Sunday, 18 January 2015

Follow Jesus, Emmanuel: pray without ceasing

"Follow me," says Jesus. Alright, that is presumably why we're here: because we want to follow Jesus. But how?

Once upon a time, in the East, there was a monastery on an island in a remote lake. Now this monastery was well overdue due a visit by whatever the Eastern Orthodox equivalent of an Archdeacon is, just to check that the monks weren't using foreign rites or putting up any new icons without a Faculty. So, the Archdeacon-equivalent set off on the long journey with his retinue of pharisees and penpushers from Moscow or Constantinople or Bedford or wherever, and reaching the coast finally got some stout young fellow he'd met in a bar one night that he didn't really talk about very much any more to row them across. The Abbot welcomed the team with a hearty glass of water and lashings of dry bread, and they got down to business, strutting around the monastery, examining the fittings, asking questions they thought might sound penetrating and insightful, and generally trying to look interested.
As their meanderings progressed, it became apparent that the monks at this monastery were not the most learned bunch. Suspicious, the Archdeacon felt compelled to ask one of them to recite the Lord's Prayer. The monk didn't know it. What about the Hail Mary, then? No, he didn't know that, either. In fact, none of them did. They only knew one prayer, they said.
"Well," spluttered the Archdeacon, "This won't do at all. I'm leaving immediately to tell the Bishop to close this monastery down!" And off he went, his entourage blustering after him, back to the boat where his stout young companion was waiting to row them back ashore. At last, they could get back to the city, a proper meal and a decent G&T - sorry, vodka.
When they were halfway across the lake, they heard shouting. The Archdeacon felt a tap on his shoulder from one of his minions, who pointed back towards the monastery. He saw where the shouting was coming from: a monk, holding something up over his head, running towards them - right over the water.
The monk eventually caught them up. Somewhat out of breath, he panted,
"Sorry, Archdeacon, you left your iPad behind, I thought I'd better bring it to you."
Astonished at this display of holiness, the Archdeacon thought back to what the monks had told him - that they only knew one prayer. He asked the monk what it was.
"Oh, that!" said the monk. "We just say it over and over again, all the time:
"Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me."

"Pray constantly," St Paul wrote to the Ephesians, and that is pretty much the duty and the joy of the Church summed up: to live our whole life in prayer and as prayer. That, after all, is what Jesus did: his life, death and resurrection are all given in offering to the Father. He gives us the chance to join in with his prayer in the two great sacraments he entrusted to the Church: Baptism and the Eucharist.
But it is not enough to pray only when we are together, when the Church is gathered. Our Baptism, our Communion are meant to feed us even when we are out in the world and help us, like Jesus, to give our whole life as prayer. The "Jesus Prayer" of the Eastern Church is just one way of staying aware of God's presence, reciting those words, "Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me," over and over again in everything we do until his name is etched deeply in our hearts.
Believe me, we need his name on our hearts, maybe more than ever. We need it in our isolation, in our anger, in our frustration that the noise and relentless busyness that modern life brings. We need the peace and the love and the self-giving it brings.
And believe me also that it is the Name of Jesus that brings these things, not just the fashionable breathing techniques or meditative methods of the day. For the name Jesus means 'God saves,' and it is therefore the name of the God of the Resurrection, of Easter, of the Eucharist. We need Jesus' other name, too, Emmanuel, 'God-with-us,' the God of the Incarnation, of Christmas and Epiphany, of Baptism. Emmanuel is the name of the God among the sinners on the banks of the Jordan waiting to be baptised; Jesus, of the God baptised in death on the Cross for our salvation. His is the Name given for our salvation, and no other: "Lord Jesus Christ, son of God; Lord Jesus Christ, Emmanuel."
Jesus gives Nathanael a powerful image of what he will see if he truly follows: a vision of heaven opened. This is the vision Jesus himself received at his baptism, when he saw the heavens 'torn open;' a vision made manifest when the veil in the Temple was torn at his crucifixion; a vision of the Kingdom where we will see the veil that separates heaven and earth ultimately ripped away. This is the vision Jesus shared with Nathanael and offers now to all who follow him. You can see how closely it is linked, again, to Baptism and the Eucharist, and so to the names of God with us and God who saves, Emmanuel-Jesus.
To see that vision, we must have open eyes - the eyes of our hearts, that is. Keep the Holy Name on your heart always, when you walk, when you drive, when you cook, and God will open those eyes for you.
As Emmanuel, he will open our eyes to the reality of our sins, for which we were baptised, and for which we need to repent. For he is with us at the banks of the Jordan, even in the depths of our sin.
As Jesus, he will open the eyes of our hearts to the reality of our salvation, the reality of the Kingdom already in our midsts. For he is with us in bread and wine, in body and blood, ready to dwell in us that we might dwell in him. His Name is the password by which the doors of the Kingdom will swing open to reveal the blinding glory of union with God.
Follow me. Pray without ceasing. Lord Jesus Christ, Emmanuel, have mercy upon us.


