The Emperor Minh Mang, at whose behest St Andrew Dung-Lac was executed, ruled Vietnam in strict accordance with Confucian philosophy. Its stress on the importance of family and social harmony did not rely on a spiritual or supernatural worldview for its values. There was religion, of course, with temples, gods and offerings to be made to them; but it served to conform the divine powers and unseen forces to the needs and priorities of humans, rather than the other way round.
The activity of Catholic priests in the 17th, 18th and early 19th centuries told a rather different story. Here was word of a king whose Kingdom was not of this world, who had set about making the earth into a realisation of heaven, and who was not an unseeable mythical hero, but a man of flesh and blood, recognised as God among us because He banished the power of evil and injustice not by the imposition of power, but by His absolute self-sacrifice. His Cross was thus more powerful than any earthly lord, however much they might strive to establish order and harmony, because it unlocks unbounded love, and the vital preceding steps of unconditional forgiveness and the gift to trust in God. Here was a king not just to be revered, but to be loved. Here was a man who did not think He could rule heaven and manipulate it for earthly objectives: here was The Man who embodies heaven and changes the world to heavenward aims.
You can imagine St Andrew Dung Lac in 1839, and others like St Joseph Marchand, who went before him to martyrdom in 1835, St Pierre Borie likewise beheaded in 1838 and St Jean Charles Cornay in 1837: they were seen as subversives, unsettling the harmony of society and turning “proper religion” upside down. No wonder that Emperor Minh Mang called Christianity “the European Darkness”. Not for the first time were Christians seen as impious, and enemies of the plain light of the common good.
But the Lord has told us in the Gospel (Luke 21. 20-28) that you will only see the Son of Man coming in power and the great light of glory, out of a sun and a moon and stars that have been darkened by signs of agony in the world, menaces that fill people with fear, and misery and violence across every land. In other words, when we read the adversity in our times and our lives for meaning, we Christians are to look into them not for vindication, or revenge on the enemy, but for the working out of the purposes of God in the world, according to the pattern of His own life when He lived it in our own flesh. As we pray each year, Christ “went not up to joy but first He suffered pain, and entered not into glory before He was crucified”. Thus the same Christ who walked in Galilee and gave Himself for our sakes in unreserved love and forgiveness, is the Christ who is active in the world now and who will come at the End of Time; there is no other Christ. And we know in our hearts that this is our life, too: no Cross, no Crown.
Yesterday at Westminster Cathedral, Aid to the Church in Need arranged Red Wednesday, when it was bathed, in common with many other Church buildings, in red light to recall the bloodshed of the martyrs. This is not for pity, or bitterness, or even for special Christian pleading, but to confess our trust in Christ and the innocent blood He poured out for us, when He went before us to perfect our faith. Present at the Mass was the Syriac Orthodox patriarch, Mor Ignatius Aphrem II, whose community in Syria and Iraq alongside the Catholic, Orthodox and Assyrian Churches has borne the wood of the Cross to follow Christ as He foretold. But what is remarkable about the Christians of the Middle East and their bishops like Mor Ignatius Aphrem who encourage them is the faith, the confidence in God, and the joy that never ceases to shine through. It was Pope Tawadros of Alexandria, head of the Coptic Orthodox Church, who noted that when the possessed Islamic State murdered his migrant-worker flock on a Libyan beach, the young men simply said, “Lord, have mercy,” before they died. They knew that their Redeemer lives and that in their flesh they would stand and see God in His Presence, behold Him not a stranger. No words of revenge, no unforgiving curses, no bitter defiance. Just the appeal of sinners to have the grace to be forgiving, that we may likewise find forgiveness, and bring into the world slightly more love than there is at the moment.
This is the life of heaven: to be free not only of sin but of grudges and hate, free of belief in power that can strike down, freed up for the enduring, imperturbable, inexhaustible impetus of love.
To the world, this is obscure, mysterious, convoluted, twisting reality. How can the Syriac Orthodox Patriarch of Antioch smile and profess his unshakable belief in the Resurrection of Christ and humanity in the flesh? How can he spout this when all around is death, and the worst abuse and destruction cries out for redress? How can he speak of forgiveness from such weakness? But this Christian darkness is just to us how things are in the light of the Light of the World.
