Tuesday, 15 August 2017

Homily for the Forefeast of the Procession of the Precious & Life-Giving Cross (Tenth Sunday after Pentecost), 13th August 2017, Ukrainian Catholic Cathedral of the Holy Family

On Friday I was driving through a village in Kent. Growing up, I knew its church very well, despite never leaving Lancashire. I used to assemble card models of buildings to go with my railway set: Ann Hathaway’s cottage, Bletchley railway station, a little row of shops from Bury St Edmunds, and this particular church. Sadly, it has been closed for decades, no longer needed for reaching within walking distance, now that people can easily drive elsewhere. Still, for years there were signs up, about the need to retain it in community use. I keep thinking that the best way to keep it in community use would have been to attend its services. It was once well attended; now the affluent villagers will neither sustain it as a community venue, nor use it for its true purpose.

They are not alone in this disconnection from spiritual living. People currently tend to think that faith in God’s existence and authority with regard to human beings depends on our opinion. It needs to serve personal priorities, and it should accommodate our conduct and values. It is reckoned to be a “belief system” that has evolved out of human design, and what is nowadays called spirituality is simply one aspect of being a human among many. Thus the closure of a significant church results from a community of people coming to a judgment about God that he either did not exist, or that He does not matter. The Christian worldview becomes one of a number of options; and to all intents and purposes most people have adopted a belief system that does not require Christ as the key to explain the world, and where worship – orienting humanity to lift its heart and mind to adore God in His Kingdom – is unnecessary, hardly relevant to contemporary living.

It is easy for Christians to absorb these same assumptions that God and His world are all about “me”, or they are about nothing. I once had a rather bossy colleague who once inadvertently mixed the words of morning prayer: “Bend Your heart to my will, O God,” he proclaimed (cf. Psalm 40.8); and we all laughed. Yet if God is the servant of our aspirations, like some candidate appealing for our vote, He is not God. His existence does not depend on our assent, and His authority does not rely on our moral permission. Indeed, God has been comprehensively abandoned before, and history preserves the ruins of His Church which dissolved away (e.g. North Africa, Central Asia). So there is nothing new as, this time, secularity takes hold of the western imagination and dulls it, no longer to conceive of what the reign of God on earth might look like in human hearts and souls. The Christian, nevertheless, holds the vivid realisation that Christ is not only about me and my life, but about all humans and all life and all creation - or He is about nothing at all. My personal sanctification makes no sense without Jesus Christ’s work in and for all those with whom I and He share humanity. As we sing in today’s Kontakion: “You arose in glory from the Tomb, and with Yourself You raised the world.” (Sunday of Tone 1)

And this work of Christ’s, for all and in all, is not only a past event to cling on to, but now a fact of existence that provides the universe with its inner meaning. As St Paul says, “Even though our outer nature wastes away, our inner nature is being renewed day by day.” (2 Corinthians 4.16) It may be difficult to perceive; but this rhythm of God, as He lives among us, the very Son of Man, is all the truth there is. First He is abandoned, secondly He is destroyed, and third He is raised again. The pattern of the endless self-pouring-out of God is how the Persons of The Trinity are with each other, and it is how the nature of God plays out when it is united with humanity in the Person of Christ. The same cycle of pouring out, wasting away, death and dying, sacrifice and Cross, and of emptying tombs and resurrection, renewal and God’s power re-asserting itself, of seeds cast away and germinating into full grown plants and trees (cf. Matthew 17.20 & Matthew 13.31-32), of a Cross of destruction turning into a Sign of Victory (Hebrews 12.2. Colossians 2.15), is now how creation is, too.

Thus Prince Volodymyr was baptised into Christ’s death and rose with him to new life; not just for himself, but for all his people, such that the Gospel came to the whole of the east of our continent. And, even after three quarters of century in which God was pronounced non-existent and His Church a social menace, both our Greek Catholic Church in Ukraine is experiencing the pattern in life of the resurrection of Christ, and the Orthodox Church in Russia, too, is being rebuilt and renewed. This is as St Paul foresaw.

His words are why we do not lose heart, even while landmark certainties are disappear and new givens take shape. We are not merely persevering, with our “Keep calm and carry on” attitude. For, when the Lord speaks of persevering, it is with an eye to the fruit that will be borne. So there is divine purpose and process to it all. Its roots lie within the nature of God in Christ, and it provides the means for us to be faithful to Him and for His work still to take effect, not just in individuals but even in the midst of whole societies.

