Sunday, 14 July 2019

Sunday of All Saints of Rus'-Ukraine at the Cathedral of the Holy Family, London, 14 July 2019

For today’s Feast of All Saints of Rus’-Ukraine St Paul exalts the eternal purpose of God (Romans 1.12-18) to identify those whom He will call, those he will make righteous as he conforms them to the image of His Son, and thus those He will fill with glory as all things work together for good by the power of His love. Who shall separate us from this our destiny, asks St Paul?

These few verses are luminous in the spirituality of what we Christians mean by sanctification, God’s holiness coming on us to make us His saints. We look to the officially canonised saints, and especially the Mother of God, as the evidence that human beings can become saints. This is not because they have become super-humans, but because we see in them that it is possible for mortals to be what the Lord had intended at the time of Creation, before we turn to the ways of deliberate imperfection and our preferred habit of falling short of the glory of God, something that we know as sin. We counteract this, as we pray for forgiveness and the restoration of our lost state, with a million, “Lord have mercy”s in our lifetime. Yet the popular expression in response to human self-indulgence or fallibility is, “You are only human”. But there is nothing “only” about being human. For it was his plan from the outset to clothe himself with the humanity He first given to us, and to take it for himself, so that, God becoming human by means of the indissoluble union that we worship in Christ the Son of God born of Mary, humanity may participate in the very life of God.

“Who shall separate us from the love of God which is in Christ Jesus?” demands St Paul. It does not in the end make a difference to the divine plan to take our flesh - and be united with us so that we could be united to Him - that we disobey his fatherly law and erred from His love. As we know from the parable of the Prodigal Son, it intensified His resolve never to part Himself from us, however much we exerted our wills to part ourselves from Him. As in Francis Thompson’s poem The Hound of Heaven, we know that it is the nature of God to pursue those who have fled Him. Thus a famously consoling English hymn sings, “O Love that will not let me go, I give Thee back the life I owe.” And in Psalm 138 it is the same:
O Lord, You have searched me out and known me … You hem me in behind and before, and lay Your hand upon me. Where shall I then from Your Spirit, or where shall I flee from Your presence? If I ascend to heaven, You are there; if I make my bed in Sheol, You are there. If I take the wings of the morning, and dwell in the uttermost parts of the sea, even there shall Your hand lead me, and Your right hand shall hold me.”
This was always the plan, and the fact of our sin does not change the intention of God to unite us to Him, since what is added is our forgiveness, our redemption, our forgiveness and our restoration to place us back on our original track of reconciliation.

It cost the Lord not less than everything, of course; and we recognise the superabundance of his core self-giving, which is the very nature of the Persons of the Trinity, not only in miracles and blessings but in His blood shed and His life poured out upon the Cross. God’s justification for doing this is not only to free us from the power of guilt and sin, but because he was always going to do this - to live like us that we might live like him, letting nothing ever ultimately stand in His way. Thus the Cross is the road to the empty Tomb. Thus the thorough rout into the depths of Death and back is the road to ascending humanity into the glory that God always intended for it. Thus the resurrection into which we were baptised makes the Cross - contrary to worldly appearance - glorious and life-giving. Thus the kingdom of heaven long ago became the nature that abhorred such a vacuum left by the removal of the bars and gates that kept us pent up in death.

When I went to a Methodist service one day, I remember the expectant moment after the first hymn has gathered all together in dedication to the Lord, and the minister addressed the people with the dramatic words of the Apostles from the Letter to the Hebrews: (12.22-23):

You have come to Mount Zion, to the city of the living God, the heavenly Jerusalem. You have come to myriads of angels in joyful assembly to the congregation of the firstborn enrolled in heaven, You have come to the Judge of all, to the spirits of righteous people made perfect.”
Who does he mean? He means us! Think of it: here in our Divine Liturgy, as we move around the altar and come in and out before the presence of the Lord, we are surrounded by the saints at worship in perpetual love; and we see that people no different from ourselves have been made righteous, not through any merit of their own but by the sheer outpouring of goodness that is infinite to overcome our failings and our preference for something else. There is nothing “only” about being human, destined to be filled to overflowing with this grace. And then, as St Paul says to us, “Those He destined to be changed to conform to the image of Christ from the beginning” - that’s you and me – “He next called. Then after He had made them righteous” – not by our merits but from His own reasons to make us no different from His Son – “He made them perfectly the same. He glorified them.”

John Wesley, the founder of the Methodist spiritual tradition, was inspired by the Eastern fathers of the Church. So in his preaching and the classic Wesleyan hymns he stresses not so much the problem of our sin but the magnificence of Christ’s sinlessness, and his full forgiveness by the power of the Cross to free us from ourselves and the evil that we do. To Wesley, since we are forgiven and free, what holds us back from becoming united with God in Christ even now? And if we can truly find this unity with the Lord, no wonder we can say with St Paul that we have come to Mount Zion, to the city of the living God, the heavenly Jerusalem, to the joyful assembly of the congregation of those enrolled in heaven. So Wesley follows St Paul to the great conclusion: If Christ by His power as God makes has impressed His own image into us and we are the very coinage of His Love, His buy-out conquerors in His competition with death and sin, what is there next but for Him to perfect what He has begun and make us perfectly holy, even starting here and now. So He works into us His holiness as He works out of us all that is amiss, making us His saints glorious as He is glorious. Saying none of this is to boast. As St Paul reminds us, “God forbid that I should boast save in the Cross of our Lord Jesus Christ by Whom the world has been crucified to me and I to the world.” (Galatians 6.14) For to hope for glory and holiness in the midst of this life is to tell the truth of our sins and our need for God’s redemption and restoration.