“Let your light so shine before men,” He said, “that they may see your good works and glorify your Father which is in heaven.” Let your works be goodness, virtue, mercy, forgiveness, love and persevering trust in Christ and His promises, and the Son of Man’s glory will be seen in who YOU are, and HOW you are, and how you act. The Kingdom of Christ the Son of Man will be seen coming in power and great glory for now by no other means. Then the Light will shine in the world through you.
St Andrew Dung-Lac, pray for us.
Martyrs of Vietnam, pray for us.
Martyrs of Iraq, Syria, Egypt and Libya, pray for us.
Martyrs wherever Christ’s goodness and forgiveness are hated, pray for us.
And wherever darkness calls itself reality, wherever it withholds mercy and calls it justice, wherever it shrouds people so they cannot see their hope, as God the Word spoke first to our Creation: “Let there be Light.”
Friday, 25 November 2016
Thursday, 17 November 2016
Doctor Strange and the Miracle from within: Homily for the Twenty-First Sunday after Pentecost, Ukrainian Catholic Cathedral of the Holy Family of London, 13th November 2016
Those who have been to see the wonderful super-hero film Doctor Strange, will be aware of the tale of a virtuoso neuro-surgeon, who is brought down in the midst of his pride, after crashing his car. Losing the skill of his hands, he turns to the supposedly mystic east for arcane wisdom and supernatural powers, in order to recover his dexterity and thus his former self-image. He meets a spiritual master, who tells him that his problems arise from his conceit, and that he must undo all that he thinks and believes, and start with genuine humility to learn to be who he is meant to become all over again. As the story unfolds and Doctor Strange unlearns his self-centred life, he discovers not only the difference between good and evil, but also the hidden moral force for good that guides and guards the universe, the potency of which he begins to harness.
But as his hands acquire different new powers, we begin to scent that all is not as it seems. Doctor Strange defends himself from the attacks of supernatural enemies; he contains their activities; he slips in and out of the different overlapping universes; he rolls back time to restore good and out-manoeuvre the evil consumed with bitterness, vengeance and violence. He resets history. And then it begins to dawn on those who have contended in the struggle for good to prevail over evil that, while they won, the power they drew upon was the same as the power drawn on by evil, and that they have broken the morality of their code not to subvert the laws of nature in pursuit of good. Finally, it is laid bare that the spiritual master who has provided a moral compass throughout must thus herself be deeply flawed. She has nurtured and protected Doctor Strange; but the powers to circumvent the order of the universe that she has forbidden to her disciples are those which she has relied upon to achieve for herself a life eternal.
As I watched the film to the unravelling of its moral, I kept thinking, “The end does not justify the means” and those who say “Let us do evil that good may come of it” (Romans 3.8). I also thought that the eternal life promised by harnessing the hidden force at the heart of creation is only the promise of Satan to Christ on the mountain height – “Fall down and worship me, and all this will be Yours” (Matthew 4.8-9). In other words, the Kingdom, whose blessedness we sing and aspire to so often when we celebrate the Divine Liturgy, does not come by force, and power imposed on people from outside and beyond the world. It is the solidity of virtue grown and resilient from within the soul of each heart and each society. Even in The Lord of the Rings, the good wizard Gandalf’s powers are futile, when it comes down to a straight battle in the world between real good and real evil. Again and again, the evil power of Sauron forgets the lesson he is forced to learn only after he has been defeated - evil gets exhausted; it runs out, while virtue and holiness arise out of the limitless store of freely given love that is the principle on which the universe is created and sustained as it proceeds. This is what is meant by Aslan, the redeeming and self-sacrificing Lion in C.S. Lewis’s Chronicles of Narnia, when he speaks of “the Deeper Magic from Beyond the Dawn of Time” (The Lion, the Witch and The Wardrobe, chapter 15): God works His power upon us, to soften our hearts, achieve his miracles of the new life, and to bring in His Kingdom, from within nature and from deep inside us. Indeed there are miracles, and visions, spiritual experiences, and moments of direct confrontation between the human being and the mysteries of God; but they are rare. But even these come from within the workings of nature as it is restored by God’s grace, from within the soul as it repents and turns to look for God and trust Him.