People say “I am spiritual, but not religious”. This is because they imagine that Church people are judgmental, self-serving, or creatures of unthinking habit. The example of the Christian martyrs of the Islamists in recent years would suggest otherwise. But we should accept the implied criticism, and avoid the snare of being “religious, but not spiritual,” of thinking that our faith and Church are just about suiting our tastes and outlook. For there is genuine curiosity about God from people and we are struggling to make the connection for them. Their outlook and lifestyle are not attuned to worship and following Christ. But they are kind, good-hearted, virtuous and moral, as well as struggling, flawed, selfish and bad at times, as we all are. Here are none other than the marks of the image of God in humanity, and the sin that mars it which God would rather wipe out so that we can see and sense ourselves for who we more truly are. Thus they have an inkling that spirituality is not just the reflective or ethical side to being human, but the space where the Divine and the Spiritual come and make their impression. Pope Benedict has often said that the mutual bearing of belief and the realities of life, of religion and human society, upon each other is vital, because only faith has the answers to our deepest questions and longings. When the connection is made, it is not first by condemnation, or imposing propositions and rules. The truth about humanity and the universe binds us, and turns round our entire sense of direction, always because it attracts. It attracts because it is trusted. And it is trusted because it can be loved. It is thus seen not only in the beauty of holiness, or by pointing to a better Kingdom on earth as it is in heaven, but visible in none other than the person of Christ - Christ on His Cross, Christ pouring out his life in sheer unbounded love, and giving the truest account of what God is and who the human is to become.

Our Popes speaking tirelessly of Christ who is light and truth, hope and love, and mercy itself. But we should know that this Christ we make visible by embodying: not only in these attributes, but also in the pattern of constantly dying away and rising again that is in the reasoning behind the purpose of God and the existence of all things. While we live, we are always like our Lord being “given up” - as St Paul puts it - so that the eternity of the life of Jesus may be made visible in our mortality. Or to put it St Paul’s other way: Death may be doing what death does: but so is the life of God in Christ (2 Corinthians 4.11-12).

Sunday, 16 July 2017

A final verse to Tydi a Roddaist?

The fine hymn by T. Rowland Hughes, with its haunting tune and dramatic Amen by Arwel Hughes, is one of the most moving and typical Welsh Hymns. The words, however, leaves their subject of song and salvation at the summit of Calvary, which is beautiful, but what of the resurrection and the life of heaven to come? Back in 1992, I attempted a fourth verse to address this question, but forget entirely about it. Never throw a book away: today, I took down Baptist Praise and Worship from its shelf and found the card I had written on, complete with many crossings out and unsuccessful attempts. Twenty-five years on, I have taken another run. Here is the result.


The first three verses, by T. Rowland Hughes (1903-49), tr. Raymond Williams (1928-90). (Baptist Praise& Worship, no. 650)
O Lord, who gave the dawn its glow,
And charm to close the day,
You made all song and fragrance flow,
Gave spring its magic sway:
Deliver us, lest none should praise
For glories that all earth displays

2. O Lord, who caused the streams to sing,
Gave joy to forest trees,
You gave a song to lark on wing,
And chords to gentlest breeze:
Deliver us, lest we should see
A day without a song set free.

3. O Lord, who heard the lonely tread
On that strange path of old,
You saw the Son of Man once shed
His Blood from love untold:
Deliver us, lest one age dawn
Without the Cross, or crown of thorn.

 A proposed fourth verse:

4. O Lord, who sent Your Spirit’s power
To wrest Your Son from death,
And yield Creation’s crowning hour
in Resurrection’s breath:
Deliver us, lest none below
Heaven’s tune of praise to sing should know.

©  Mark Woodruff (1959- ), 25 vi 1992, 2 vii 1992 & 16 vii 2017.

Amen, Amen, Amen, Amen
.

Friday, 14 July 2017

Homily for the Fifth Sunday after Pentecost (Tone 4): Ukrainian Catholic Cathedral of the Holy Family, 9th July 2017

At university, we were amused by a much older student, who wanted to be known not as a Christian of one kind or another but as “The Seeker”. No explanation of belief or experience, or even any demonstration of fact, was satisfactory to her. We liked her a lot, although we naughtily teased her; she was ever so serious. But it struck me that she was, after all, never interested in finding what she said she was seeking. To her kind and interested spirit, it was in the quest that she felt safe, not at any point of arrival. Decision was to be resisted; it was taking a risk you could not back out from.