In our Eastern Church we rely on those who have gone before us on this very same road. We know that they followed their Lord, passing through adversity and disrepute, scorn and unbelievability. Yet we see the saints as glorified, just as St Paul told the Romans. Their images on the icons show them not in earthly portraits but in their glorified state. These all knew their sin, yet hoped in the holiness that was to come. And at the forefront of them all, the Mother of God, most pure, immaculate and sinless, was made righteous throughout her existence by the pre-ordained purpose of the Lord to come to her above all others, for the taking of our flesh from her so that in the same instant we might be one with Him. So we touch her icon, as she touched the foot of the Cross. So we touch the icons of St Olga, St Vladimir, the monks of the Caves of Kyiv, St Josaphat, Blessed Klement Sheptytsky the Martyr, and so many others, because their hold on life here was the same as Christ’s, and because the prayers of them all are heaven’s hold on us.

At the end of our Divine Liturgy after Communion we shall give glory to Christ for being our sanctification. So we understand that what is true of the saints in the icons must become true of us - and it has already begun. We are to be the new icons, the new reliability of prayer for those who are to come after us. We are the spirits of righteous people made perfect. We are the congregation to which new people in Christ will come in joyful assembly, and say, “We have come to Mount Zion, to the City of Living God.” There is nothing “only” about being human. All is for His glory, and all His glory is for us to be holy, to be his saints defined by the very quality of the “nothing” that ever can separate us from the love of God in Christ, the Love that will not let us go.

Tuesday, 14 May 2019

Sunday of the Myrrh-Bearers: Homily at the Liturgy of St John Chrysostom, Ukrainian Catholic Cathedral of the Holy Family, London, 12th May 2019

Why are we looking at the visit of the myrrh-bearing women to the Empty Tomb today, a fortnight after events? Their role was noteworthy on Good Friday, when we knew that there was a matter of hours between Jesus’ death and the beginning of the Sabbath for Joseph of Arimathea to procure the Holy Body, wrap it in linen and fragrant spices, and lay it in the Tomb. There is not enough time for the women to anoint him, but, like Joseph who lived in expectation of the Kingdom to come, they follow faithfully beyond the end, witnessing the place where He is laid. On the Sabbath morning when nothing can be done, in the midst of death, all they can do is to cry out, “O Christ as You foretold, show us Your resurrection.”

It is twenty-four hours before they can come to anoint the buried Lord properly. Thirty-three years earlier, three wise men had come with gold for a king, frankincense for a God, and myrrh for anointing the one who is to suffer and save us. Likewise on the first Pascha, Mary Magdalen, Salome and Mary the mother of James come as Wise Women to replay the scene in the cave of the Nativity in the cave of the Burial and see it borne out, honouring the one whom they recognise as The Lord, the Divine Son, and the Servant who must suffer. But although they have been told of the Resurrection like the other disciples, and desire with Joseph to see it , they do not expect it when it comes.

This is why we have waited for two weeks to hear the account of what confronted them, for it to dawn on us as it needed to dawn on them.

The Gospel we have heard today is from the close of St Mark’s Gospel, widely recognised to be the earliest of the Gospel texts to have been written down. Famously, there are several versions of how it ends. In our Church, we have the long ending, which summarises The Lord’s appearance to Mary Magdalen who then goes on to announce the resurrection to the mourning apostles (which is told in fuller detail in St John’s Gospel) , then His appearance to the two disciples on the road to Emmaus (which we know from St Luke’s Gospel), and finally to Peter and the other Ten remaining apostles exhorting them to baptise the whole of creation and bring those who believe into the Kingdom of heaven (which we hear in St Matthew’s Gospel). What we have in St Mark’s Gospel is the presentation in the hours and days immediately after the astonishment of the resurrection, a vivid moment in which The Lord is both drawn up into heaven and remains working with the apostles to confirm their words by new miracles - in other words by the Holy Spirit that He sends and gives in power. But only a few verses before, are the words describing the first reaction of the myrrh-bearing women, the last words of St Mark’s Gospel on which all authorities and Churches are agreed:

They went out and ran away from the Tomb, trembling with amazement. They said nothing to anyone, for they were afraid.

Why should the gospel end there – which of the endings is original – have we lost the true ending? Well, that is not how to look at it. The entire thrust of St Mark’s Gospel, which relies so heavily on the direct witness testimony of St Peter himself, is how those who are drawn to follow Jesus genuinely believe Him and everything He says about the Kingdom of God (some of it very difficult to hear); and, while they accept that it must all be true, because of the casting out of evil forces and the miracles that confirm His words at every significant turn, but that they barely have faith in Him until after the resurrection. Until that confronts them, they fail to grasp what He means about the coming of the end that will lead to the coming of God. It has not sunk in about the God Who will endure through and beyond it all (Mark 13.31), Who will be seized and made to suffer because His prayer in the Temple alone is valid as that of the Divine Son of Man, Whose appearance as the true Messiah is made clear not because He curses a fruitless fig tree, but because the attachment of His body will bless the Cross that will kill Him, yet be the source of inexhaustible forgiveness and salvation. They cannot absorb His principle that only through entering into this dark reality can one age end and another achieve its inauguration. Indeed the disciples believe His words and love His talk of the reign of God, His Kingdom come on earth as it is in heaven; but it is not the faith by which their lives are shaped - until they have been through what is to come and come out the other side.

So James and John the sons of Zebedee asked Him (Mark 10) if they could sit on either side of Him in the glory He kept talking about in the Kingdom; and He replied that they would have to be baptised with His baptism, and drink the cup that He must drink, and become a slave bound to the service of all - a ransom for the release of all the rest, and not His own, if He would truly be set free. To drive home the point, The Lord straight away goes on to heal a blind man, who has cried out, “I want my sight back”. The message could not be louder: the disciples are sunk in complete mystification; despite everything they have heard, they are dazzled by a fantasy. Instead, it takes someone who is physically blind to perceive that here is a simple question of faith. Can The Lord endure, can He be trusted to save, can He be relied on to turn the impossible inside out? The blind man has foreseen the Cross, because He trusts that Jesus’ mercy can cause His fruitless vision to wither, like the fig tree did, into the clear sight of Christ in His true light. The disciples had seen this on the mount of Transfiguration; they worshipped, but in that moment they only saw the light, without realising where the light was to come from and how it would shine in our side of the firmament of creation. For the One Who is all Glorious Light in Heaven must in this world inevitably take the form of a human body beaten on the head with dead wooden sticks and disfigured on the beams of a tree.

