Wednesday, 11 March 2015

Mothering Sunday and the spiritual family

Mothering Sunday approaches, but it is hard to find Jesus making many positive comments about biological parenthood. On one occasion, according to Matthew (12.47), when Mary and members of his family come to see Him, he leaves them standing outside, and says that his disciples are his true mother and brothers. Elsewhere, he says that anyone who loves his mother or father more than they love Him is not worthy of Him (Mt 10.37). Matthew's Jesus even says that He came to "set a man against his father, and a daughter against her mother" (Mt 10.35).
Also in Matthew is that phrase much loved by anti-Catholics where Jesus tells His disciples to "call no man your father on earth, for you have one Father, who is in heaven" (Mt 23.9). So, they say, we should not call priests "Father." The fact that in the same breath He tells us to call nobody "teacher" seems to pass their attention, especially when they are quoting their favourite Doctor So-and-so to prove their point, forgetting that "Doctor" is simply the Latin for "teacher." Such are the blinkers of prejudice.
Jesus and His Apostles do offer more favourable visions of family life, however. As we saw, Jesus described his disciples as his family. St Paul tells the Corinthians that he was made their "father in Christ Jesus through the Gospel" (1 Cor 4.14-15), and both he, Peter and John repeatedly write to their fellow Christians as "children" and "sons." And emphatically, on the point of crucifixion, Jesus gives Mary over to be the mother of John and his Christian community (Jn 19.26). The Christian family of the Church has known spiritual mothers and fathers since New Testament times.
So, Jesus did bequeath a positive model of parenthood to the Church, and it is recorded in the Bible. We all know that good parenthood is not an automatic biological certainty: there can be terrible biological parents and wonderful adoptive parents. Of course, the opposite can also be true, and the clergy's record of behaviour in loco parentis has too often been shameful of late. But what Jesus does make certain is that our true parents and true family are the ones who nurture us spiritually, in a relationship that leads us beyond ourselves and to God - whether this happens to coincide with our biological relationships or not.

Saturday, 7 March 2015

Lent 3 - An Exhortation to venerate the Cross on Good Friday

Jesus “went not up to joy but first he suffered pain, and entered not into glory before he was crucified.” 

Over the last couple of weeks, Fr Tim has been preaching on Holy Week so that we can all engage more deeply when we get there. Today, we come to Good Friday, so it’s rather a shame that we didn’t get to hear the Epistle appointed for today: part of St Paul’s First Letter to the Corinthians, in which he proclaims the Cross, which he says “is foolishness to those who are perishing; but to us who are being saved it is the power of God.” 

Well, there’s no fool quite like an English fool, and there’s an old English custom about Good Friday that may well look foolish to those who aren’t in the know, and might even be a bit embarrassing for those who are. We venerate the Cross – now there’s nothing particularly English about that; it started off with relics of the True Cross in Jerusalem in the sixth century, latest – but it is the old English way that is especially funny-looking, and has an even funnier name: “creeping to the Cross.” 

Before the Reformation, the English were renowned for this Good Friday veneration: getting down on their knees at the West end of the church and shuffling all the way over the stone floors to the East just to pay homage to the image of Christ Crucified. The Reformers tried to complain, but they had trouble, because this custom quite clearly wasn’t “Popish”– it was home grown, English born and bred. And so, Henry VIII’s Ten Articles of 1539 proclaimed the Creeping to the Cross “a good and laudable thing:” “Let it be declared on Good Friday,” he proclaimed, “that creeping to the Cross and kissing the Cross 
signify humility and the memory of our redemption.” Cranmer wrote letters of protest in 1547, but the King never yielded, and in our modern Church of England liturgies, our bishops have officially restored to the Cross its due veneration. 

We have enough trouble these days getting Anglicans on their knees to pray static, let alone shuffling along on them for a hundred metres, but that is not the only way to signify our humility and remember our redemption when the Cross is unveiled at the Good Friday liturgy. You can come and stand or kneel before it. You can stay where you are and watch and pray. You can genuflect and kiss the feet of the image of our Saviour. You can come out and simply bow. There are many ways. OK, it may make you feel self-conscious and silly. Our Lord was spat at dressed in purple and a crown of thorns. 

The Cross has two axes, vertical and horizontal. The horizontal is God’s work throughout creation in the Holy Spirit. The vertical signifies that God emptied Himself from heaven into creation: the Word was made flesh. The death of Jesus is where these two axes meet. And so we venerate the wooden Cross 
because it was on real, created wood that God died and breathed out His Spirit for the salvation of the world. We make the sign of the Cross for the same reason – and it is good to see Evangelical Christians, not just Catholics, increasingly reclaiming this sign for themselves. It is the the ultimate metamorphosis of sword to ploughshare, the sign by which God takes something made for evil and makes it good, as he takes us who are sinful and makes us good, and takes that evil Friday and makes it Good Friday. It is the reason we are here. It is human folly, but it is the power of God. 

It is also the only reason, why we have a public holiday that day: so there is absolutely no excuse not to be in church.

Today: Perpetua and Felicity, Martyrs

On the Commemoration of Perpetua and Felicity, remember that this still goes on: 

From the story of the death of the holy martyrs of Carthage
Called and chosen for the glory of the Lord

The day of the martyrs’ victory dawned. They marched from their cells into the amphitheatre, as if into heaven, with cheerful looks and graceful bearing. If they trembled it was for joy and not for fear. 
    Perpetua was the first to be thrown down, and she fell prostrate. She got up and, seeing that Felicity was prostrate, went over and reached out her hand to her and lifted her up. Both stood up together. The hostility of the crowd was appeased, and they were ordered to the gate called Sanavivaria. There Perpetua was welcomed by a catechumen named Rusticus. Rousing herself as if from sleep (so deeply had she been in spiritual ecstasy), she began to look around. To everyone’s amazement she said: “When are we going to be led to the beast?” When she heard that it had already happened she did not at first believe it until she saw the marks of violence on her body and her clothing. Then she beckoned to her brother and the catechumen, and addressed them in these words: “Stand firm in faith, love one another and do not be tempted to do anything wrong because of our sufferings.” 
    Saturus, too, in another gate, encouraged the soldier Pudens, saying: “Here I am, and just as I thought and foretold I have not yet felt any wild beast. Now believe with your whole heart: I will go there and be killed by the leopard in one bite.” And right at the end of the games, when he was thrown to the leopard he was in fact covered with so much blood from one bite that the people cried out to him: “Washed and saved, washed and saved!” And so, giving evidence of a second baptism, he was clearly saved who had been washed in this manner.
    Then Saturus said to the soldier Pudens: “Farewell, and remember your faith as well as me; do not let these things frighten you; let them rather strengthen you.” At the same time he asked for the little ring from Pudens’s finger. After soaking it in his wound he returned it to Pudens as a keepsake, leaving him a pledge and a remembrance of his blood. Half dead, he was thrown along with the others into the usual place of slaughter. 
    The people, however, had demanded that the martyrs be led to the middle of the amphitheatre. They wanted to see the sword thrust into the bodies of the victims, so that their eyes might share in the slaughter. Without being asked they went where the people wanted them to go; but first they kissed one another, to complete their witness with the customary kiss of peace.
    The others stood motionless and received the deathblow in silence, especially Saturus, who had gone up first and was first to die; he was helping Perpetua. But Perpetua, that she might experience the pain more deeply, rejoiced over her broken body and guided the shaking hand of the inexperienced gladiator to her throat. Such a woman – one before whom the unclean spirit trembled – could not perhaps have been killed, had she herself not willed it. 
    Bravest and happiest martyrs! You were called and chosen for the glory of our Lord Jesus Christ.