Wednesday, 14 January 2015

Revolutionary values (extension of my last post)

My first reaction to last week's murders was one of anger against Islam and solidarity with Charlie Hebdo. When I looked at some of the past front covers of the magazine, though, my sympathies began to shift. You might like to look at some of them here and make up your mind: http://www.buzzfeed.com/lukelewis/charlie-hebdo-front-covers#.fgJ9pj39W .

 Nobody has a right not to be offended, and nobody has a right to kill over an insult. That is for sure. What the terrorists did was utterly wrong. But we might want to reflect a little before we start wielding the 'je suis Charlie' placards down Berkhamsted High Street.

It is hard for us to understand the extent of Muslim offence at the portrayal of their prophet. Yet Christians too have rioted and killed over the very same issue of religious images, first in the 8-9th century iconoclastic crises in the East, and later in the West during the 16th century Protestant Reformations.

Yet this pales compared with the horrors of the French Revolution, two centuries later. In 1789, the rights of Liberté, Egalité and Fraternité were declared. A new calendar was created, starting at year 1 and eliminating all Sundays and Christian festivals. In 1792, two thousand Christians were butchered for practising their religion. In 1793, some 55,000 were killed, and the entirety of the Vendée region sentenced to death for rising up in the name of God and King: women and children were made the priority for killing, by mass drownings, shootings, poisoning and even being roasted alive in ovens. By 1794, teh death toll was about 250,000 and only 150 of France's 40,000 parishes still celebrated Mass. Incredibly, all this was done in the name of 'Enlightenment.'

We are often rightly called to task for glorifying our military history and brushing over our nation's historical crimes. Our commemoration of the First World War, for example, seems to forget our historical role in starting it through our imperialistic expansion in the previous century, and the bloodshed that came in our wake. Perhaps this is an apposite time to remember post-Revolutionary France's established pedigree of bullying religious minorities. It might make us a little less keen to wave the tricoleur and hautily vaunt France's 'Republican values.'

As a matter of free speech, journalists have every right to abuse minorities— but that does not mean it is a right they should exercise. This week's massive, multilingual print run of Charlie Hebdo featuring a drawing of Mohammed on the cover is like someone running round the streets swearing at every Muslim he meets. We should ask ourselves whether that is that a noble and just use of freedom of expression, and whether it makes the argument for the right to free speech stronger or rather weakens it.

Tuesday, 13 January 2015

A gentle plea

This is a personal plea on something that is increasingly troubling me.

Nobody has a right not to be offended. Nobody has a right to kill over an insult. That is for sure. 

And, as a matter of free speech, journalists have every right to insult minorities— but that does not mean that they should. 

Tomorrow's massive, multilingual print run of Charlie Hebdo featuring a drawing of Mohammed on the cover is like someone running round the streets swearing at every Muslim he meets. Is that a noble and just use of one's right to free speech? Does it make the argument for free speech stronger, or does it not rather weaken it? 

Charlie Hebdo's response plays right into the hands of fundamentalists. By bullying a largely migrant minority with largely poor education and little mainstream political power, it will encourage further resentment and the radicalisation of now moderate Muslims. Last week's murderers will have won. 

My plea is this: exercise your freedom of expression by boycotting tomorrow's edition of Charlie Hebdo. Show that freedom of speech does not have to mean the victory of bullying and the propagation of hatred. 

