need to go out to every town in twos proclaiming the Gospel. They can do it from their bedrooms: on social media sites, through slickly produced e-zines, by writing on blogs and fora all read by a generation that, research reveals, struggles to distinguish fact from opinion when it comes up on a computer screen. And because people know so little about their religion, other than the 'show-and-tell' stuff they get in RE lessons, Islamists can easily 'prove' their theological point. Their methods include highly selective references to Scripture and Tradition (the Quran and Hadith), dismissal of serious scholarship as 'apostate,' and simple black-and-white answers to very disputable questions, but all this is lost on a generation looking exactly for the dream of a black-and-white worldview. It's exactly like those Christian Unions at schools and universities which tell their members to go nowhere near chapel and bans them from academic theology because it will make them question their beliefs, and it's packaged in exactly the same sexy, trendy way.

No doubt the easiest way to get youngsters into mosque or church is to brainwash them. But that does no justice to the great Christian and Islamic theological traditions reasoned out over the centuries. Instead it fosters enmity, arouses a sense of entrenchment against everyone else. The only weapon that can break through those trenches is reason: theological reason, because this is a theological war, a war over interpretation of what God is and says and does.

So which John? Which God? Which Christ? Both the Baptist and the Jihadi believe in Jesus coming to judge at the end of the world. The difference is in who they believe Jesus is. The Jihadi believes, like some in the Baptist's company, that Jesus will be a warlord coming to kill the infidel. Christians believe that Jesus is God, and that there is nothing in God that is not like Jesus. We have the same kinds of apocalyptic prophecies but the lens by which we see them is quite different: because we believe in a God who triumphs, yes, but by emptying Himself of power and offering Himself for execution upon the Cross. When do not know the time when He will return to fight the Devil, but we do know what His weapon will be: love. And we know what His judgment will be: mercy. The Islamist's God cannot be true, because it is not Christlike. That is our dream. Our work now, the work of preachers, poets, lovers rather than soldiers, is to rekindle that dream in the world's imagination.

Friday, 11 December 2015

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 severity, whether we are rich or poor. Those who believe the disciples were proto-revolutionary rabble-rousers might note John's advice to the soldiers: "be satisfied with your wages." Those, on the other hand, who think that coming to church is a get-out-of-jail-free card which will excuse their greedy materialism need to hear his exhortation that "whoever has two coats must share with anyone who has none." Supply "two Jags" if you can.
The message to us all, sadly all the more relevant just before Christmas, is that fixation on material things will ultimately do us no good at all. Those things are all bound for the flames, and if we don't watch it, they will drag us down with them, into the hell of jealousy, one-upmanship, obsession, selfishness. Not that we see anything like that in Berkhamsted, of course.
There is another way: the Way that John makes straight, cutting through and breaking down all the clutter that clings like you-know-what to the ego and drags us away from the true self within, which is nothing other than Christ himself within us. It may take a baptism of fire to get us there, and the pain may be searing. It's otherwise known as the Cross. Better by far to take it up now than to wait for the final judgment.
And so John's message rings loud and clear, in one word: "Repent!"
Confession times are advertised on the parish pew slip.

Saturday, 21 November 2015

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 the conquering of our own hardened hearts.

The Kingdom of Heaven cannot be taken by the sword, but nor is the pen enough. I keep saying that Christianity isn't a value system, it's a spiritual path, and simply arguing about ethics from a "Christian perspective" or for that matter talking about prayer isn't going to win the war. We've actually got to pray. In fact, the Apostle Paul tells us we've got to pray constantly. "Thy Kingdom come" needs to be at the core of our being, as natural as our heartbeat.

The first step is to realise that this Kingdom cannot coexist with sin, any more than righteousness with lawlessness, light with darkness, Christ with the Devil. So if we want God to reign within us, we do need to examine ourselves, confess our sins, and eliminate them. We need to make straight the path for Christ to enter in.

Which of course brings us to Advent, the start of the new Church year, the time of preparation for Christ's birth not just in the world as some sort of memorial, but actually, really, spiritually, in our hearts. It begins next week, and that's why the Feast of Christ the King is here, at the end of the old Church year, to remind us of exactly what we are hoping to usher in: the Kingdom, which is nothing short of immortality, the final victory over the tyrannies and territories of death and sin, where death is dead and violence is no more. So let us think carefully how we will make room this Advent for God to reign in us.

Sunday, 15 November 2015

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 their Jewish identity and independence. This was the Second Temple, and had stood for 500 years. It had variously been defiled by Syrian and Greek overlords, one of whom even had a statue of Zeus installed and pigs sacrificed on the altar. But since Rome took over in 63BC, the Temple had been purified and its rituals restored. By Jesus' time, it was the finest place of worship ever built.
And Jesus said that it would fall. As, of course, it did, in AD70, sacked by the Romans after the Jewish rebellions, and you can see the booty being carried in triumph today on the Arch of Titus in Rome. Mark's Gospel, the earliest of the four, was written around the same time, so its author knew about the fall of the Temple, but that does not mean that Jesus did not prophesy it. Here again we can put ourselves in the disciples' shoes and imagine what this meant to them: it's as if we had just come out of worship in St Paul's Cathedral or St Peter's, and Jesus was telling us that this great, inspiring symbol of our faith was going to be torn down, destroyed, or maybe like Hagia Sophia turned into a mosque. We would struggle to believe it, but we can imagine it.
Harder to imagine is why Jesus prophesied this at all. We given a clue in our Old Testament reading from Daniel. It's one of the more recent Old Testament books, written in the genre we now call "Apocalyptic," meaning "unveiling" or "revelation," the most famous other example of which is the last book of the New Testament, the "Apocalypse" or "Revelation" of John. Put simply, it's a particular subgenre of prophetic writing which takes present-day happenings and takes them of symbols revealing the end of the world, and while it doesn't have its own section at Waterstones these days, it was very much in vogue back then. Whenever Jesus talks about the end of the age, the wars and famines and earthquakes and the destruction of this world order, he is drawing on that Jewish Apocalyptic tradition, and we have to set aside our modern, literalistic worldview to see what he means. We have to read the symbols.
The writer of this bit of Daniel predicts a war between the angels and the devils, with the heavenly hosts being championed by the Archangel Michael. This is the setting he envisages for the Resurrection, when, he says, "many of those who sleep in the dust of the earth shall awake, some to everlasting life, and some to shame and everlasting contempt." Now bear in mind that not all Jewish sects believed in the Resurrection, or in any kind of afterlife or judgment at all; and chief among these were the upper-class Saduccees, who were in complete control of the Temple. Jesus clearly did believe in the Resurrection, so you can see why he was prophesying the end of Temple Judaism and locating himself in the Apocalyptic narrative we heard from Daniel.
Belief in what happens after death was controversial in Jesus' day, and has remained so ever since. I can only assume that this passage of Daniel, about some waking to everlasting life and others to everlasting contempt, is what inspired those famous lines of William Blake some 1700 years later:
Every Morn and every Night
Some are Born to sweet delight.
Some are Born to sweet delight,
Some are Born to Endless Night.