I admired the integrity of The Seeker. I hope she found something - or at least found out what it is that Christians are talking about, when they say that they are following Christ. After all, we Christians realise that it is not we who follow Christ, but He Who has been following us around all along. So much for thinking that being His disciple is all down to our own intellectual and moral efforts! It is He who dogs our every step away from His own. Francis Thompson’s poem The Hound of Heaven tells our familiar story:

I fled Him, down the nights and down the days
I hid from Him …
From those strong Feet that … followed after
But with unhurrying chase,
And unperturbèd pace,
Deliberate speed, majestic instancy …


Not that the lady Seeker was evading Christ. It simply had not dawned on her that, wherever her heart and her thinking took her, He was attached to her. She had not noticed that wherever she went and found nothing, she took Him with her. Perhaps one day she happened to turn round and saw Someone keeping up with her step by step. Perhaps one day she asked the right question at the time of the right answer, and cried out, “Rabboni!”

Contrast this virtuous, honest lady’s search with others, who say they are open-minded, liberal-hearted, vigorous in pursuit of human rights and values, and zealous about the truth, but who really want to deflect the light from their deeds and motives, and close humanity and its freedom down. They know full well that Christ our Light follows their every move; yet (as in Thompson’s poem) they call to the dawn, and say,

Float thy vague veil about me, lest He see!


All through the enervating news in recent days, there has loomed a crisis that sums up what is currently amiss. It is the case of Charlie Gard at Great Ormond Street Hospital for Children, and the rights of his parents to find healing for his life and to protect him until the day he dies. An experimental new means of treatment offers a ray of hope; but Great Ormond Street’s medical professionals, scientists and ethicists have dragged the family through to the European Court of Human Rights to seek to ensure that their expert opinion will prevail, and that Charlie’s life-support and sustenance be turned off, causing him to die. The justices of the United Kingdom and of the European Human Rights Court – which was established expressly to prevent the power of the state to deny Europe’s citizens their right to life and freedom - have declared that he is incurable; so, to prolong his life, or to attempt the treatment only available in America, is futile. Their thinking is chilling: not to bring about his death would cause him greater harm than causing him to die.

Lord Winston, Britain’s avuncular clinician, has pronounced that Pope Francis’ offer of care at his hospital in Rome, Bambino Gesù, may be well intentioned; but (he says) it has no scientific expertise in the child’s condition, and so the intervention of the Catholic Church in this field is cruel to Charlie. In this double-think it is "cruel" for Christians to offer the chance of treatment or, if it does not work, loving palliative care; yet it is not cruel for medics to induce the death of an infant patient against its parents’ will. Our jocular Foreign Secretary, Boris Johnson, weighs in to say that it would be illegal to move Charlie to Rome for treatment or care, because the courts have agreed with the hospital and, therefore, Charlie must be subject to its expert ethical and medical determination. This is not that Charlie be allowed to die - surrounded with our best love and protection, if the right to search for a possible cure is forbidden to the parents - but that his life be hastened to a close. Pope St John Paul declared that it is evil to deny the sick and dying the means of sustenance for life. Instead, this Catholic morality, which honours the sacredness of humanity - in which Christ Himself shared and suffered thirst and pain alike - must not be allowed to take precedence over the thinking of contemporary medical and scientific ethicists: supposedly objective, but actually relativist without roots in the principles of Christian civilisation, as it balances the fluctuating weights of conflicting medical knowledge and research, theories of care and wellbeing, political and economic expediency and public opinion. In the midst of all this, the Christian ethic that is needed cannot be tolerated, because it points to absolute truth. Thus respect for life is said to inspire and shape other considerations, but only as one belief among others that people are no less freely entitled to profess, and that states are democratically entitled to impose.

Now, hearing today’s Gospel (Matthew 8.28-9.1), most people think of the Gadarene swine throwing themselves into the sea of Galilee. But the point is about the two men who emerged from the tombs and encountered the uncomfortable light and truth of Jesus. They could not bear the sight or sound of it. Likewise, Lord Winston said that the Holy Father is cruel, and Boris Johnson says the Vatican’s request to care for Charlie is illegal interference. Likewise, Canada’s camera-loving Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, revelling in his rock-star treatment around the world, has appointed a Foreign Minister who confronts all objectors, including Canada’s Catholic bishops, by saying that women’s rights to abort children in the womb is at the forefront of his government’s furtherance of human rights. The demoniacs said much the same: “It has got nothing to do with You. As Son of God, You have nothing to do with us.” Thus we are not welcome to talk of human rights, when those who pretend to be its promoters want the unmoderated power to facilitate the death of children, the sick and the elderly. Thus our protests about the right to life are scorned, while real abuses to minorities, religions and whole populations on political and ideological grounds go unchecked. Thus we are presented as the enemy of women’s freedom and wellbeing by those who hide behind those noble aims, in order to un-restrict the destruction of the unborn. Thus we are presented as lacking compassion, while our carers in disguise, affronted that someone else may offer more effective treatment, decide what values they - not we - deem acceptable, and set their limitations on who is allowed to live on what conditions.