Sunday, 11 January 2015

Charlie Hebdo and the Baptism of Christ

Today, as Jesus queues up with the sinners and descends into the waters He has made, He shows us who our God is and what our religion is meant to be.
This week, Islamists murdered several journalists in Paris this week for “insulting their religion.” The BBC, whose subtlety in religious affairs makes the Guardian look like the Dalai Lama, pulled their correspondent Caroline Wyatt out of storage to give this staple response: "In rational, post-Enlightenment Europe, religion has long since been relegated to a safe space ... Not so Islam." Salman Rushdie has given us his two penn'orth, as well, calling religion “a mediaeval form of unreason. So, you and I are part of the same problem as the murderers.
These are kneejerk reactions, but they represent a pretty popular view of what religion is, and what we are like: people who need to be contained, nice and ‘safe,’ out of the way, in case we decide God wants us to go out and shoot people. Idiots who leave our brains outside the church door.
In this view, before the Enlightenment sprang up from nowhere in the seventeenth century (obviously with no influence at all from Christianity), we lived under a tyrannical theocracy where free-thinking and sense of humour were punished at the stake. In this fictional version of the Middle Ages, there was no satire, no Canterbury Tales or Piers Plowman, no Thomas More or Erasmus, because back in those days, everybody believed exactly the same thing without argument, or if you didn't, you were killed by the evil agents of Religion. People like those thickos whose religion, their 'mediaeval form of unreason,' inspired them to build universities, schools and hospitals: irrationalists like the Christian Thomas Aquinas, the Muslim Avicenna, or the Jewish Maimonides. Of course, in the real world, these remain three of the greatest philosophers ever to have lived: but in the likes of Salman Rushdie’s fantasy world, civilisation started three-hundred years ago, and anything earlier is just mindless barbarism.
Personally, I'm not so convinced by the joys of Enlightenment rationality. We used to hold, for example, the irrational notion that all people are made in the Image of God, that He came among us in the flesh, that He adopted us into one great brotherhood of humankind. Stripped of these delusions, we have benefited from such rationalised systems as racialism and eugenics, Fascism, Communism, Utilitarianism, Nihilism, even Sadism - all direct products of the Englightenment relativisation of human life. It's unthinkable to Christian theology, but perfectly rational to those who follow the scientific whim of the age. But the BBC Religious Affairs Correspondents and Salman Rushdies of this world are content to blinker themselves to the human cost of the dark side of their ideology, so convinced are they that the source of our problems is Religion.
Not 'a' religion, note - they cannot possibly allow that any one religion might be any better than other. So, it is Religion itself that is to blame, Religion as a concept, all Religion. But actually, there is no such thing as Religion: there are only religions. The gunmen are not followers of 'Religion,' but of a religion, and a particular take on that religion. Liberals would never tar all Muslims with the same brush as the gunmen; but they will quite happily tar all ‘religion’ with the same brush as fundamentalism.
This demonisation of religion and all the arguments behind it are based on bad history, bad ideology and bad reasoning. But the God who came to stand in the grey ranks of sinners on the banks of the Jordan to be baptised is nothing like the bogeyman God of secularist fantasies.
First, as Jesus is baptised, the Father's voice proclaims Him Son and sends the Holy Spirit upon Him. God is revealed as Trinity, the God of love who draws us by his threeness into His unity, making us His adopted children by sending Christ as our brother. He has entered our universe even as deeply as our gene pool. So He calls us to see Himself in all His creation, and especially in our fellow human creatures. God is not an irrational tyrant who stands aloof issuing murderous edicts. He is the God who was born among us and calls us to live as one, not to exclude or harm or kill.
Second, as Jesus descends into the waters, He sanctifies the Creation He has made. The one who shared our humanity lets us share his divinity, symbolised in prayer by the mixing water with the wine at the Offertory, and by the dipping of the Paschal Candle into the font to bless it at every Easter Vigil. He is a God who has made creation fundamentally good, not evil, and continues His work of blessing it still.
Thirdly, Jesus is proclaimed the Lamb of God, the sacrificial Victim who gives all that He is for the sake of His creatures. He sees the heavens tear open, as the veil of the Temple will tear at His Crucifixion. Later, He will refer to His Crucifixion as 'Baptism,' and His disciples will not understand why. With hindsight, we do understand: it is by that Sacrifice that He will tear away the last barriers between creation and divinity. He calls us to take part in His self-sacrifice, offering our souls and bodies and receiving at the altar the fruits of His divinity.
This is the God we worship, this is the religion into which we are baptised: not a God who calls us to kill those who mock us, but who dies for their sake as well as ours; not a religion that allows us to fall into hatred and demand hasty repercussions against those who attack us, but that calls us to pray for them and strive to forgive them. This is not a safe calling, but it one that we must not wrap up or hide: it is a calling of which we must remind ourselves often, and we can do so by blessing ourselves with Holy Water and by continuing to be aware of our sins, to confess them, and so live cleansed and ready always to live in God’s light.

