Sunday, 28 August 2016

Changing places


Rarely these days in the West do many of us find ourselves at dinners with seating plans, where we are placed in order of importance - perhaps weddings are the most common exception. But it is something I have often come across in my years of travelling to Japan. Once, when I was still not really used to the etiquette, I made exactly the mistake that Jesus describes in this parable. I had plonked myself down somewhere in the middle and ended up being politely moved further towards the end.

It’s interesting to think back to whom exactly I was sitting with at the end of the table, and who was up at the top in the best seats. Up at the other end were the men, the oldest in top place, working down towards the more junior. After the men, came the women and children – and not knowing quite where the foreigner should fit in, that’s where they put me, too. Old Japanese men at the top; at the bottom, women, children and gaijin.

We’d be fooling ourselves if we thought that these divisions, these hierarchies of age, sex and race, were restricted to Japan. We have them here, too; and Jesus calls them into question.

Camden Town can be frightening. It feels like there is a surfeit of anger and violent emotion on the streets: always someone shouting, threatening, mocking. I sometimes feel afraid when I’m here on my own in St Michael’s, and someone comes in with a clatter, as I never quite know what drugs or mental condition might be influencing them, what state of mind they might be in. It could be elation, it could be depression, it could be mania or aggression. Volunteers here have even suffered violence. This is not always a place where you can feel at ease.

Much of this can be put down to the inequalities in our society - the hierarchies of power which Jesus calls us to challenge. The table I sat at back in Japan was divided first by sex. The men, sitting at the top, were meant to show power, wealth, success in business, strength in drinking; the women, at the bottom, beauty, desirability, servitude, refinement, moderation. Here in England too, the good husband is the breadwinner, the buyer, the family defender, hard-working, independent and strong; the good wife is the housemaker, the spender, the childrearer, supportive and caring. A man who succeeds in money or war is a hero; a woman who does the same is hard and unfeminine. A man who succeeds in sex is a stud, a woman who does the same, a slut. A man whose wife is unfaithful is a cuckold; there is no equivalent word for a woman whose husband sleeps around. Men are encouraged to seek power by violence; women, to be desired and to serve.

Last week, I was on chaplaincy duty to about 450 teenage Army cadets. They were literally queuing up to talk to someone who could give them the time just to listen to the problems they were having in their lives. Some of those problems would make you weep. Many of those problems drove the teenagers to violent responses. But I noticed a clear divide in how they dealt with that violence depending on whether they were boys or girls. There were several incidences of boys losing their tempers and starting a fight with a nearby wall or floor - needless to say, the walls and floors always won. The girls, though, took their violence out on themselves, cutting or otherwise harming themselves. Without exception, the girls hurt themselves, while the boys looked for an external target for their anger.

We expect boys to be violent. When boys fight, it’s a “scrap,” and we smile as we say, “boys will be boys.” We expect men to fight to preserve their honour, and even more so the honour of their girlfriends or female family members. A man who does not is weak. Yet when girls fight, it’s not a scrap but a “catfight.” We don’t take women seriously as agents of violence. Think of the difference you feel about a man who beats his wife, and a man who is beaten by his wife. One the same line, I once served in the TA at a 21-gun salute on Edinburgh Castle. When a woman NCO shouted out the drill orders, members of the public laughed. So I suppose it is unsurprising that boys want to show off their anger violently by hitting walls or floors or each other - that’s the masculine thing to do - while girls quietly take it out on themselves, cutting or burning or starving themselves in secret. Violence is acceptable for boys, while good girls silently suffer.

So here in Camden Town, it’s hardly surprising that in summer, as the women’s skirts get shorter, so do the men’s tempers. Young, poor men are confronted every day with all those things our society says they need to be proper men: money, fashion, flash cars, sexy girlfriends. And because they’re poor, they can’t get any of those things. Frustrated, angry, they seek to prove themselves “real men” by the only option left to them: violence.

And as for poor young women, many continue to buy into society’s vision for them, too: objects of sexual desire, advertising their bodies for the men to compete over and the best prospect to win. That is probably not how they would describe it, of course, encouraged by the modern orthodoxy that we somehow “own” our bodies and have no obligation whatsoever to think of the effect our appearance might have on other people. The secular trend for women to expose their bodies is, I think, only the flip-side of the practice among many Muslims of covering women up completely: both extremes reveal a mindset that women are essentially objects of desire, there for the best man to win and finally unwrap.