The interesting detail in today’s Gospel is that, whereas everywhere else in Galilee people flock to Jesus, when He comes to Gadara-Gerasa town, they plead with Him to go away. He has come from the cemetery and brought unclean contact with those who are dead from the inside. The men appeared to come out of the tombs, but they were not risen from the dead. They appeared to have come to life but they were dark - no light on. Today we sang, “Death has been plundered” and we understand that it has nothing in its vast domains to offer or detain us. My friend the Seeker looked everywhere. She could not find Christ among the dead to bring Him up, or cut down out of heaven and bring Him here below (see today’s Epistle, Romans 10.1-10). For He comes to us, not from out of death, but towards the Kingdom of heaven. His life all along is upon us, behind us, behind, within ahead. It is our own vital sign, sacrosanct. This is why Charlie has “everything to do” with us, as does the fate of so many in the world, where privilege, vested-interest expertise and power trump the right to life, and the wellbeing of the created order. It is not just that all life is sacred in the Name of its Maker, and the Redeemer Who died for its sake. It is because all humanity is destined towards, and even now endowed with, the blazing fact of life that is the Resurrection, and the restoration of all things in Christ. We may never harm and destroy what is on its way to glorification. We must love our own who are in the world to the end (cf. John 13.1). This we cannot turn away from; we cannot tell the Lord this time to go. For if we do, it is our own life, and our resurrection that we turn away, as Love unperturbed pursues us “down the nights and down the days” – with “unhurrying chase … His majestic instancy”. I turn and see: "Rabboni!"

Tuesday, 20 June 2017

Address for the Procession of the Blessed Sacrament from the Church of Our Lady Immaculate, Farm Street, visiting the Ukrainian Catholic Cathedral of the Holy Family for Benediction, Latin Feast of Corpus Christi, 18th June, 2017

Today, before the Sacrament of the Eucharist, our gaze is held by the vision of the Universal Church: one, holy, Catholic and apostolic. Today we are all one, in the same anticipation of that moment immediately before Holy Communion, now repeated in this ceremony of adoration, and of hope. Today the most precious Gift of the Western Church comes in solemn rite to the Eastern Church, and this Blessed Sacrament conjoins us in Its Presence. Today we stand on the imminent edge of the perfect union of eternity; we see the end to our divisions, between Catholic and Orthodox, Catholic and Anglican, nation and nation, between race and race, the rulers and the ruled, rich and poor, between rival principle, ideal and passion; and between earthbound preoccupation and heavenly peace, good will. Today we see before us the resolution of everything in the Kingdom of God that has come among us.

For God is with us! The Latin Church’s adoration of the Blessed Sacrament exposed, and the rite of Benediction, is not part of the custom of the Byzantine Church. But, like you, who have brought the Lord in His Presence here to us with such honour, we also reserve the Sacrament upon the Altar in the Ark, so that we may bring the Lord to the sick and dying, and to those newly reconciled to Christ after Confession. Yet it is untrue to think that we adore the Presence of God among us any less than our Latin fellow Catholics. Indeed, every Divine Liturgy that we serve contains the rites and customs that are resemble yours at the rite of Benediction.