Blake echoes the ideas of John Calvin, influential in his time, that what happens to us at the end of time is fixed by God from the beginning of time. You're made either for heaven or for hell. But that determinism, the idea that we have no free control of our destiny, is not there in Daniel, is not taught by Jesus, and was firmly repudiated by the Church of England, as we find in today's Collect, penned by the High Church Bishop John Cosin in the seventeenth century. We use it just before Advent because of its apocalyptic themes: Jesus, we prayed, "was revealed to destroy the works of the Devil," so that "when he shall appear in power and great glory we may be made like him." Our ultimate end is to be like Christ, an echo of John's First Letter: "We know that, when he shall appear, we shall be like him; for we shall see him as he is." Divinisation, apotheosis, becoming like God: that is what heaven is.
But the important bit of the Collect is how we get there. We prayed in that Collect, grant that we "may purify ourselves even as he is pure." Purify ourselves! The very opposite of Calvin and his notion that we are what we are, and there's nothing we can do about it. The Church teaches that no one is born to endless night. God has given us the freedom to purify ourselves.
He has also given us the means: the means of grace, and the hope of glory. And it is the Cross of Christ. It is the sacrifice by which the veil of the Temple is torn away and we see God face-to-face, as absolute, self-giving love. It is the sacrifice in which we can take part if we tear away the veil of a prosaic worldview that trusts only in stone-hard facts, training ourselves to see truth in the spaces between words, in the poetry of apocalypse; to see through the cracks of the world in all its horror those glimpses of the Kingdom of Heaven shining; to see the Body and Blood of Christ through bread and wine: 
To see a World in a Grain of Sand
And a Heaven in a Wild Flower,
Hold Infinity in the palm of your hand
And Eternity in an hour.

- More Blake. So come now to the Altar, take infinity in the palm of your hand, eat the Bread of Angels, purify yourself, be a Living Stone in that Temple which can never be destroyed.

Wednesday, 11 November 2015

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.

Friday, 6 November 2015

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 of hearing about their cocktail of afflictions, what medicines they're taking, and it doesn't help if they're slow of speech or hard of hearing, so if they talk too much you shut them up or if they don't talk enough you fill in the awkward silences by blathering on about the weather, or Corrie, or the kids' achievements, or anything - except them. And when you leave (because there's always something important to do right after the visit, isn't there?) you console yourself that you've been and "cheered them up." But might it just be, if we're honest, that actually, we dread expending the emotional energy of being with people in their pain and their grief? We change the subject, we watch the clocks, we make excuses. Anything but listen.
The saints are people who spend their lives listening: not just with their ears, but with their whole being, completely receptive: to God, of course. Receptive in their prayer, in their study, in their work, but also in their relationships, especially with the suffering and the needy whom they serve. So open, listening so deeply, that they become like antennae, receiving God's love and then transmitting it into the world. Note the order: you have to be a receiver before you can be a transmitter. Hence the priority in St Benedict's Rule of that first word, right at the top of the list for the spiritual life: "listen."
Listening for God like the Saints is something we can all do. OK, our attention might be consumed by work, children, bills, ringing telephones, SMS, emails, Facebook. But the saints weren't exactly layabouts, and they managed. St Francis, St John Vianney, Mother Teresa, weren't cloistered up, but lived serving the poor in harsh conditions, and yet were profoundly still and spiritually receptive. St Ignatius of Loyola founded and led the entire Jesuit society, and yet is famed for the insight of his Spiritual Exercises.
OK, you might say, but none of them had children. But there is a long line of married saints, in fact, starting with Mary and Joseph. Think of someone like Rowan Williams, who has a wife and children and yet has somehow managed not only to be one of the stillest, holiest people I have met, but also to knock out a best-seller every year even while he was Archbishop of Canterbury. Or, indeed, of children who were saints themselves, like Saint Bernadette with her visions of Our Lady in Lourdes.
I know, first hand, that singles and married, children and pensioners alike, can learn to love the stillness and silence of prayer. You don't have to be a monk or a nun, and you don't have to wait until your hair's turned grey. We can all be people of deep prayer, listeners to God, saints.
I'd go so far as to say that prayer is the whole point of being Christian. Just last week, I was in a remote Anglican friary in deepest, darkest Worcestershire. It's near my parent's house, and I often drive over there for mass, praying that my tyres will make it up the unmade road (and I did have a lucky escape one frozen winter morning). This time, I was only there for about an hour and a half. There were about ten people in the chapel, including the Franciscan brothers, keeping silence in the presence of the Blessed Sacrament, preparing for the Eucharist. But the silence wasn't empty. They say you could "cut" the silence, generally when it's of the negative sort, but this was a positive silence, even radiant. It was silence you could drink, and still be left panting for more. It wasn't just an absence of noise: it was a silence with substance, a silence that you could tell came from within the people gathered there: no twitching, no clockwatching, no playing with mobile 'phones. I took some of that wonderful silence with me, and as I drove home saw the world in brighter colours, calmly aware that God was there in all of it and all would be well. And I thought: if only I could see the world like this all the time. If only we all could. If only we could make the space, take the time out of our often pointless busyness, and see the world and each other as the gift that they are.
This vision doesn't have to be a fantasy, for you or for me. St Benedict counselled dividing the day equally into three parts: prayer, work and rest. We might not be able to make quite that balance, but we can surely make some. We can prioritise and make time for some silence - silence in our environment that will feed our inner silence. We can make time not just to hear but to listen to God. Our own Anglican tradition, enshrined in the Prayer Book, gives us a very practical rhythm for doing this: the Daily Office of psalms and readings every morning and evening. It and the modern Common Worship office are available free, online or as an App for computers, tablets, and 'phones, so you don't even have to flick through the pages, and you can pray anywhere, at home, on the train, in the car park waiting to pick up the kids. Or you can pick up a short version from the back of church, and all you need is a Bible to go with it.
Advent is coming, our time of spiritual preparation for Christmas, of calm before the irruption of God into the world. How are you going to find that inner silence, silence like the Virgin's womb, silence like the empty tomb, to make way for God to be born and reborn in you? There are so many ways to train the soul to be like the saints and listen.