Those with faith like the blind man, those who had been along the same path of sorrow yet knew to trust and endure, had an instinct that the light of Transfiguration, the darkness of destruction in one age, and the beginning of the new, were all part of one piece; a seamless robe, so to speak.

Mary Magdalen, Salome, and Mary the mother of James had been through it all with Jesus, to the Cross, to the Tomb with Joseph, and now came back to be first witnesses that the Tomb was empty of burial and death. Their belief and trust was transformed by the Cross and the resurrection into the life of faith. It is too great to absorb, so they run away and say nothing out of sheer fright and shock. But they do go to Peter and tell him of the new beginning, back in Galilee where it had all started out. Thus Peter, who denied the Christ he followed, becomes a man of faith in the Risen Lord Who endured the shame to give His life as a ransom for the release of all. Thus the wise women who kept seeing and recognising The Lord anoint not the buried Christ, for he has been raised. Instead, their anointing is realised in the outpouring of the Holy Spirit for the new age that is the Church, producing for ever more not just believers and followers, but people who have embraced the whole of Christ as He has embraced the whole of them, people of faith whose entire life and mind and soul has turned on this point, that The Lord who was dead is risen.

It took the three women hours to deal with this realisation. It took the other disciples and apostles days. It took St Thomas a whole week. We have been given two weeks to absorb that the Son of Man risen from the dead dies no more and what that means. This changes everything about how we view the creation, the purpose of our belief, other people in it who do not follow in this belief, the nature of religion, our relationship with the Person of God the Son, and the entire dimension and trajectory of human nature. Our faith is not some department of our personality, an add-on belief system. Since Christ is not dead but raised in our own flesh, our faith is simply how life is. As the man who wanted his sight back realised, Christ has turned the impossible inside out and the resurrection is now in our nature.

Monday, 22 April 2019

Supposing Him to be the Gardener: Homily for Easter Morning, Catholic Parish Church of the Most Precious Blood, Southwark, April 21, 2019

Every so often I go to a beautiful garden. Over the years, I have got to know the gardeners, the students, the staff and the other supporters there as friends. Some of them are real characters; and not a few of them have pushed through terrible adversity to find in this place an outlet onto their true path in life. They are all incredibly gifted, honing their skills year upon year about every conceivable plant and variety; in what soil it will grow in shade or in sun; the sometimes hidden way it can be propagated; when its seed or bulb or as young plant it needs to be planted months before it grows up and blooms at exactly the right time; what it can grow next to produce colour and form in harmony and contrast. These gardeners are genius. In the seven months that the garden is open each year, they produce six waves of new flowerings in succession, as all the careful work in the preceding autumn, winter and spring results in new compositions of leaf and flower coming through in new colour as others die back, only to yield in turn as they are succeeded by later new flowerings.

Whenever I go to this garden, I am in awe. It is never the same from one year or season to the next. These people know exactly what they are doing to produce this constant cycle of bursts of glory and beauty amid the cycle of dying back and planting into the hidden covering of the earth.

It is no accident in design that the Tomb which this morning we find empty of Christ’s body but emanating from within it the angels, who indicate the activity within us and our world of heaven itself, is in a garden. The latest burial in the earth, this planting in succession to so many others before it, has been prepared from the ages before. Just as Christ was born of Mary at the fullness of time, so His death on the Cross, His burial and resurrection in the Tomb occur at the very moment which is the turning point in history upon which all that comes after hinges. From that instant there can never be un-resurrection from the dead. What Christ worked into our nature by being born, and dying in a body like ours, is the nature of God in his grace and glory revealed in the way that is for us. As St Paul says, we once saw it through a glass darkly, this grace and glory: through miracles and healings, through luminous, unforgettable parables that it takes a lifetime to comprehend, and then in the confrontations around the Temple, the agony in the garden three nights ago, the arrest of someone supposed to be the very Son of Man, the trials, the crucifixion and then the bearing away of the unbroken body to be lain down into death. This is what the workings of God look like in human form as He empties Himself of all but the inexhaustible supply of forgiveness and unconditional love come what may: thus “in the garden secretly and on the Cross on high... God’s presence and His very Self and Essence all Divine.” (From Praise to the Holiest in the height, in The Dream of Gerontius, John Henry Newman)

So, according to this carefully laid plan from before time, after Nazareth, after Bethlehem, then after the baptism in Jordan when we heard whose Son coming to us He was, then in Galilee, then on mount Tabor when we say Him shining out of our human body with the light of His undying ondoing of death and His new life in the Kingdom, then in Jerusalem with the palms and overturning the old tables, then the Thursday in the garden, then the night on trial, then Friday’s rejection by His people, then the way to Calvary, then the Cross, then the death and then the burial within the ground of our planet all in the end within those swift alarming twenty-four hours – comes another day like an eternity passes. At last on the third He rises; and the glory and beauty we see where in the place where it all began: in a garden cultivated from when it was first set out for this very moment of all moments, when the latest flower in succession shoots up, comes into leaf, then buds and opens up never to close again.

Now why was all this? So that after the resurrection there could be no de-resurrection. After dying there could only be undying. After rising again there could be no dying back. For just as he worked the life and nature and grace of His being God into humanity, through his life in our nature from his conception to his death, so what happens to Him now as God in human flesh raised from the dead happens to humanity in all its entirety too. St Paul points us to the garden to show this. He says, “It was sown a physical body; it was raised a spiritual body”. (I Corinthians 15.44) As with Christ, so with you. You live no longer for yourselves, but Godwards, toward God (Romans 14.8; II Corinthians 5.15), to the life of the Kingdom whose quality of living is not towards death but eternity, in the dimension of undying always and which is even now raised from the dead and open to the new life, never to be closed up again.