Immediately after the Eucharist is consecrated, we bow down in worship and cover it with clouds of incense. And in that moment of high anticipation before Communion, we pause to contemplate His Presence and we pray to the Lord, who is God with us,

Attend, O Lord, Jesus Christ our God, from Your holy dwelling place and from the throne of glory in Your Kingdom, and come to sanctify us, You, who are seated on high with the Father and invisibly present here with us.
Then, at the end of the Holy Communion, when the Lord returns to the Holy Place, the priest holds up the Holy Gifts of Christ’s Body and Blood in the chalice, and he blesses them with It in the sign of the Cross, saying,
Save Your people, O God, and bless Your inheritance.
At once, the people acclaim,
 
We have seen the true Light, we have received the heavenly Spirit, we have found the true faith. We worship the undivided Trinity for having saved us.
So, in a way, the rite of Benediction is a treasure of the Church of the East that is shared and loved in the Latin West. For us, it is integral to our Divine Liturgy, heaven amid the world; for you, it takes the Liturgy out and beyond. It is all the same mystery, approaching us in different ways, and drawing us into the same Kingdom of Heaven according to the different roads the Lord has provided for us to walk with Him - from your part of Jerusalem and our part of Jerusalem - to His Emmaus where He makes Himself known in the breaking of Bread.
 
On this your Feast of Corpus Christi, the most precious Thing that heaven affords you have brought on your path as the Church through this world. In the western Tradition, the Sacrament is exposed and adored, for moments, for hours, perpetually. Thus, praying without thinking, prayer without words, unites the adoring soul into the prayer of Christ Himself, into His intercession. It bonds us in His work of mediation, and brings to fruition the prayer of the night before He died that we may all be one, as He and the Father are one in unbroken and eternal communication of self-giving love. In the East, such an act of adoration is not the custom. Yet we can add a "take" of our own.
 
You see before you the Iconostasis, bearing the icons of the Lord, the Mother of God and the saints, looking out from the Holy Place where the Blessed Eucharist now stands enthroned. We constantly venerate these icons. But they are never the mere objects of our devotion. For it is not we who look at them, but they whose image looks out on us. It is as though here, in the Temple, the veil between the Kingdom of Heaven and the kingdom of this world is very thin. This is what we mean by the reign and the Kingdom of God. Here, against this very thin veil, the Lord and His saints, and "The One who Bore Him", press their faces, transfigured in glory, to look upon us, to hold our gaze, to attract our hearts into the mysteries of the Divine Majesty that lies beyond, to ensure that the Divine Majesty transfigures us too, and adorns every aspect of our faith, our hope, our love and our living as His disciples. So, while we look in adoration upon the Church’s Most Blessed Sacrament, to the world we are regarding nothing more than a symbol, an object, a work of spiritual imagination. Yet thanks to the gift of faith, we see that quietly, insistently, almost unnoticed, we are being surveyed by one Thing in our midst that is constant and unmoving in a life of constant change and re-arrangement: we are being measured for the Kingdom of God, we are being asked by the Lord to stay with Him, to persevere, and to allow grace upon grace to take its effect. So it is not just that we venerate the Lord, for our Creator in His humility and mercy has chosen in the Lord's humanity to venerate us and raise us up. It is less that we adore and pour out our hearts to Him, and more that He adores us and pours our His heart upon us. It is less that we hope for heaven, and more that He hopes for the world. It is less that we are sinners, and more that He is Mercy Itself. It is less that we hope to come to the Kingdom of God, and more that He is our King. For God is with us.
 
And so we declare, “we have seen the true Light, we have received the heavenly Spirit, we have found the true faith. We worship the undivided Trinity for having saved us.”
 
The address was followed immediately by a recitation of the Prayer before the Ambo from the Divine Liturgy of St John Chryosostom, and Benediction in the Latin rite.

Sunday, 14 May 2017

The Coming God - Homily for the Sunday of the Samaritan Woman, 14th May 2017, Ukrainian Catholic Cathedral of the Holy Family, Mayfair, London

The encounter of Jesus with the woman at the well is very like the Prodigal Son, and the Good Shepherd and that lost sheep – a description of loss and disconnection, of hopeful restoration and return (John 4.5-42).

Blessed John Henry Newman captured the feelings in the verses he wrote after he had become so dangerously ill in Sicily that he expected to die and lose everything.

So long Thy power hath blest me, sure it still
Will lead me on.
O'er moor and fen, o'er crag and torrent, till
The night is gone,
And with the morn those angel faces smile,
Which I have loved long since, and lost awhile!
  
Lead, kindly Light, The Pillar of the Cloud, 1833

Here we have the sensation of human beings who have almost lost all that is worthwhile. Some doubt it; some deliberately stray from it, forgetting what they have lost and yet they hardly reconcile themselves to the things that they have preferred: there is something missing. The sheep, lost from its fold, bleats to reconnect with its flock. The prodigal son spends the comfort-blanket of his father’s wealth, but is left to contemplate the bare nothingness of who he is, until he imagines he was only something in his father’s love. The woman at the well is on auto-pilot – she has been through five husbands and is on to a sixth partner; empty within, she goes through the routines, drawing water at again and again, day after day. Spiritually she is in a rut. The fresh water does nothing to quench a thirst that she barely knows is withering her body and soul from within.