Friday, 23 October 2015

"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 say that God wrote the Bible, or even dictated it, but quite reasonably that he caused them to be written; and not for us to reprove or chasten or prove points or bash each other over the head with, but for the spiritual end of embracing and clinging to the hope of life eternal given to us in Jesus. It doesn't describe the means to this end as picking what we like then blabbing on about it, or obeying God's sovereign will, or any of that fundamentalist guff, but reading it, paying attention closely ("marking"), learning and utterly absorbing it as spiritual nourishment. It is given us not as a shackle, but as a comfort, not for its own sake, but for the sake of salvation.
Many Anglican churches nowadays keep the Last Sunday after Trinity as "Bible Sunday," a modern invention. If they do so in the spirit of Cranmer's collect, then all well and good. Sadly, too many these days do not, lured instead by the new religion of 19th-century fundamentalism. I trust that at St Peter's every Sunday is Bible Sunday, so do we do not need to mark the occasion.
I have this Collect hand-written in the front cover of my Bible and use it whenever I am about to pray with the Bible, for which I employ a very powerful and ancient method of praying with Scripture called "Lectio Divina," which just means "Divine Reading." If you'd like to find out how to do it, do just book an appointment with me and we can go through a passage or two together. Perhaps a passage a week could be your Advent discipline when the time comes?

Saturday, 17 October 2015

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 such easy targets, but the same cannot be said for Donald Trump or Hilary Clinton.
A brief overview of history will reveal many atrocities committed by absolute monarchs, but nothing on the scale of violence committed by Cromwell's Protectorate, the French revolution, or the various fascistic or Soviet republics of the twentieth century. In the present day, Transparency International lists only three republics in the top ten least corrupt countries and only three monarchies in the bottom ten. Modern constitutional monarchies are among the least corrupt countries in the world. Many northern European ones, far from being blighted by class division, are also the most egalitarian (note that there have been far more women monarchs than presidents).
Why might this be? The avowedly apolitical nature of the modern constitutional monarch certainly has something to do with it. It is harder to buy the favours of someone who is not competing for office. There is also the implicit lack of ambition involved: not having to campaign for their post, monarchs can afford humility. Further, it is safer to have one's police, judiciary and Armed Forces swearing loyalty to a suprapolitical institution rather than to a partisan individual.
These are all arguments that a secular apologist for the monarchy might employ. But as a Christian, and especially as an Anglican, I think there is something more to it than that. There is also the sacral dimension. The monarch is crowned and anointed by the Church, not by the people, albeit with the assumption of their assent. She is crowned not to her own glory or a personal fiefdom, but into the self-sacrificial kingship of Christ himself, and is therefore bound to his model of service. Nor is this merely a voluntary and dissoluble bond, but arguably a sacramental one. The oaths a monarch makes to the nation have the same gravity as marriage vows, and as with marriage, those vows are sealed by nothing less than God the Holy Spirit. So do we trust God to fulfil his half of the promise?
I am not at all sure when the people were consulted on the change of our nation's status from Christian monarchy to secular democracy, but by apparently undemocratic means the change has undeniably been effected. Yet even in this secular democracy, perhaps there is space for a leader who is not only personally but even institutionally bound to and answerable to a higher authority than herself. Indeed, if modern geopolitics and recent history are anything to go by, monarchies have proven better protectors of democracy than dictatorships of the mob. But proof avails little in the face of modernist common sense.

Monday, 5 October 2015

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 our proper place in Christ's one and holy Church. But if the worry becomes a preoccupation, if the Christian faith becomes more of a burden to us than a joy, if it clouds our minds with anger and fear, if, in short, anxiety becomes our raison d'ĂȘtre, then we need to step back and take a deep breath.
I think it's fair to say that St Francis was not a worrier. Worry, as today's Gospel shows, is not a sign of godliness. This isn't to say that we should all just let anything go in some sort of shallow "hey, can't we all just get along?" sort of way. But the Gospel and the life of that great saint through whom we see its light refracted do warn us to think about our priorities.
Francis' priority was mission, and as Mass-centred Catholics, mission must also be our priority. After all, just think about what the word "Mass" means, and where it comes from: that last line of the deacon, "Go forth," "Ite, Missa est." "Missa," which is where we get the word "Mass," is cognate with the words missile, missive, and of course, mission: things that are "sent out." Holy Communion is about our own relationship with God and each other; Eucharist is about giving thanks to God, and these are well and good. But Mass is missional. In the Sacramnet of the Altar, we are not nourished just for our own good, but for the good of the world. Christ's Sacrifice is realised among us, but for the sins of the whole world.
We say we believe in the Mass, that it is the centre of the Christian life. If we are going to sustain that belief, then it needs to bear fruit. There's a temptation in Catholic circles to pooh-pooh such bureaucratic affairs as Mission Action Plans and growth strategies. I've certainly had my doubts, and the last thing we should do is make the Church into a sales enterprise, peddling the faith like a used Mondeo. But we need to show the world why what we believe is so important: why the sacrifice of Christ matters, why the Mass is God's chosen vehicle for the salvation of the world.
In Francis, we've got a saint who prays powerfully for us and whose example tells us not to worry but to trust in God. Let us trust deeply in the Lord as we receive Him at the altar in Holy Communion, and go out smiling to share the joy of knowing Him, fed with the most Holy Sacrament of the Mass and sent out to work for His glory.