And how was all this? There is every answer possible to bring you to the foot of the Cross in tears, or to the lintel of the Tomb beside the once closed stone, rolled along its edge to its own opening never to shut itself up in darkness again; or to bring you to silence before the amazing message-bearers from heaven; or to face the obvious signs you can barely understand of some cloths left lying on the rock surface, as if nothing extraordinary has happened here.

Some say it is so that Christ could be victorious over death, and cheat the devouring beast of its prey by devouring it back in overwhelming heaven’s eternal life. Some say it is so that an innocent victim may outweigh the sin, its guilt within us and its power over us, as the Lamb of God takes them away. Some say it is because the outpouring of love is so endless that not even death can exhaust it, or human sin try its patience beyond the limit of God’s compassion, forbearance with us, and forgiveness, for there is no limit. The great poet and hymn writer, Charles Wesley, put it like this:
He left His Father’s throne above,
So free, so infinite His grace;
Emptied Himself of all but love,
And bled for Adam’s helpless race:
’Tis mercy all, immense and free;
For, O my God, it found out me. (From And can it be that I should gain)
I was reminded of what this means when I went to the garden I told you about once. Once when I tried to buy some items in the shop from my friends there, they said, “Your money’s no good here.” I had to accept the gift without payment in the garden in the same way that the woman who came to the Tomb to anoint Jesus could not do Him this last duty, for all was already achieved, and the marvel of our redemption and resurrection into His own new life bought and paid for. As we sing of this:
There was no other good enough,
To pay the price of sin;
He only could unlock the gate,
Of heaven and let us in. (From There is a green hill far away, Mrs C. F. Alexander)
 All we can do is to add ourselves, our souls and bodies, to the endless succession of planting and spring: sown a physical body, raised a spiritual body. St Paul calls this living sacrifice “the true spirit of worship” (Romans 12.1 [logike latreia: reasonable service (in the sense of deeply reasoned and pondered; spiritual service]): it is never our loss to death, but our release from lives imprisoned to the abundance of life in heaven lived in all its abundance, of necessity, here and now. (John 10.10). In the words of Isaac Watts:
Were the whole realm of Nature mine
That were an offering far too small.
Love so amazing, so divine
Demands my soul, my life, my all! (From When I survey the wondrous Cross)
When Mary Magdalen sees Jesus and supposes Him to be the gardener, it is no mere case of mistaken identity. The Lord showed Himself to her exactly as He intended: the One who created our life in His Paradise at the beginning and, with sin and everything else having taken its toll and its turn, the One who has shown the Cross to be the key to unlock the Tomb that leads back into the Garden from which we have been rootless, planted nowhere, flowering poorly. No wonder that He said to the thief who died beside Him, “Today you shall be with me in Paradise”. And here we are, face to face with the Gardener of Eden, holding on no longer to what has passed (John 2.17), but now established where we were always meant to be.

Monday, 11 March 2019

Marked for Repair: A Homily for Repentance Sunday, Ukrainian Catholic Cathedral, London, 10th March 2019

During the week I was watching American news, and there on CNN was a journalist conducting an interview with a prominent, dark cross of ashes on his forehead. Last Wednesday began Lent in the Latin Church, and it is marked with the imposition of ashes made out of the previous year’s Palm Sunday branches. Our own Lenten fast begins on Monday after today’s observance of Forgiveness Sunday; but we too have the Cross imposed upon us at other times – not with ash but still indelibly on our hearts, minds and souls when we were baptised, when we are anointed with oil at the great Feasts, and most of all when we make the sign of the Cross during our prayers and at the Liturgy.

The CNN interview concerned American politics. Here in the United Kingdom such a bold public profession of personal religion or feelings on a hard-hitting current affairs programme would be discouraged, or the motives doubted as some kind of an act. There would certainly have been complaints. But in the American interview there was no reference at all to the visual demonstration of Catholic faith as in any way out of the normal, as the interviewee confronted with the Cross of Christ on a public Catholic just got on with asking secular questions and explaining some explosive proceedings in the Congress. It struck me that the CNN journalist was, first, being honest about his faith and not covering it up for the cameras lest anyone be offended; and, secondly, he defied anyone to make an issue for their own reasons about something that is normal for Latin Catholics.

Indeed, he was professing his faith in his work and his role as a hard-hitting public commentator. No one turned a hair; and the interview, like his appearance, was entirely matter of fact. But such a declaration of Catholic belief is more than positioning of faith over and against the world. The sign of the Cross is a sign of contradiction not only to the world. Christians bearing or making the sign of the Cross are marked by a contradiction to ourselves, our false image of ourselves that we carry in our heads and that we project to the world. It arrests any hypocrisy. Just like a defective machine that goes back to the shop and is labelled for return to the factory and repair, the Cross is the mark on us to show where the faulty parts of the apparatus are that will be replaced with grace and fortified goodness. It disabuses us of our fantasy that we are good and moral, and perfectly adequate without Christ. And yet it shows the world not that Christ humiliates humanity, but that He judges us worth not leaving on the ground but raising up (cf. Romans 14.4, from today’s Epistle)

This is what seizes our heart with dejection at our sin, our flaws and our failings. This is what leaves us feeling that regret is useless and eats away at us because of dwelling on what might have been. This is what convinces of desire for repentance, which is more than the intense sorrow that our sins provoke in us and in others as well as in God, for in the word used by Our Lord repentance is the whole change of mind, outlook and direction that leads from what was wrong, by putting it right, to the place of relief and remaking. Here we find joy in an honest memory about what was done in the past; on the way here we discover forgiveness by means of the truth about ourselves face to face with God, and we arrive in gladness for acceptance because His love is inexhaustible and cannot be deflected from its purpose.