Top place at the Lord’s table cannot be won by violence. There are no places reserved by sex or race or wealth or seniority. We, the Church in Camden Town, are called to show around this table a community where the inequalities of this world do not count. We are called to depend on Christ alone, and so utterly that there is no room for ego, selfishness and the desire for power in our hearts; called to have them set on that Kingdom where there is no man or woman, no slave or free, no Jew or gentile, and so to make it a reality in this place, to make Camden Town nothing less than a sacrament of Heaven, where anger, fear, violence have no dominion. To do that, to live in both inner and outer peace, Jesus commands his Church to question and subvert the divisions and expectations our society places upon us.

Sunday, 14 August 2016

Baptism at the Feast of the Assumption


As I was eating lunch on Monday, I caught the end of a fascinating programme on Radio 4 discussing the meaning of “Character.” It reminded me that this Greek word originally meant a stamp, the sort you would use to make your distinctive mark on the wax seal of a letter or parchment, for example. Your “character” is the type or mould of the person you are.

This resonates with our talk in the Christian Church of being ‘sealed with the Spirit’ or made in the ‘image’ of God, and is quite fitting today as we contemplate what it was that made the Blessed Virgin Mary worthy of such great honour by God, and by extension what that means for Baby Miles as he is imprinted with the character of Christ in Baptism today.

Our Lord appointed Mary as mother of all Christians as he went to the Cross, yet since the Reformation she has become less a figure of unity for Christians than of division. The early Protestants, even the extreme Reformer Calvin among them, were deeply reverential of the Blessed Virgin, as reflected in the retention of many Marian feasts in our own Book of Common Prayer. This is quite different from the cynicism of their successors, often motivated more by tribalistic anti-Catholic sentiment than by any theological motivation. Even the first Reformers, however, were critical of what they saw as mediaeval innovations to the faith, and one of those, in their view, was the feast celebrated throughout the Catholic and Orthodox Church today, of Our Lady’s Assumption: namely, the celebration not just of Mary’s death, but of her unique privilege in receiving instant bodily resurrection and unity with Christ in heaven.

Just because the Reformers considered this Feast an innovation does not mean that they were right. It is helpful when such disputes arise in the Western Church, divided as it is between Catholics and Protestants, to look further afield eastward to the unbroken tradition of the Orthodox Church, and further back in time to before the schism of East and West, when the Church was truly one. If we do that, we will find that indeed, there is no written evidence in the tradition for this belief until around the 4th century, other than the hyperbolic stories in some apocryphal pseudo-gospels rejected by the Church. And yet, for all the testimony of Mary’s Assumption we do have from the fourth century onwards, interestingly we have found not a word written against the doctrine. Nobody seemed to find it controversial. What is more, for all the efforts Christians went to from the earliest days to preserve and venerate the relics of the saints, never has anyone ever suggested that they have a relic of Mary. Every tomb speculatively ascribed to her has been empty. The evidence strongly suggests that right from the beginning, Christians believed the Our Lady’s body had passed immediately into heaven when she died.

But enough of the material evidence. Whether you believe this doctrine or not is a matter for your conscience, as far as the Church of England is concerned, since in theory nothing which cannot be proven by reference to Scripture is binding on us. But either way, it is worth thinking about the meaning of the teaching. And so, returning to our theme, what is more convincing to me than the material evidence is the evidence of Mary’s character: that is, the sort of person God had made her to be, the sort of person he had chosen to bear and raise his Incarnate Son.

References to Mary’s character may be scant, but we can make reasonable inferences based on what we know of her Son. It is still nowadays said that all people are born equal, as though children were simply empty vessels waiting to be filled up with character by their family and wider society; but given the last century’s research into genetics and the importance of influences on the baby even within the womb, we should really know better than that. Our inherited characteristics and the physical and mental dispositions of our mothers mean that we are not born equal at all, and that is not even taking into account our unequal birthrights of wealth and education. What this all suggests is that for Jesus to be the person he was, the human person, Mary must have been an exemplary person herself. However one believes God chose her, it was she and no one else who was destined to bear Jesus. And yet she was of no noble pedigree: she was poor and of low status in the eyes of the world. The odds were against her, and still she was chosen.