Sunday, 4 October 2015

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, and extract from it a set of values, take it as the blueprint for social conventions. If it won't work for us relatively simple organisms (I speak for myself), then it won't work for God, and definitely not for the God we know in the life of Jesus. If we want to find truth in him, we need to know him as a person, not as a textbook.
So imagine him: Yeshua, his name later Latinised as Jesus, a Jew living in Roman-occupied Palestine, and with his people that occupation rankles. Never mind that the Romans are relatively sensitive, that they've grudgingly allowed worship in the Temple at Jerusalem: their soldiers don't want to be in this sandy armpit-of-the-universe posting among these peasant fanatics. They can't even ogle the girls, because they're all covered up. And as for the natives, their prophets have been banging on about how unfaithful they are to their God, how adulterous and sluttish they have been to him, and they're convinced this Roman imposition is a punishment for their sins. So when their God, the only God, is just about tolerated, given a little slot among Cloaca, goddess of sewers, and Verminus, god of cattle worms, they are not best pleased. Nor do they like the way these Romans throw their money around, the way they put their slaves into the pits and pay to watch them kill each other for a laugh, the way they share their wives and children at extravagant orgies, the way their culture uses people and throws them aside when they're done. Minor acts of terrorism ensue, followed by public executions; tensions rise. Think of us as the Romans and the Jews as Afghans or Iraqis, and you've got the idea.
This is the environment Jesus came to preach in. He wasn't the only one. There were other teachers: some attacking their brethren for being too accommodating to the Roman way of life, some exhorting a return to absolute obedience to the Law of Moses, one getting people to wash themselves of their sins in the River Jordan.
And some of these, Pharisees, come to test Jesus' mettle. They've heard he's broken the sabbath, he publicly keeps company with women and untouchables: is he some kind of anarchist? Let's test him. Let's give him a tricky question that's been vexing us of late: Moses' Law allows divorce, but the Prophet Malachi said God hates it. So which is right?
In Mark's version, Jesus barely touches on the Law of Moses. He goes straight back to Creation, to Genesis 2, and says that men and women are meant to be together, and if God has joined them, we should not split them. Genesis 2, by the way, is a separate story of creation from the more familiar - and contradictory - one in Genesis 1. It's older, mostly Babylonian, with God acting in a much more crudely physical and human sort of way, so don't get too hung up on the idea of Eve being created from Adam's rib. It's not meant to be historically true in the modern sense, and Genesis 1 is a corrective to it. But Jesus is quoting it for its spiritual truth: the one God wills oneness, and separation goes against his design.
His disciples want to know more. It gets difficult here, because Jesus' reply differs depending on whether it's Mark, Matthew or Luke who reports it. In Mark, uniquely, Jesus speaks out against both men and women divorcing. But in Jewish law, women had no power of divorce. Roman law, though, did allow women to divorce their husbands. The Gospel here is meeting the contemporary situation of Roman readers, but is unlikely to have come from the lips of Jesus.
Matthew and Luke's accounts are more likely, because in them, Jesus assumes that only men have the power to divorce: and he says that they shouldn't. Why? Well, bear in mind that it was only towards the end of the 19th century in this country that we stopped treating women as legal property. It would be a bit much to expect 1st century Palestine to be leaps and bounds ahead of their time. In Jesus' time, it was easy for a man to dump his wife whenever he got bored of her because she was too old, too ravaged by multiple childbirth, or because he'd found someone more interesting. And once they were dumped, they were soiled goods. As Jesus says, if you divorce your wife, it's as though she's an adulteress. Nobody would want her. Women didn't have jobs in those days, so divorcing your wife basically condemned her to poverty, slavery or prostitution. You're treating her like the Romans do. So, Jesus says no.
There's no doubt that Jesus condemns divorce, but there is another text, in Matthew, where he makes an exception (those in the trade call it the 'Matthaean exception'): "except on the grounds of adultery." Now, if we are going to take Jesus' words as a hard and fast law, logically we have to say that divorce is sometimes legitimate, but only when there is adultery. Wife-beating, physical or mental abuse, abandoning the family - you've just got to put up with those. Barmy - but if you think that the Bible is a kind of infallible Haynes manual, then that's the only conclusion you're left with. So I put it to you again: the truth is to be found in the wider story of God's life in Jesus, not in the jot or tittle.
And truth can be found. Good grief, we know, in today's throwaway society, where people are just used and dumped when they're not interesting any more in a series of 'relationships' and that's seen as a good and normal thing, where divorce can practically be at the whim of one bored partner - we know that divorce is bad, it's horrible, damaging, and almost all divorced people will tell you that it's nothing to celebrate, however awful the marriage was. And in that damage and pain and more often than not anger, there is bound to be sin. Jesus might name that sin as adultery, but remember he said that anyone who even looks at anyone else lustfully commits adultery. He always takes the law to impossible lengths to show that we are all sinners. And also remember that when his fellow Jews were about to stone a woman to death for adultery, he stopped them and told her, "I do not condemn you." Sin is not the last word in Christianity. It's forgiveness. Yes, we must proclaim the essential good of marriage, the bond of unity, the antithesis of utilitarian relationships, the strength of loving even the enemy who shares our bed - but there may be worse sin continuing some marriages than ending them.
Let's end with a slightly juicy example from ancient Catholic tradition. It comes from another old liberal, St Jerome, 4th century polemicist and translator of the Bible. A lady he knew had a bit of marriage trouble: her husband was being very naughty with some other ladies - and their male friends. She asked Jerome if this justified her divorcing him. He said no, but she went ahead anyway - and remarried. Later, Jerome wrote to her saying that if Matthew's exception ('except adultery') applied to men, it should apply to women, too: and citing St Paul's First Letter to the Corinthians, he added that anyway, in such "a case of necessity," it was "better to marry than to burn." Now there's a Christian reading of the Bible. But then again, Jerome was once caught wearing a lady's blue dress. There are pictures. Google it.