Be aware that hatred of Muslims is exactly what the perpetrators of last week's killing want to provoke. Islamic fundamentalists want to provoke Westerners into repressing Muslims so that Muslims will join the jihad. While the political Right issues a call for arms against Muslims and the Left against religion as a whole, we must resist those calls, because quite simply they are not of God. But this is not a time for Christians to retreat from the public square. It is a time for us to proclaim from the rooftops the beauty of a God who loves all he has made, who has stooped to bless and gather all people, and to pray for those who mean us violence, that the light of his love may shine in their hearts. That is the strength and the truth of our religion. 

Friday, 9 January 2015

The Prayer Book and Anglican Identity - The Cathedral and Abbey Church of Saint Alban



Date:  Saturday 28 Feb
Time:  10.30am-3.30pm                                   
Cost:  £20
What does it mean to be Anglican, and how can the Book of Common Prayer help us to answer the question?  On this study day, we will look at how the Book of Common Prayer, in its various editions from 1549 to 1928, has both reflected and shaped controversies over what the Church of England is or should be.  In the first of three sessions, we will explore the history of the Prayer Book from 1549 to its final authorised form in 1662, and its use for both Reformed and episcopalian polemic.  The second session will involve group work, as we piece together comparisons of Prayer Book liturgy and doctrine with those of contemporary Catholic, Lutheran and Reformed liturgies.  Finally, in the third session, we will explore the continuing influence of the Prayer Book today, with particular reference to the deposed book of 1928 and modern Anglican liturgy.
Tutors:  The Revd Dr Tom Plant, Tutor in Comparative Theology
Venue:  Marlborough Road Methodist Church, St Albans AL1 3XQ

Book here:
The Prayer Book and Anglican Identity - The Cathedral and Abbey Church of Saint Alban

Thursday, 8 January 2015

Charlie Hebdo and the Baptism of Christ

On Wednesday, several writers and cartoonists were murdered in their office in Paris. Predictable voices have risen from the latte-sipping sets blaming 'religion' as a whole for the problems of the world. The gunmen did not follow 'religion,' though: they followed religion. Religions are different, and there is no more excuse for tarring us all with the same brush as for blaming all Muslims for the actions of a fundamentalist minority. The liberal press will never make the latter assertion, but they are quite happy to make the former, and we should be wary of it. 

The feast of the Baptism of the Lord shows a God quite different from the imagined bogeyman of Guardian 'Religion.' The Christian God is not a god, but the God He has revealed Himself to be, and this Sunday's feast is one of the most profound revelations of His nature. 

First, as Jesus is baptised, the Father's voice proclaims Him Son and sends the Holy Spirit upon Him. God is revealed as Trinity, the God of love who draws us by his threeness into His unity, making us His adopted children by sending Christ as our brother. 

Second, as Jesus descends into the waters, He sanctifies the Creation He has made. Divinity is mixed with creation as wine is mixed with water at the Mass, and as the Paschal Candle is dipped into the font to bless it on Easter Eve. He is a God who has made creation fundamentally good, not evil, and continues His work of blessing it still. 

Thirdly, Jesus is proclaimed the Lamb of God, sacrificial victim for our sins. As He is immersed, He sees the heavens tear open, as the veil of the Temple will tear at His Crucifixion. Later, He will refer to His Crucifixion as 'Baptism,' and His disciples will not understand why. With hindsight, we do understand: His sacrifice tears the veil between heaven and earth, bringing us forgiveness of sins and union with the Father for eternity. Being baptised ourselves, we receive the fruits of this sacrifice at the altar whenever we make Communion. 

This is the God we worship: not a God who calls us to kill those who mock us, but who dies for our sake. Pray for the victims of the attack, for their families, for Muslims as they face the repercussions, and even for the killers themselves - for that is what our religion commands us to do.

Sunday, 4 January 2015

Epiphany without the Wise Men

What if the three magi had never shown up? After all, it is because the magi tipped Herod off that Jesus would be born, all the infants on Bethlehem were put to death. So might it not have been better if the the wise men had never picked up that week's horoscope?