The Cross with which we make signs of faith, of penitence, of desperation and of hope is realised by the Christians to be the true contour of the image of God in which we were made. Our image of ourselves may enable us to get by, but it is ultimately false. Only the image of God who shaped what human life as lived by God looks like is true. Being God, according to His plan He could resemble a King in no other way. And if this is how God incarnate appears as a human being upon the Cross, taking up the Cross likewise is how a human being must appear being made in His image. This is the objective of His being born. It is the means by which He brings about the Resurrection. It is the path to the glorification of the Old Creation by re-creating it from within as the New. It is the mountain path of Ascension, by which we move even now into His Kingdom as it comes on earth as in heaven.

While we make our way into our fast, and observe the season of Lent, of course we are penitent and, pained by the wrong we have done, we ask for mercy. Of course we deny ourselves with fasting. Of course we are moved to intensify our poor prayers.

But the sign of the Cross reminds us that, before we thought of any of those things, Christ was not waiting for us to show signs of promise. He was there first, giving us what it is that we desire to offer. Before His judgment comes His contradiction of our sinful state and its remedy. Before His sentence He charted the pattern of our rehabilitation. Before our repentance He established the means of His forgiveness. Before our self-reproach and self-abasement, He willed to take our flesh and restore its true dignity. Before our self-denial and fasting, He ordained that His generosity would be of absolutely everything that is His. For prior to his suffering was his endless patience, from that “love that endures all things” (I Corinthians 13.7); and prior to our redemption was His determination before all our ages to see through the work of redemption in each one of us right to the end.

The journalist on CNN last Wednesday, like millions of other Catholics, directed the attention of the world to this principle of the Cross constantly at work in God’s re-constitution of His creation. When I put on this Gold Cross that was given to me to wear by Bishop Hlib, I first kiss it and remember the Lord’s words, “He who would be my disciple, let him deny himself, take up his cross, and follow me” (Matthew 16.24); and I pray with St Paul, “God forbid that I should glory save in the Cross of our Lord Jesus Christ” (Galatians 6.14). In the same way, whenever you make the sign of the Cross, you say as I do, “God be merciful to me, a sinner” (Luke 8.13).

With Christ, then, we are drawn into His endless dynamic of giving and forgiving generosity. Our fasting is possible because He has already supplied us with the means of self-offering that on our own we run out of. Our prayer avails not because we are redoubling our spiritual efforts, but because He focuses our fasting and praying so closely on His own. He told His disciples, when they could not cast out devils and eradicate human wickedness, that it could only be done with prayer and fasting. So His gift to us is to bind us to the power of His own determination and will to “cast out our sin and enter in” (from the Christmas hymn, O Little Town of Bethlehem). The Cross imposed upon us, whether visibly in a ceremony in the Latin Church or our prostrations and making the sign of the Cross in the East, or inwardly in our souls and spirits, shows that here is the person who is to be worked upon and by what Wooden Tool.

It marks not only our forgiveness and redemption from sin, but the complete loss and self-sacrifice that Christ has offered, by which we are raised back to the level of being fit for the creation that we marred. He changes the Creation from one glory into a greater glory (II Corinthians 3.18), so that there may be a new reign of Christ, with a new people transformed in our mind, our will and our heart (cf. Romans 12.2), His for ever as He is ours.

St Chad, His Well and His College: for St Chad's College, Durham at Durham Cathedral, 2nd March 2019

Next time you step off the train at Kings Cross, you might take a 10 minute detour east along the Pentonville Road. Go past the Scala night club, take the right fork into the King’s Cross Road; and after the Greek barber and a coffee shop, you could almost miss a tiny passage way on the right. Take it, and in a dozen steps you will turn back into a pavement between the backs of the surrounding buildings. This is St Chad’s Place. Go fifty feet more, and the path is taking you over the Thameslink railway. You have reached your destination. This is the site of St Chad’s Well. Ever since the coming of the railway, it has fed unseen into the now subterranean River Fleet; but for many hundreds of years before that people had come to its mineral waters for healing and health. We do not know that St Chad visited, or preached, or baptised at this spot, which was a crossroads for the Angles and Saxons coming and going from London, no less than it is today. Perhaps the monk with such a breathtaking reputation across all the English kingdoms crossed the bridge over the river here, on his journey down from York to Canterbury seeking ordination as a bishop. There is no record. Yet such was his fame that, when the well was constructed to pool the refreshing waters, there was no one in England that it was going to be named after but our patron.

We have heard of St Chad’s zeal in teaching and learning, and his dedication to serving people in remote places that others had long not got round to. We have heard of his complete lack of interest in putting himself to the fore, and his determination to put Christ first and the bringing of His Kingdom to people so that they could love and be inspired by it: not because they were told they must, but because it had captured their hearts and their wills. The founders of our College more than a century ago chose him as patron because of these very virtues. In a time in both Church and society when students from poorer backgrounds had no opportunity to go to the schools where Latin and Greek were taught, and so could not dream of even entering University to study and train for ordained ministry, our founders identified not just an educational barrier to individuals, but a barrier to the Kingdom of God itself for whole communities, since none of their number could learn to be their pastors and spiritual leaders. Yet St Paul envisages that all of us may be able to present our lives as a “sacrifice acceptable to God” in body, spirit and reason (Romans 12). “Do not be conformed to the world,” he says. That would be to the miss the point and to settle for far less than God desires for humanity. If you want to know the will of God, what is good and perfect, how to love, how to identify what is evil and reject it, how to build the human race, its nations and societies, in mutual honour and self-sacrifice, how suffering is turned into hope, and how evil is made to run out of power because the blessings of peace and forgiveness are inexhaustible, there is one way, says St Paul: “Be transformed by the renewing of your minds.”