Think of the Parable of the Sower, which is today’s Gospel (Luke 8. 5-15). Jesus speaks of His own working in our souls: “the seed is the Word of God”. God the Son does not impose the outcome of the Kingdom – the establishment of peace, the achievement of justice and righteousness, the vindication and prevailing of all that is good. It comes from within. He continually sows seeds for it, to find the good earth in every person where it may sink in, take the time it needs to germinate, draw on the nurture and nutrients it needs to gather strength, put forth tender shoots, and grow from one season to another, until its ripens and the fruit is borne. It is often missed that Our Lord implies this to be a process in us that has to happen time and again, over and over: the never-ending cycle of our growing in the Kingdom to harvest time, when the Sower comes round again, never giving up on His purposes, or on the hope that next time around the barren ground will let the seed sink in, that now the thorns will not choked it, that it will not die because of the aridity of our spirits. It was Blessed John Henry Newman who recognised that “miracles are no remedy for unbelief” (Parochial and Plain Sermons, Volume 8, Sermon 6): there is no resetting of history and nature to command our belief or our virtue. If we look to Christ, we look in vain for a Super-Saviour, like Doctor Strange with his startling, magical, evil-busting but morally ambiguous powers, defeating the dark consequence of violence only because of an even more potent effort of destruction. To the wicked and corrupt generation who say, “Give us a sign” (Matthew 16.4) and “He said He would destroy the Temple and raise it up in three days; let Him come down now from the Cross, and we will believe in Him” (Matthew 27. 40, 42), Newman says, “Let us … put aside vain excuses; and, instead of looking for outward events to change our course of life, be sure of this, that if our course of life is to be changed, it must be from within.” Yet, he continues, “We have desired and waited for a thing impossible,—to be changed once and for all, all at once, by some great excitement from without, or some great event, or some special season; something or other we go on expecting, which is to change us without our having the trouble to change ourselves. We covet some miraculous warning.” Instead, it is enduring, self-sacrificing, goodness, virtue, longing for holiness, determination to seek the good – refusing to do wrong in the hope that good may come of it – that mark the grace of God, sinking within and finding fertile fruit until the fruits of His Kingdom are harvested season after season. For, as Newman concludes, not unnatural intervention, but “love of heaven is the only way to heaven.”
In today’s Theotokion, we are reminded that, as this has happened in humanity before, it can happen with us. St Anna is seen as the barren one who gives birth to the Mother of God. No longer the stony ground, by the seed sown from the Kingdom she becomes the mother of the Mother of the Saviour and thus the nourisher of our life. Likewise, in today’s Resurrection chants (Tone 4), we view the grave, but not the existence of death. It is not the tomb that has been hollowed out, but death itself. It has been “plundered” and robbed of the Lord Whom it held back behind its gates until the third day. We, too, are being excavated from within, as the sin and resistance to love are steadily removed. The gates of unlovingness and our lazy hope for some magic to come along and change us, are “shattered”. What happens next is what St Paul found had happened to him: “I have been crucified with Christ,” he says. “And it is no longer I who live, but it is Christ Who lives within me” (from today’s Epistle, Galatians 2. 16-20).
So here we are, with no Gandalf, no Doctor Strange, and only the Sign of Jonah to the wicked and corrupt generation: the Son of Man Who dwelt in the heart of the earth, came forth to Resurrection not through a dazzling display of worldly might or other-worldly magic, but by transforming His creation from within, from the beginning, step by step, by being born in it, by dying on one of its Trees, by taking on our sin and undermining it, and by nurturing the earth to bring Him forth as its own fruit, out of the sheer determination of love. The Deeper Magic does not inflict itself, nor does it meet violence with smarter violence. Love of heaven is the only way to change the world and its affairs; for we know that it is the only way to change ourselves. And we will know Who our Saviour truly is when we can say, “I have been crucified with Him; and it is no longer I who live, but Christ Who lives within me.”