Tuesday, 29 September 2015

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, he quipped: "they're not Angles, but angels".)
Anyway, if angels are more than just their job description, what are they? The Bible does not give us a generic term, but we can glean something from how they appear. First of all, they are terrifying. Almost every time one appears, its first words are "do not be afraid," which implies that whoever beheld it was perhaps looking a trifle terrified. Second, they're hard to describe. Sometimes they appear like people, but elsewhere as six-winged or many-faced with lions' heads or eagles' beaks, even as wheels of fire. They can be described only in poetic language, because prose is too blunt a tool. So they reveal some aspect of the unknowability of God, and maybe this is why the biblical writers resist giving them a generic name.
We find creatures like these in other cultures. The Greeks called them "daimones," from which we get the word "demons," but the Greek doesn't carry the connotation that they are evil beings. The Arabs call them "Djinn" (that's "Djinn" with a D, not with T). And what these are is invisible, created, spiritual intelligences. Like us, as fellow rational creatures, they are free to choose between good and evil: and this makes some sense of the notion that Satan and his legions are fallen angels. Angels and devils are the same things, but they have made different choices. As a priest, I find that people are by and large far readier to believe in devils than in angels, and more interested in them. There's a sort of allure to them, sweetened by hokey Hollywood exorcist films. In these the Devil promises power, whether the magical powers of witchcraft and ouija boards, or political power, or the power of money, fame, sex: but it is all about power, the power to defy nature and usurp God.
Now comes the bit of the sermon where I routinely take a word or concept that is unpopular and explain why actually, it's a good thing: and today's word is "hierarchy." This word invented by a sixth-century Syrian monk who named himself after Dionysius, the pagan St Paul converted at the Areopagus, literally means 'sacred order.' There's a hint of it in today's Collect, which begins, "Everlasting God, you have ordained and constituted the ministries of angels and mortals in a wonderful order." God is the source of all things; those spiritual intelligences which we call angels come next, in their various ranks, then intelligent creatures like us, and last of all inanimate matter. All things flow from God, and the hierarchy is the sacred order God has established to bring them back to him.
Now moderns often object to the idea of hierarchy, because the word is so often abused to mean keeping people in their proper place by the exercise of power. But an order based on power is the very opposite of true hierarchy, of genuinely sacred order. It's not a sacred order at all. It's the Devil's order, upside down from God's.
Yet it's the Devil's order that persists. There are those who confuse the Devil's order with God's and resort to terrorism to achieve it, and even British politicians who support them; and they are traitors, just as much as the young idealists who actually sign up to fight for the Islamic State. But you can see why they are seduced by it all: the glamour of the freedom fighter, of establishing a new world order, of righting all the perceived injustices of the world to forge a new order that's worth the collateral of countless human lives on the way, because history will be written by the victors, and we will soon learn to forget.
Christians used to talk about "spiritual warfare," evidenced by old marching tunes like "Onward Christian Soldiers," out of fashion now, of course. There's much to commend the idea, but one problem with it is that it risks legitimising the enemy; but the Devil isn't engaged in spiritual warfare so much as spiritual terrorism. Hhe recruits by seducing with promises of power; he attacks the innocent; he exploits our personal weaknesses to help us to justify to ourselves unjustifiable thoughts, words and deeds. We tell ourselves that what he whispers is right, that the ends justify the means. And once you are his, it is very hard to turn back.
The difference between the heavenly hierarchy and the Satanic order of violence, in a word, is - Jesus. In that ancient, pre-Pauline hymn of Philippians 2.5-11, Jesus is placed above all creatures both in earth and heaven. He is higher than the angels. If we want to find their meaning, and his, we will find it in him. And we know that the Jesus who told Peter to sheathe his sword in the garden of Gethsemane conquers not by arms but by love. We know that the Jesus who acquitted the adulteress did not stop short to condemn sinners but carried on reaching down from heaven all the way into the depths of hell itself. And we know that the Jesus who rose and ascended lifts us all up into oneness with the Father in Heaven. The means of Satan is violent discord; the means of God is forgiveness and harmony. The motive of Satan is control; the motive of God is liberation. The purpose of Satan is destruction; the purpose of God is blissful reunion.
There are times when we have to take up physical arms in this world, but we need to be absolutely sure that our motives are for the liberation of the imprisoned and the protection of the weak. But most of the time, it is the spiritual battle we must fight, against spiritual enemies within ourselves and without: against those insurgent voices that lure us to sin. In that fight, the only legitimate weapon is self-giving love; but we can always call upon our comrades-in-arms, St Michael and his great company of God's Angelic Hosts.

Saturday, 19 September 2015

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 no doubt that they were genuine. We live in an age and nation where only disbelief is really credible, certainly an age to mock Catholic credulity. But I do wonder: is Protestant scepticism really better? The scepticism of our Northern European nations, where religion is safely boxed in for private consumption on Sundays, and, surely by no coincidence, atheism flourishes. Is that better than the Catholic religion of our southern neighbours - the religion which spills out of the churches into the streets, in fiestas, shrines, processions, and even sometimes in popular devotions to such anomalies as relics?

I was in Rome a few weeks ago, and the highlight of the trip for me was celebrating mass in the catacombs of St Callistus. Call me superstitious, but the reason it was so moving was that I was reciting those ancient words in the company of the human remains of two centuries' worth of saints and martyrs. Of course, whenever we celebrate the Eucharist, we do it in the presence of the saints and martyrs, even the angels, and the whole company of heaven. But if we take seriously the fact that the Word became flesh, that God entered matter and even human bones; if we take seriously the claim of our faith of a bodily resurrection, that in some way our very bodies will be reconstituted in the Heavenly Kingdom, if, in short, we don't fall into the old gnostic heresy of placing an impenetrable dividing line between the spiritual and the physical, then the bones of the saints do matter. They're the physical, material connection not just to our forbears in the faith but to our future companions in the Kingdom, because we know not how but trust in faith that those bones will be there!