This is all very well, but what if no one you know has grounds for imagining that such a transformation as this can be theirs? St Chad’s College changed all that. The founders imagined St Chad in his monastery, taking in the young people with promise and a spark inside them, and starting from the beginning, even with reading and writing, passing on to them everything he knew, advising where their course in life as well as in study was going wrong, and showing them where they would find the right ways. Likewise our founders captured the aspirations and imaginations of those that the world at the time provided little space for. They helped our first generations of students to be ready for study at a university, and they embedded within their College a vivid sense that, here of all places, study, learning and achievement are not just about personal self-fulfilment but always aimed at the service of others. For the renewal of minds is not intellectual, it is spirit and life too. Those students were often going back to the areas that they had come from: to serve and support them, to bring honour and pride to their families, to give leadership on behalf of those without a voice for good, to relieve misery and injustice; but above all to extend the power of love, and faith and hope.

Think of St Paul offering the same prospects to his favourite but most concerning students: the people of the Church at Corinth. His two letters to them are a ferment of rebukes, guidance, inspiration, encouragement, and pointed exhortations and rebukes all over again. He tells them he is coming for a third visit. But he knows that some will be complaining their generous hospitality is always repaid with a robust dressing down. So he tells them “I do not want what you have, but you yourselves” (II Corinthians 12.14). He says that his aim, then, is to build them up so that they should find and do the will of God, and thus the way to peace. And we know that doing the will of God to St Paul is the transformation of minds renewed into whatever is good, and what serves the establishment in human hearts of the Kingdom of God.

The College ceased to be a training college for Anglican clergy after 1974, and by the time I arrived in 1977 we were a rich mix of 170 Anglicans, Catholics, Free Church people, Hindus, Muslims, Jews, and people who had no belief in particular. We were very fond, too, of our own resident revolutionary Marxist. Nowadays it is a College for women and men, all people equally; and it is three times larger. But when I returned last year as Chair, one of my contemporaries from the 1970s was already a governor too, and we both agreed: “It’s completely different, but exactly the same”. We are still not a very large village, and in the past we have been through some harrowing episodes and transitions, but there is something in that phrase of St Paul’s that is our motto – “Not what you have, but you yourselves”. It seems to seep into the very being of those who dwell here for any length of time; and it changes the very way that most people who pass through its portals look at the world, our attitude towards other people, to our common home and its sustainable survival, our approach to what work is truly for, and our beliefs that public life, the economy and business, and society all serve a greater good for the sake of humanity fulfilling the highest purposes for which it was created.

St Chad remains the apt patron for the vision of our founders in a College which draws people from all over the world, but is also passionate that the most disadvantaged in our community and region can realistically aspire to come here and be part of the contribution we seek to make through the renewing of our minds. But it is not just because St Chad was a role model, an inspirational teacher, or a hero whose self-sacrificing conduct was spoke volumes to those in authority in Church and state who lorded it over the rest in order to put themselves forward. His young monks told the story of when during violent storms they were terrified, but he without any sense of disturbance would resolutely sing the psalms. It was as though his calmness brought about the calming of the elements. To his monks he demonstrated not just the greatest human qualities, but also to embody life in heaven at the same time. The renewing of our minds was seen in St Chad to open up another dimension, taking the intellectual to the spiritual level of virtue, and mutual good and unstinting service. He embodied something of God’s holiness and yet he was a man. This captures our imagination today as much as in 1904 or in the 7th century. This is what we mean when we pray, ‘thy will be done, thy Kingdom come, on earth as it is in heaven” – not just then, not just afterwards, but now, in us.

In the rule for monks familiar to St Chad and his early English students, there is a warning against wandering monks, who have never put down deep roots let alone grown from them, people who make many demands and leave contributing nothing. This is impossible for anyone who belongs to St Chad’s College. In the same way, the Saxons who dug the well near Kings Cross to build a destination of health, healing and renewed living had the same instinct as we have: to find beneath St Chad’s patronage not just a home that is perfectly true of our identity and our hopes, not just a home that nurtured our intellectual development, but truly our spiritual home.

And no matter how far you go, it will never leave you. You will always carry in minds renewed your spiritual home. You will always take with you a glimpse of that holiness that transformed St Chad and still takes up our hearts and changes us, for the sake of changing the world into the Kingdom of peace, of justice, of truth and of ever giving and forgiving love.

Friday, 15 February 2019

Meeting Zacchaeus: Homily at the Ukrainian Cathedral of the Holy Family of London, Zaccheus Sunday, 9/10th February 2019

I have met this man, Zacchaeus.

He is always presented as corrupt, cheating the taxpayers and the Roman empire of their money. This is not what St Luke says (Luke 19.1-10). Yes, he took a proportion of the monies that he levied, but that was legally earned income. It may have been lucrative for him; and people will have resented paying taxes to their rulers. They may not have trusted or liked the taxman; or agreed with what the taxes were spent on, including the wages and perks of public servants – but little has changed from that day to this. No, Zacchaeus may have been avaricious. He may have taken the Emperor’s shilling and been hated for it; but he is not corrupt. Look at the story: he is humble, self-effacing, looking for Jesus; he has a change of heart, and becomes holy.

Jesus says two things about this man. First that it is easier for a rope to pass through the eye of a needle that for a rich man to enter the Kingdom that is ruled by God (Luke 18.25). Secondly, He looks at the coins that people use to pay their taxes to the Emperor and listens to the shifty questions of His own Father’s Law trying to catch Him out. Showing them the head of the Emperor, He says, “Render to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s”. But he goes on to say, “Render to God the things that are God’s” (Luke 20.25). He poses the Big Question that most of us - who live through a whole life in the world as we hope to live in the Kingdom - never fully answer: “What do we have in our hands that actually belongs to God and that we should give back?”