Mary had the character to say to the angel “Yes - be it unto me according to God’s word:” the character to consent to God’s will. Mary had the character to stand by her Son during the hard times of his ministry and the threat of persecution. Mary had the character to continue believing and to support the Church even after Jesus died. But before that, Mary had the character, when she was already a widow, to endure seeing her only child executed in front of her. I can only begin to imagine the horror of surviving my own child’s death, and perhaps this is the most persuasive meaning behind the doctrine of the Assumption. When Mary’s Son was crucified, it is no exaggeration to say that she was crucified too. God spared her the pain of death because she had already felt it.

I said that we are not born equal. In the world’s terms, that is true. But there is one sense in which we are born equal: and that is in the eyes of God. In the eyes of God, we are born quite equal to Mary, and indeed all the saints: and that is because all humans are born in the same image of God, the same essence of humanity which Christ adopted and so perfected. We are born with that image, that character, imperfectly stamped, fuzzy at the edges and hard to discern. In Holy Baptism, when we like Mary say “yes” to God’s will, he stamps our souls firmly in the character of Christ. Over life, the image gets more and more blurred - by sin - and so in his goodness, Christ gives us his Eucharist, the sacrament of his very body and blood, to impress his image ever more firmly and renew it, sharpening up the edges. And all this leads us to the promise Christ gives all the baptised, which we believe Mary to be the first after him to have received: the promise of Resurrection to eternal life.


Parents and godparents, it is up to you now to give your assent for Miles to receive the character of Christ. You are promising now to bring him up in accordance with that character, and to encourage him as best you can to grow into grow up in the life of the Church, in due course receiving the Eucharist which is his guarantee of eternal life. It is a grave duty but also a source of joy. If you seek an example of someone who has walked that path to perfection, you need look no further than Jesus’ Blessed Mother, whose character led her so faithfully and unbendingly into his eternal Presence. Amen.  