In the Christian faith, we cannot neatly separate the spiritual from the physical. Matter matters. It matters because of the Incarnation. This is something that our Anglican Reformers firmly emphasised, unlike their Calvinist counterparts in Europe, and that's because alongside their Bibles they read deeply of the tradition of the Early Church. The 17th century Bishop Lancelot Andrewes, one of the translators of the King James Bible, defined the Anglican way as: one Bible, two Testaments, three Creeds, four Ecumenical Councils and the first five centuries of the Church Fathers. In these scriptures, creeds, councils and the words of the Fathers, our Reformers found a clear emphasis on the Incarnation: on God in the world, the Word made Flesh. They did not share the obsession of their Calvinist contemporaries with personal justification and salvation, and returning to the ancient sources, they saw the Cross as something much more significant than just "how it relates to me." For them, as for the Early Church Fathers, the Cross was not some spiritual doctrine for the chosen few, but that real piece of wood, that real instrument of torture, was the matter through which the God Incarnate in matter chose to bring the whole realm of matter into union with him. Continental Protestants taught that Christians have to choose: it was faith or works, scripture or tradition, God or world, saved or damned. But the Anglican theologians recognised the ancient Catholic truth that Christianity is not a religion of 'either/or.' It is the religion of 'and:' grounded in a real person who is not God or man but God AND man. In the Incarnation and in the Cross, God tears down the veil between the spiritual and the physical. We have to find the spiritual in the material; find the maker in what he has made.

"Materialism" is not a highly favoured word at present. Yet in a way, Christianity is a highly materialistic religion. It is no coincidence at all that two materialistic economic systems sprung from European soil, growing in the ruins of Christendom. We've heard a lot in the news recently, especially around yesterday's election, about the materialistic philosophy fertilised and nurtured by Karl Marx. The other shouts at us from advertisements every day. But both Socialism and Capitalism are materialist systems, concerned with the redistribution of material wealth, and both developed in largely Protestant countries. As a Christian, you may favour one or the other, but only an ideologue would believe that either system is perfect. If you ask me, the flaws of both systems come from that Continental Protestant tendency to separate the material from the spiritual. It's seeing matter as the end in itself, rather than as just the means towards the the spiritual end for which God provides all creation.

So what is that end? What's the point of existence - and so of the Christian religion? Lancelot Andrewes found it summed up best in the words of St Augustine, which he translated: "God has become man, that man might become God." It is none other than the flesh and blood of Christ and the hard wood of the Cross that effect our union with God. At our peril do we sneer at it or spiritualise it away or sell it off. Tomorrow's feast of the Holy Cross is not the celebration of an abstract doctrine about salvation. It's the celebration of matter, of wood and nails, flesh and bone and blood. Far be it from the Christian to despise matter when is through matter that God has chosen to save the world. Rather, it is our chance to see in matter God's hand, God's work. It's about taking up the Cross into our hearts and truly knowing, in our innermost being, the fundamental Christian truth: that God shares in our nature and so we share in His, and so does the rest of Creation. I pray that God will open all the world's eyes to the glory that lies hidden, waiting, in ordinary matter, ordinary bread and wine, ordinary people, neighbours, foreigners, refugees, because with the folly of the Cross will come the peace and plenty which purely human wisdom and ideology cannot bring.

Thursday, 6 August 2015

Henri de Lubac's fascinating notes on Vatican II - Catholic Culture

This is well worth reading for a fuller understanding of Vatican II and the theological politics underlying it:

Henri de Lubac's fascinating notes on Vatican II - Catholic Culture:

'via Blog this'

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. For here, in our hearts, Christ takes up his abode together with the Father, saying as he enters: Today salvation has come to this house. With Christ, our hearts receive all the wealth of his eternal blessings, and there where they are stored up for us in him, we see reflected as in a mirror both the first fruits and the whole of the world to come.

Thursday, 16 July 2015

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 earliest prophetic book in the Old Testament. Israel at that time was wealthy and decadent, its rulers and priests paying the merest ritualistic lip service to their God. In fact, they saw their God as only their God, just one tribal god among the many others, who in the day of judgment would crush all the other gods and their followers. Their own faith or moral discipline had nothing to do with it. The world would be theirs simply by birthright, because they were the arbitrarily chosen people of a god who was better than the rest.

The reason Amos came was to repudiate all this, inspired, he claimed, by God himself: to tell the Israelites that their God was the only God, that He was not some capricious pet deity for their tribe but was fundamentally good and just, and that the Israelites therefore would be subjected to his justice as much as anyone else. Hence, the plumb line in the vision: that simple pendulum by which a builder judges the straightness of a wall. God told Amos that Israel was bent. So that's what he told them, and they weren't best pleased. Hence the priest Amaziah accuses him of being a professional prophet and tells him to go back to where he came from; but Amos retorts that he's just a simple herdsman, following a direct vision from God.

If Amos was the first of this new, inspired, reforming prophetic line, then - as it is often said – John the Baptist was the last; he pointed to the final plumb line, Jesus the Messiah as the measure of all things; and his message was about as welcome as Amos'. But we mustn't let the gory story of his beheading obscure the main point here: it's just a flashback, Mark's brief explanation of why Jesus might not be so popular in this Herod's lands. I say 'this Herod' because there was at least one other Herod at the time, both 'Tetrarchs,' that is ruler over a quarter of their late father, Herod the Great's, lands. This Herod was Herod Antipas, ruler over Galilee, and he was clearly anxious about Jesus and the recent missionary activity of the Apostles. So, I think, it's no coincidence that the episodes which follow today's passage take place outside Galilee, outside Herod Antipas' dominion: in Bethsaida, Tyre, Decapolis, Caesarea Philippi, for instance. Not only was Jesus preaching to deaf ears in his homeland, there was considerable risk that he might be sending his Apostles to the same fate as John the Baptist. And of course, Jesus would one day meet him face-to-face.

Amos, John the Baptist and Jesus faced decadent societies that found their relationship with a just and loving God inconvenient. He got in the way of their material possessions, their power, their notions of national superiority, their lifestyle choices. So they replaced Him with an idol of their own making: a god the wealthy could always tip with enough little sacrifices to win his favour. They turned their eyes from the vision of the reality that he had so often shown them: the demanding reality of transcendent love that is at the heart of all being. For them, the rewards of the natural world were enough; now they were rich, they no longer worried about its supernatural origin. And hasn’t our society has done the same? People have come to believe that we can make decisions on love, commitment, commerce, all kinds of interpersonal relationship, without any reference to divine love, without any notion of the sacramental connection of our world and actions to the transcendent reality of the Heavenly Kingdom. Perhaps it is an understatement to say this has hardly been an unqualified success.

