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."

Wednesday, 6 May 2015

Abide in me

"I don't need to go to church to be a Christian." So I'm often told. Well, let's see about that.

It's easy to miss the point of Jesus' famous words about the vine if we lose sight of when and where he said them. Does anyone know, I wonder? Well, despite being five weeks into Easter, we are now being taken right back to Maundy Thursday, because these are words from Jesus' homily at the Last Supper, his after-dinner speech, if you like. And so, all this talk about 'vines' has some context. There's an empty chalice sitting on the table, from which the disciples have all drunk. There is the blood of the Passover lamb that was shed before the disciples ate it earlier on, and we know, but they didn't, that there would be more blood yet to shed: the blood of the new and eternal Paschal victim who was talking to them there and then. 

There's context to Jesus talk about vines being cut away, too - the ones that do not bear fruit and do not abide in Him - because, as we know, on that night of the Last Supper somebody had just walked away from the table. Someone who had been part of the vine but had been trained away in the wrong direction. It's Judas, of course, that cipher for those of us who are grafted into the body of Christ and yet fail to bear fruit. 

So what of it? And what has it do to with today's Eucharist, with the reading from Acts about the baptism of Philip, or with the Collect about God's grace "going before us" ("pre-venting" us, as the old Prayer Book has it)? 

The answer is all in the context I've just mentioned. For in baptism, are we not washed clean of our sin by the blood of the Lamb, shed for us on the Cross? And despite our falling away, like Judas, are we not brought back to grace time and time again by drinking the blood of that Lamb and eating His Flesh, here at Mass, week after week? 

Our Reformers pared the Christian Faith back to the two essential sacraments of Baptism and Eucharist. Yes, it is true that in baptism one is made a Christian, grafted to the vine and regenerated, promised eternity. But it is also true that we all fall away. To shift metaphors, a coal taken out of the fire soon loses its heat. And so Our Lord gave us the other, essential commandment, to come together as a community and take and eat and drink: to remember Him and so be re-membered in Him, re-grafted into the vine so that we can continue to bear the fruits of His sacrifice. In the words of the Collect, if Baptism is God's grace going before us, then the Eucharist is His continual help.

[This communal emphasis is, it must be said, pretty much the opposite of the lives our modern, "progressive," society encourages to lead. Despite being better connected than ever before by mobile phones, email and social media, the time we spend in thrall to them means that there has never been a lonelier time to be human: but these gizmos are not the cause of the problem, just an symptom of the self-obsessed milieu we live in. In a world where there is no real truth to trust in, whether it's religious, political, national or whatever, it's just me and my beliefs versus everyone else's: everything is just a matter of opinion. My Tweets and Facebook postings are either preaching to the select converted or shouting into a void: either way, it's still all about me, me, me. Even the Girl Guides' new vow, airbrushing God out of the picture, mirrors the tendency: a promise to develop my beliefs and be authentic to myself, with no external reference, no need for anyone else to interfere. The world is just a background for my selfie.]

[But the self is not enough. We need trust, trust in God, and we need to trust Him in one another, especially when we gather for Communion in one Body, washed in one blood, branches of one vine.]

The communal nature of our religion should not come as a surprise. God, after all, is three. One cannot be a Christian alone.