Tuesday, 9 August 2016

Tents and Transfiguration


“It is good for us to be here” (Lk 9.33)
Is it? 
Given recent news, you might question whether now is a good time for us be up the mountain or the altar steps contemplating divine light.
Yet Peter, James and John were no strangers to persecution themselves, and still they thought that the glory of God they saw in Jesus was invaluable: worth their lives, in the end. 
This is because they knew what they saw, from their own Jewish tradition. From 16 October this year, if you go into Hendon, you will see tents in many people’s gardens, out for the Feast of Tabernacles or Sukkoth, where the Jewish people will camp for a week in memory of God’s command to them to set up tents in the desert during the Exodus. The “roughly eight days” that Luke mentions at the beginning of his account of the Transfiguration (Lk 9.28) was that very week of the Feast of Tabernacles. This is why Peter offers to set up tents for Moses and Elijah, too, when he sees them with Jesus. They are at the final day of the Feast, and Peter sees Jesus bringing it to a dramatic culmination. But he knows, too, that the Feast of Tabernacles is not just the remembrance of a past event, but like all Jewish festivals, foreshadows also a hope for the future: in this case, the future dwelling of the just in God. When Moses and Elijah vanish in the cloud, Peter knows that the need for tents is over: in Christ, the promise has been fulfilled. The Kingdom is revealed, here and now. 
The disciples also know the spiritual significance of mountains, first from their own experience with Jesus: the mountains of his temptation, his Beatitudes, his frequent retreats of prayer. They will come to know the mountains of his agony, Crucifixion and Ascension too, in due course. But they know also the mountains of Horeb, Sinai and Moriah. They know of Moses ascending to behold God’s glory on Sinai, and the cloud covering it for six days (Ex 24.16). They know of the cloud and the pillar of fire leading their people to the promised land. And they know of Isaiah’s vision of God’s Glory, his kabod, in the heavenly Temple (Isa 6.1-4). Now they see in Christ that selfsame glory, the glory which belongs to God alone. Jesus’ face changes - Matthew says it “shone like the sun” (Mt 17.2) - and his clothes become whiter than anyone could bleach them, according to Mark (Mk 9.2-3). And with the glory comes that same cloud of God’s presence, the Shekinah, which led their people to freedom. That freedom is now theirs. 
When Peter, James and John hear the conversation between their Lord, Moses and Elijah, their Jewish tradition again informs them of its meaning. Jesus talks about his “departure,” or in Luke’s native Greek, his “Exodus.” The Jewish people’s ancient journey is to continue through a new desert, and the destination is Jerusalem, where it shall be fulfilled. Fulfilled, note, not replaced or destroyed: Christ is the fulfilment of the Law represented by Moses and the prophets represented by Elijah, not their replacement or destruction. The new promise fulfils and completes the old without taking anything away from it, and it is the same promise: namely, that the just may dwell forever in God’s glory, in the freedom of the Kingdom. 
Make no mistake, that vision of glory is the treasure beyond all price to which true religion aspires; and it is not to be sought only in times of plenty. The fourth century St Gregory of Nazianzus, in what is now Turkey, delivered an improptu homily during a dreadful cattle plague and drought in which he made it clear that our end is to see “the ineffable light” and “contemplate the holy and majestic Trinity that shines clearly and brightly and unites itself wholly to the entire soul. This alone” he said, “I take to be the kingdom of heaven.” (Or 16.9) He takes the theme from St Paul, who wrote to the Corinthians: 
“It is the God who said, ‘Let light shine out of darkness’, who has shone in our hearts to give the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ.’ 
(2 Cor 4.3-6)
This sense of seeking the light, the vision, the beauty of God, which are all contained in that one word “glory,” and finding in it the source of knowledge or wisdom, has been called the core of St Paul’s theology. You might well expect it to be so, seeing as it was just such a vision of light that thrust him to his knees on the Damascus road and brought him to Christ (as, I might add, it was for me). St John too puts the indwelling of God’s glory right at the foundation of our faith in the Prologue to his Gospel (1.14), where he says that “the Word was made flesh and dwelt (literally, “set his tent”) among us, and we beheld his glory.” The glory of God is fundamental to the Christian story, in its Jewish origins, the birth of our Saviour and, foreshadowed in the Transfiguration, at his glorious Ascension; so, it should be fundamental to our story, too, that our future may be the consummation of Christ’s past.
And yet in the contemplation of ancient history and a projected future, we risk losing sight of the present, which brings us back to Peter’s words. Is it “good to be here,” now? Or to make an alternative translation of Luke’s Greek word kalos, is it “beautiful” to be here? 
Well, that depends on how we are looking, what eyes we are using. You remember, probably from a wedding, how St Paul says to the Corinthians (1 Cor 13.12), “now we see in a mirror dimly” (or, in the King James, “a glass darkly”), “but then we shall see face to face.” We have the mirror. The mirror is Christ. In him, the glory of God is reflected, and if we look at the world through this glass, we can see that glory shining already among us. To be sure, we will see it perfectly only when our own transfiguration is complete; but for now, we can see it and moreover reflect it on the world around us, however ugly it may be.  
That, after all, is what Peter, James and John had to do; because what they did not know was that their Exodus to glory would take them through the Red Sea of Christ’s Passion. They did not know that God’s glory would evermore, in Pope Benedict’s words, “bear the mark of Jesus’s wounds.” Yet this is what they would face when they went back down the mountain, and it is what we of the Church must all face as we descend from the heights of prayer into the missionary theatre of the world. Without suffering, there is no glory. Glory for the Apostles, in the words of Paul, meant being ‘pressed in on every side, yet not crushed, perplexed yet not to despair, persecuted yet not forsaken, smitten down yet not destroyed, always bearing about in the body the dying of Jesus so that the life of Jesus may be manifested in our mortal flesh’ (2 Cor 4.8-10). As our brethren continue to face persecution, we should not expect any less for ourselves in this world. 
And yet: we must never forget to keep going back up the mountain, to withdraw for the same reason Jesus did. He went up the mountain to pray; and if we really go apart and devote ourselves to seeing the glory of God, then, to quote Archbishop Michael Ramsey, “he is at hand to change us by his Spirit into the same image from glory to glory.” (CEA 156-60) The pursuit of God’s glory is not a mystical panacea, but the gospel of Transfiguration, changing the world from glory into glory, a revealing of the world in Christ’s light which conquers because it convinces us enough to say, truly, even in this world, “it is good, it is beautiful, for us to be here.”