We have a job to do. We have a mission. Not to go out and moralise - because ultimately Christianity is not about values, it’s about relationship with God – but to show that there is a better, more fruitful way: a way moored firmly in transcendent love, a way lived in sacrificial self-giving, a way that others can see in us and will want to emulate. There's an example to be set,, but more importantly, there's love to be given. We don't necessarily need to go into danger zones, like the land of Herod Antipas, to be witnesses to Christ. But like Amos, John and the Apostles, we do need to go out of our comfort zones, out of cosy ideas, convenient morality, assumptions of cheap grace. How we do that together as the church in Berkhamsted is the key concern of the PCC at the moment, and we will soon be inviting everyone here to have your say about where this church goes from here. But we can all start thinking about it now. What does this town need from us? What can we give? What might it cost us - where is our Cross? What, when we have received at this Mass, are we being sent ('missa') out to do?

How upright do we stand against the plumb line of divine love?

Saturday, 20 June 2015

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 amounts to saying "just have faith." Coming from me, it would sound glib and pious. It wouldn't help. Telling someone just to have faith won't take away their bereavement, their homelessness, their unemployment, their physical or emotional wounds and scars.

I doubt that faith made it any easier for Mary, first and most faithful among the saints, to watch her Son die on the Cross. Christian faith is not the kind that lets us watch the suffering of others dispassionately: it's not the faith of an Agamemnon or a Stannis Baratheon who can watch with grim, dutiful resolve as his daughter dies to placate an angry God, nor is it the resigned quietism that says of every atrocity, "it's for the greater good," or "it's part of God's plan." It's not a faith of complicity with the inscrutable will of some bloodthirsty despot or abusive father in the sky, notwithstanding that's how of some of our detractors portray it. But might those detractors not be nearer the mark when they say that if God does exist - unconsciously echoing the disciples in the boat - He just doesn't care?

Perhaps the answer lies not in Jesus' words to the disciples as in His response to the situation, His action, and even in His very presence there with them. He speaks first not to them but to the winds and waters, bidding them to be still, and in so saying brings the situation to peace. He does not just comfort those in terror, but acts to confront and calm that terror's causes. And note that the story is told from the disciples' perspective: "they took Jesus with them." Just the fact that He was there with them made the difference, He who has promised to be with the world to the very end of time.

This episode should inform our response as Christians to the tempests which assail the world - a pastoral response which goes beyond words, beyond telling people to have faith, cheer up or grin and bear it, but rather consists in being present with people in their need, and acting pre-emptively to bring calm and peace to the world. We are the body of Christ, imbued with His Spirit; we are His enduring presence in the storm and even the shipwreck, and our faith is to confront the violence, to travel amid it alongside anyone who suffers, and so to subdue it with His still, small voice of calm. God cares when we care. 

Tuesday, 9 June 2015

'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 'accidents' of bread and wine. Still, almost all the Reformers held to what was clearly the belief of the earliest Christians, namely that Christ is really present in the gifts in some way. The disagreements were about exactly how.

At the most extreme end, the Swiss Reformer Zwingli argued that the bread and wine are bare signs conveying none of the grace of Christ's body and blood at all: the Lord's Supper was merely a commemorative meal. It should be said that this teaching is explicitly rejected in the Church of England's 39 Articles of Religion.

Luther, meanwhile, devised a teaching called 'consubstantiation:' the belief that the bread and wine remain but are simultaneously the body and blood of Christ. This theory has the merits of echoing Christ's status, agreed by the whole Church, as 100% human and simultaneously 100% divine.
Calvin, on the other hand, maintained that Christ was truly present in the sacrament only when it was received in true faith, a doctrine known as 'receptionism.' Archbishop Cranmer subscribed to this view at one point, and there is much evidence of it in the Book of Common Prayer. Article 28 of the 39 Articles of Religion maintains that "the Body of Christ is given, taken, and eaten, in the Supper, only after an heavenly and spiritual manner. And the mean whereby the Body of Christ is received and eaten in the Supper is Faith" (I do have difficulty with the word 'only' in that sentence).

However, this is not the end of the story. The Prayer Book contains many ambiguities, and some of it suggests that an objective change is effected in the gifts during the Eucharistic Prayer. For a start, the Eucharistic Prayer is called 'the Prayer of Consecration.' At the end of the service, the Priest is firmly prohibited from throwing away any consecrated left overs, but must 'reverently eat and drink' them there and then. If they are 'just' bread and wine, why should this be?

There has been room in the Church of England since 1662 at least for a range of opinion on how and for whom Christ is present in the bread and wine of the Eucharist, but one teaching is clear: He is present in them somehow - and if we can train the eyes of our souls to see Him in ordinary bread and wine, then we should see Him all the more clearly in the ordinary encounters of our daily lives.

Saturday, 6 June 2015

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 doubters in Jesus' time as there are now, but He made it very clear that this was no metaphor. John 6: many of His followers question how they can possibly eat His flesh and drink His blood, something utterly repugnant to Jewish sensibilities. He tells them truly and tells them again: you must, in the Greek, trogein - that is " chew on" -  my flesh if you want to be born again. And in case we think He wasn't serious, note: at that point, many of His followers turned and walked away.

Today we celebrate the reality of Christ's presence in the bread and wine of the Altar. Absurd it may be, but it is entirely logical and coherent, and I for one will not walk away from it, because of all Jesus' miracles, as far as I can see, this is the greatest and the most important. If it turned out that the various feedings and healings did not really take place, in honesty my faith would not be all that shaken: the meaning of those miracles would be enough. But if the bread and wine of the Eucharist were nothing more than bread and wine, then frankly, I wouldn't get out of bed in the morning to be here: and here's why.

According to the foundational story of Jesus' Jewish faith, for Moses to lead His people out of slavery in Egypt, they had to offer the sacrifice of a lamb, so that the angel of death would pass over their houses. In the desert, God sustained His people with a supernatural bread that they called 'man hu,' which means 'what is it?' - because they had no idea. God commanded them to keep some of this in their portable temple as a sign of His saving presence, and it kept them going until they got to the promised land of Canaan. So, a one-off sacrifice followed by a temporary gift to get the chosen people to a temporal location.