Yet Zacchaeus, a rich man, works it out, and enters the Kingdom. As the English Christmas carol by Christina Rossetti, puts it,

What shall I give Him, poor as I am?
If I were a shepherd, I would bring a lamb.
If I were a Wise Man, I would do my part.
Yet what I can I give Him: give my heart.

It was observed by Holy Mother Theresa that, when Our Lord says, “Blessed are the poor in spirit”, if you only take a quick look at Europe and the West, He is also referring to the rich: with all the affluence, the flow of money, the insulation of commodities and possessions, inside their spirits are empty, or turned rock hard. What will soften them, or what will deepen them as stores of the Kingdom’s treasures from above? Zacchaeus saw it.

I met him once in a well-to-do retired banker in my parish in north London back in the 1990s. He cherished his classic car and enjoyed the fruit of his labours for many years in the City of London. But he was devout and holy at the Altar, a beautiful soul who was kind and generous, especially when no one saw. Again: humble, self-effacing, looking for Jesus, with a heart that was always turning to God, and seeking His holiness. He was completely honest and told me that the reason the economy and society were in trouble was because no one lived by the rule on which the City’s banks and brokers had always depended in the past: “Verbum meum factum” – My word is my bond. Because he lived by his own word, he understood the promises of Christ, too. He loved the Word of God, our God made flesh; and at his funeral we sang the hymn:

O Jesus, I have promised, to serve Thee to the end.
O give me grace to follow, my Master and my Friend.

I have also met a Zacchaeus driving an Uber car. He had come to this country from the East as a student, a clever young man seeking the best future for his war-ravaged country by being trained in international development. One night his fellow-student got into a fight and he intervened to calm things down. But when the police arrived he was arrested too, and sentenced to months in prison. The court at least accepted his plea not to be sentenced to six months, as that would have meant his deportation. But with a judgment of three months serving six weeks, his entire life was utterly disrupted; he lost his place on his course, and he realised with a criminal record he must abandon his hopes of an international professional career. He could not return to his home country; and fortunately his application for citizenship here had already made progress, and someone in authority took notice of him - like Jesus looking up at Zacchaeus trying to see but not to be seen in his tree - and enabled him to stay and build a new life. When he came out of six counter-productive weeks inside, his record meant there was little choice or opportunity for work and rebuilding his life. But he was not downcast or bitter. He remembered that when he was a boy, before his country was ruined, he would visit his friend’s house and spend hours with the family weaving carpets, repairing the threads, dying to the right colours, mending the holes, judging the right threads, be they wool or silk. This man is now one of a tiny number of master craftsmen who can make and repair Persian carpets in this country. I asked him why he needed to drive an Uber, if he was one of the most highly skilled experts in Britain. He explained that there was no end of demand for his work, but it was back-breaking labour, and he could only do it a few days a week, yet still needed to earn, so that he could send funds back to his family in his homeland, as well as look after his new family in England. Again: humble, self-effacing, looking to trust in God, a man whose heart and life had been changed for the worse and then for the better, a man who, even though not a Christian, had found a path of peace and virtue.

I have also met this man Zacchaeus in the same place you have met him. I have seen him in the mirror. I know, as you do, that the heart within is threadbare, empty, hardened like stone. I have seen the eyes of Zacchaeus trying to see Jesus, and I have seen what Jesus has seen in them – dismay at myself; the shame of not standing out in front of people, because I know that people will revile me for being the compromise with the world that I am; the hoping to be able to see Jesus, but never daring to come up to Him and meet Him. But seeing Him seeing me, for what I am – look at the icon of Christ looking at you now – I will hear Him say that, without my repentance, just on the strength of my glance at Him, He is coming to me today. And I break. I hurry to Him as He overcomes my sins. I pour out my pent up spirit, and by giving out what is poor in it, I become rich from Him. “Do not neglect the gift that is in you,“ says St Paul (I Timothy 4.14). He should know, for He was a Zacchaeus too. Salvation came to him, when, on the road to Damascus - just as on the road beneath that tree, and just as in our mirror, and now before this icon - “the Son of Man came to seek out and save what was lost.”

When in the Old Testament, Joshua came to Jericho, with his name meaning, “The Lord is salvation”, he overwhelmed it with the power of the living God. In the well-known story (Joshua 6.1-27), Jericho’s resistance to God crumbled with its walls at the sound of the trumpets and the hosts of the Lord encircling it seven times. In the Gospel, the second Joshua - Yeshua, Iesous, Jesus - overwhelms Jericho with the vision of Divine Glory, in the face of two humans as they encounter one another: one as the man who is poor in spirit and one as The Lord God who brings salvation. And in this Jericho here, with the same sight of one another, the Son of Man comes to seek out and save us, the ones who have been lost along our way. Therefore we may sing:

O Jesus, I have promised, To serve Thee to the end;
O give me grace to follow, My Master and my Friend.
O guide me, call me, draw me, Uphold me to the end;
And then in heaven receive me, My Saviour, and my Friend. (John Bode, 1816-1874)

Monday, 14 January 2019

The Sun of Righteousness: Homily at the Ukrainian Catholic Cathedral of the Holy Family, Sunday after the Nativity, 12/13th January 2019

In today’s Troparion of the Nativity (Tone 4), we sang that those who had once worshipped stars were now taught by a star to worship the Sun of Righteousness and to recognise the Dawn from on high.