As a caveat, there is one thing to bear in mind: there is no record outside Matthew of the massacre taking place under Herod. It might not have happened. The rest of the story, though, fits in surprisingly well with the historical picture we have of Herod and the religions to the east of ancient Israel. The Jewish historian Josephus, writing later in the first century, tells us that Herod really did have superstitious fears about a usurper being born, and contemporary Jewish accounts talk about his cruelty and cunning. As for the Magi, we have documentary evidence that Babylonian astrologers were expecting a universal king and deliverer to be born in the West, which of course is the direction they travelled in to get to Jesus (they saw the star from the East, not in the East). So, be wary of the modern 'commonsense' tendency to write off the early life of Jesus as sheer fancy. But back to the question of why the Magi needed to come along at all, at such a cost in human life.

We might as well ask, what was the point in Jesus being born? Because, to be sure, plenty of people have died as a result. Not just people like the first martyr, the deacon St Stephen, whose feast is on Boxing Day, but people who never wanted the martyr's crown. They are dying still under the onslaught of the Islamic State, and God knows what has happened to those Christian girls kidnapped by Boko Haram. They died under Communism, in the interest of building an atheist utopia: within five years of the 1917 Revolution, Lenin had killed over 100,000 believers and in 1922 issued an edict to exterminate all the clergy. By 1940, 97% of Russian churches were closed or demolished, some 80,000 priests, monks and nuns executed. In total, twentieth-century Communist nations killed 120 million of their own citizens, all in the interest of building a world of 'scientific materialism' where God would have no place.

120 million. A useful stat to bear in mind when the inevitable dinner party atheist leans over to tell you how much bloodshed religion has caused. 50 million in Russia, 70 million in China.

“But,” our speculative atheist might quite reasonably counter, “if Jesus hadn't been born all those innocents would not have died.”

“Well, yes,” we might say, “just as if there was no science, there'd be no nuclear bomb, and there'd also be no penicillin.”

“But surely,” the atheist might then come back, “you can't justify the death of children as some sort of collateral damage. You can't just say that those babies were a necessary sacrifice for the Epiphany of Jesus Christ to take place, ad majorem Dei gloriam.”

No. We can't say that. But what we can say is this. The depravity of human nature is nothing new. It didn't start with Jesus. Take Moses: when Pharoah heard that the liberator of the Jews would be born, he put the children to death, and Jesus, this new Moses for all peoples, provokes the same response. He is a threat to those empowered by brutality, bloodshed, slavery, and they do everything they can to eliminate the threat. He was born to herald a Kingdom where swords would be turned to ploughshares, but it better serves the powers of greed and envy for material things to put children to the sword instead, and even as a last resort, to the ploughshare. He was born to shed light on all peoples but a ruler of His own people, Herod, wanted to snuff that light out, so afraid was he that it would outshine him. The depravity of human nature didn't start with Jesus and it hasn't ended with Him - yet. But the light shines still, the darkness has not consumed it, despite even the most systematic and brutal attempts, whether by king or soviet. It shines on still in the Church (despite everything), and given the example of the Magi, it shines outside the Church, too, because God used their own religion and foreign learning to bring them to Jesus. It is a light given for everybody to follow.

But how? How do we follow this light, or even find it? I think the answer is to be found in St Paul's First Epistle to the Thessalonians: “Pray without ceasing.” This doesn't mean go around all the time with gibbering lips, but be always aware of the presence of God, of His light within you and all His creation. Easier said than done, but we can start by doing as Jesus told us: first, repent, and be baptised; and second, “take, eat and drink in remembrance of me.” Baptism and, thereafter, frequent Confession and the Eucharist are the pillars of the Christian spiritual life.

I'll say more about staying mindful of our Baptism next week as we celebrate the Feast of the Baptism of Our Lord. But in the meantime, and throughout this Epiphany season, I want to challenge you to take away the presence of Christ which you receive when you come to the altar, and be aware of it; to stay mindful of the light of Christ, of his presence in you, not just when you come to Mass, but in between, too. Try as you go about your week to keep his name in your heart, to see His face in the people around you, even the really annoying ones. Let His light lead you, like the Magi, to the treasure beyond all price, beyond all gold, all myrrh, all frankincense: to the Christ and His Kingdom of everlasting peace.