But Jesus is the new Lamb of God, a sacrifice for all people and for all time. Jesus is the new Bread of Life, not that which our ancestors ate and yet died, but the Bread given for all people, for all time, to nourish us towards an eternal kingdom. Jesus offered Himself once and for all for the sins of the world: the Cross was the "once," the Eucharist is the "for all." He has told us that it is His Body, given for us; and if the Jews in the desert venerated and carried around the manna bread which would only sustain them for a few years, how much more should we venerate the Bread given us for eternal life! The reason it is given us to is eat, not to carry about, but how can we help ourselves from rejoicing and showing to the world such an extraordinary gift, such a miracle in our midst, the very presence of Our Lord?

We have the chance to walk with Him today. I urge you to take it, and not to walk away.

Monday, 18 May 2015

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 on the other side of the world, whom you know only by avatar or name and by the comments that they make, and whom you're highly unlikely ever to meet in the flesh?

Social media is supposed to be about connecting people, and I certainly found Facebook useful for keeping up with friends when I lived in Japan. But just as often, it seems to cause disconnect. There is an illusion of togetherness, but actually you lose channels of communication that most of us can take for granted: body language, facial expression and tone of voice, for example. You can't tell if somebody is knackered and narky at the end of a tough day, or see that they're going through a tough time, which might explain some late-night angry outbursts of stubbornness or idiocy. All you've got is bare text.

And the text stays forever. Sure, you can delete what you've said on some online fora within a short time of posting, but all it takes is for someone to take a screenshot and repost it, and your own tired, angry, idiotic outburst is out there for good - or long enough, at any rate, for someone to seize on it and release the virtual hounds.

At the core of the Christian faith is the Word who was not made text, but flesh: the Divine who descended among us as a human man, Jesus Christ. The Christian's relationship with God is not with a static text, not even the text of the Bible, and definitely not with words like those set in the lamentable "Ed stone." It is with a real person, whom we know through other real people who have followed Him through the ages, and through the real action of breaking and sharing bread. Centuries and continents stand between us and the historic person of Jesus, and yet we know Him as the one who did not return anger for anger, but gave His life in love even for those who hated Him, and indeed who hate Him now. Wouldn't the world be a better place if we related to one another more like that?

Saturday, 16 May 2015

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 with Christmas, or even before, with the Holy Spirit flowing through Mary to conceive Him. He descends into Bethlehem, or properly Beth Lechem, 'the House of Bread' in Hebrew. He descends into base matter to become our basic food, our bread of life, born in a cave behind an inn. And He keeps descending. He descends into the ranks of sinners at the Jordan to be baptised, but that is not low enough. He descends to the lepers, the tax-collectors, the prostitutes, the outcasts of society, but that is not low enough. He descends to scourging and spitting and execution as a criminal, but not even that is low enough. For before He can ascend, God must go deeper still, must know not just death but even the depths of Hell. God must know what it is to be without God. He must reach down even to the forsaken.

But now we are on a mountain top: gone from lowly Beth-Lechem up to the Mount of Olives, from the House of Bread to an orchard of finer fruit, whose fronds - we remember - are used at games to make the victors' crown; whose oil is used to burn bright and warm; whose leaves were once carried by a dove to show Noah that the promised land was near. And so the Lord is crowned, His glory burns behind the cloud, and the promise of His Kingdom sheds just a ray.

But He left us with more than just a promise. Where the head goes, the body must surely follow: and we, the Church, are His body, because we share in His body given to us as bread. He left us with the Holy Spirit, and in the Eucharist, He gives us the means of calling that Spirit into our lives and the pattern by which we are to live them.

In our Liturgy, after the song of the angels - "Holy, Holy, Holy" - the priest invokes the Holy Spirit to descend on the gifts, fill them and make them into the body and blood of Christ. As he says the words, his hands descend in the shape of the wings of a dove, the symbol of the Holy Spirit. If you went to the Indian Orthodox church of St Thomas in Hemel Hempstead, where they use the ancient Syrian rite, you would see the priest even fluttering his hands over the gifts like wings. This is why there is a great dove on the ceiling above the sanctuary in our church. The Spirit is called down and Christ descends into humble bread, as He did into the humble Virgin's womb: the Christmas moment of the Mass.

Next, at the words of institution, the priest shows the body and blood of Christ the people: this, you could call the Epiphany moment. But at the end of the Prayer, the priest lifts up the Body and Blood higher still, at once showing to the people and offering up to the Father the crucified and resurrected Son, a Good Friday and Easter moment – but as the bells ring, and the lights are lifted, and the cloud of incense swirls around the elevated Host, might we not also see in that moment something of the Ascension – a vision of heaven breaking through?

Only after the Ascension does Pentecost come, and the Spirit dwell among us. So only after this elevation of the spirit-filled bread and wine do we receive them. We creatures 'rooted in time and space' could not take the eternal and transcendent Spirit neat, so Jesus gives It to us in a form we can consume, in bread and wine. But the Ascension gives us the reason why He gives us this food at all.

You could call the Ascension “Christmas backwards.” At Christmas, Christ assumed our humanity. In the Ascension, He lifts up our humanity with Him. The Eucharist is the vehicle by which He effects this: He dwells in us that we might dwell in Him, lifted high to the Father. The challenge for us is to live in the knowledge that our human nature is already lifted up to the heights of heaven, and yet to continue descending to the lowest and most despised parts of creation and lift them up with us. Who are they, I wonder – the modern-day equivalents of the leper, the tax-collector, the prostitute? Where might you meet them this week? How might you go out of your way to find them? Nourished by the Holy Spirit, can you show them the glory of your humanity as it truly is, risen and Ascended in God?

Let me finish with the rest of Malcolm Guite's sonnet.

"We saw him go and yet we were not parted
He took us with him to the heart of things
The heart that broke for all the broken-hearted
Is whole and Heaven-centred now, and sings,
Sings in the strength that rises out of weakness,
Sings through the clouds that veil him from our sight,
Whilst we our selves become his clouds of witness
And sing the waning darkness into light,
His light in us, and ours in him concealed,

Which all creation waits to see revealed."