It would be a mistake, however, to dismiss the Wise Men as ignorant or superstitious, because across the whole known world, from the Persian Magi to the priests in the Temple of Jerusalem who were trying to advise an unwise King Herod, the minds of those steeped in the greatest accumulation of knowledge and experience were studying the ordered movements of the heavenly bodies, to see where there might be a divine pattern in creation that could be applied to how we should live and act as humans in the world below. Any variation or unforeseen phenomena were scrutinise to try and understand whether there was evidence of a warning, or a sign of favour, or a command for a new direction, or an old prophecy coming to pass with immediate consequences for the course of the future. It is said that, as well as the offering of sacrifices, the Liturgy of the Temple in Jerusalem was meant to imitate the circular movement of the sun, the moon and the stars, with priests dressed in white and other coverings to symbolise the heavenly beings and the angels, not so as to worship them but to induce here in the world through God’s service among the clouds of incense, the will, the blessing and the living glory of the Lord in heaven. In our worship at the Divine Liturgy, we likewise circulate around the altar; our priests are vested for service amid the angels at the very throne on which Christ our God comes to rest in our midst, and where He reveals Himself vested in the Body and the Blood of the Eucharist so that we acclaim Him as He gives Himself to us, saying “God has appeared to us”.

We have seen his star in the east,” said the Magi likewise to Herod, “and have come to worship Him.” It seems increasingly to astronomers that the alignment of stars, or a comet or a planet, and the movement of the earth at some time in the period following the Lord’s birth indeed supports St Matthew’s account that the path of a heavenly body appeared to move and so it was matched step by step in the earthly tread of the Wise Men, from their roads out of the east and down to Jerusalem, then on to Bethlehem. For a very short time, I was a student in Jerusalem, where one of the professors took us to Bethlehem not just to see the sacred cave of the Nativity but to attest to the archaeology of an ancient well nearby. “This proves it,” he said.  “This was how the Wise Men were satisfied that the heavenly firmament which appeared alive with momentum to them had now come to standstill. They looked down into the water and saw the star was fixed, by its reflection.” Whatever weight we may give to these conjectures, we gain an insight into the ancient system of reading the universe to discern the Divine Plan that wisdom was not some static body of knowledge, but a dynamic mechanism by which God guides the world by His laws for our good, and projects our way by His light towards His glory.

Thus the star is not an exhibition of glory way up in the heavens, but the sign that shows that the Glory has come to shine in our world. It rests over Bethlehem, not so that we may look up, beyond and away, but so that we may focus our vision with heaven’s upon the world it intends to save - and behold the Dawn of God within the humanity that He has come to obtain from us, and by sharing it to give it a new direction and set it in a new light - one that dazzles and amazes us because it shines not from an external source but has been kindled to a blaze from within.

St Paul in today’s Epistle (Galatian 1.11-19) bears this out with his own story of beholding Christ not following an outside explanation, but by revelation within. He tells of how he, too, went off to follow the discovery of Christ that he was astonished to find was shining out through his life, by a journey into the east, then a return to Damascus and in the end to Jerusalem to confer with the holy Apostles Peter and James. He follows the steps of the fourth of the Wise Men. Paul will have told them of his life-changing encounter with Christ on the road to Damascus; Peter will have borne witness to his experience with James and John on the mount of Transfiguration, when divine light was seen changing the very appearance of humanity within the incarnate Christ; James will have recounted the family’s testimony to the events at his divine Brother’s nativity, and the cave that many said was almost too light to be approachable, yet where God came in proximity to His people and enabled them to enter in and behold Him in the Child. And all will have recognised in each other’s story the same brilliance of Emmanuel, God with us, the Christ Himself.

But, as St John reminds among the first words of his Gospel, “The light shines in darkness.” The Wise Men having seen the Light rely on the cover of the darkness to steal away from impending danger. The Holy Family must conceal the Light from the premature threat of death before the true import of its majesty can be revealed in a new cave of resurrection once its glory has been understood upon the Cross of Life. Instead, the Herodian soldiers emerged out of the dark dream-world of the Magi and St Joseph to visit the nightmare of slaughter upon the Holy Innocent children (today’s Gospel, Matthew 2.13-23).

Yet “the darkness does not overwhelm the Light”. We may not look to the pattern of stars for our clues nowadays to understand the ways of God. But we do believe that God has charted a course for us and that it involves turning our humanity inside out, so that the evil, the harm and the deception that we would prefer to lie buried within us are brought out into the light of knowledge (cf. Troparion of the Nativity, Tone 4). We fear this revelation of who we really are, because we know we are sinful and ugly within. But Christ is a Sun of Righteousness to warm us, and to bleach our guilt in light. Because of this we can endure the shattering of our illusions about ourselves like St Paul did. Because of this, we can overcome the shame of our denial of the light of the world like St Peter beside the lesser fire of the guards who arrested Jesus.  Because of this, we know to be constant in life in pursuit of our own bright and strangely leading star, which is quite simply for us the way of the Cross. As our beloved friends in the Salvation Army and the Quakers say: no Cross, no Crown.

Within a few years, the God of heaven had gone from becoming the child of the house of David in Bethlehem, to be the new Moses bringing the Kingdom of God to the Promised Land once more from out of Egypt, and then to be a Nazarene who would take the trajectory of His life as God made Flesh from life, to sacrifice, to death and a new creation, by which all that is at fault is not ultimately rejected but ascended. By the same token for us, this same unclear path of adversity is also the only path there is. It is the path of hope, of finding your way if you lose it, and of knowing that ultimately the light from heaven that shines above you is never going to depart from you, but will always reveal that Christ is God with us, shining from within to make us holy and the living citizens of heaven on earth. Imagine what it is to look in the mirror and to see that what stands before us God has decided to make holy. Imagine what it would be like, looking round to each other today, if the people we can see, and the people seeing us, are beholding holy people. Imagine the people outside who have no conception of the Kingdom glimpsing it by just a glance at us coming down from Mount Tabor, or emerging from the cave at Bethlehem. This is out of proportion to realistic imagination, but it is no more than what Christ told us would become of us. For as we sang earlier on (Troparion of the Resurrection, Tone  8), “You came down from on high as the Merciful One, to free us from our sufferings – O Lord, our life, and now our resurrection, Glory be to You.”

This is why, because it was the will of the Father for His Son, we must always have the same optimistic and forgiving belief in the worth of humanity, and in the power of the Sun of Righteousness to warm and lighten it into the Kingdom.