Newman in his own mortal danger, however, sees the power that leads on, and through. He contemplates the loss of love, and holds on to the happiness of communion with those whose lives on earth are lived in heaven. He understands the coming of God to bring him through, and back; to end his disconnection and return him to his place.

Such a coming of God is in each of these stories in the Gospels. The prodigal son makes his own way back to his father, but the decisive moment in the story is when the father sees him from afar and runs out to meet him, forgive and restore him. The sheep wanders with the purpose of returning but cannot make it along; it is searched out by a shepherd, who risks all the others to go and find what is lost, so that not only some but all may be close to him, in the pasture as well as in the fold. The Samaritan women has no idea she is lost, as she lurches from one man to another and goes about her life in some attempt on normality. Yet Jesus takes the disciples off the road from Galilee to Jerusalem, out of the Judaic world into that of the Samaritan Hebrews. He goes aside from their company and rests, while they go into Shechem and He waits. Sure enough, the aimless woman He was searching out arrives.

How does He bring her to who she is meant to be in His Kingdom? By reconnecting her, not with a father’s home or the flock of sheep, but with the truth about herself that she had avoided, the truth about her predicament that she had insulated herself from. She argues; she confronts; she blames; but she sees herself, and knows herself as she is known. She leaves the fresh water, because the filling of her days with auto-pilot chores is over. Now she lives in the light that has been shone on her; and many more believe, when they in turn come to be told truth, and dwell for two days in the presence of God Who comes in the Name of “Lord” (Luke 19.38). We are to conclude that, on the third day [a day of water-purification of those who have touched death, Numbers 19.12], they rose to their new life by a foretaste of the forthcoming Resurrection of their Saviour.

It is remarkable that the disciples miss this light dawning on the Samaritans because they have gone into the city to buy provisions. We are reminded of another of Jesus’ stories – how it was the wise virgins who were admitted to the wedding feast, while the others, who ran out of supplies and went off to get more, missed the big moment. Once again, the Lord turns our wisdom on its head: “the knowledge of the secrets of the Kingdom” (Luke 8.10) have been given to those who did not expect it, and withheld from those who believed they were in possession of them: a woman, and not them; a Samaritan of the sacred mountain, and not the Jews of Galilee and Jerusalem. The disciples are lost for words, as they begin to realise that the Gospel is never about what I can get out of it for my own sense of salvation and spirituality, but what God can get out of me for the salvation and sanctification of all that He has made for love alone.

Sometimes - is it not true? – our mind and heart returns to dwell on those we have lost and see no more, on regrets for what we once did and cannot put right, on paths we took in life that mean we could not take others that now we might have desired to; we dwell on openings, promptings and vocations to love and be loving that we feared, on those shadows and ruts that we are used to for living in, so that we can avoiding the true selves God wants us joyfully to be. Yet what connects us with what is lost, and missed and lacking, is not the dismissal of past errors, or present regrets and predicaments, but encountering them in truth and with light. The Holy Father’s approach to the discipline of marriage is not to be seen as wiping away the indissolubility of the exclusive marriage bond, but - as the Samaritan woman found - to find it again through mercy and conversion to what is true and holy; not otherwise. Similarly, all of us, from the first disciples onwards, hold our breath when we realise the God has come to speak not just to us but about us to our faces. As Charles Wesley put it, “Tis mercy all, immense and free, for – O, my God! – it found out me!” Everything we are, with everything we have missed out on being, is encompassed in the forgiveness that is the opposite to loss, because it retrieves the truth about us and puts it into God’s light; it is the opposite to disconnection - and the falsity of “being realistic” and “moving on” - because it takes what was broken up and puts the whole back together; it does not avoid and cancel the past but embraces it with courage and love, to purify and redeem it. It completes our integrity. It makes the sinner righteous. It makes the one who is distant from God reconciled. It makes the one whose life confronts God to be returned, and restored to face in the right direction.

If you look at the icon of this Sunday, you see the Lord sitting on the edge of the well. You notice it is in the shape of the Cross. You may also notice that the well is in the shape of the stone from the tomb of Christ’s resurrection which in icons can be shown as broken in two on the ground in the shape of a Cross on which the Risen Lord tramples in victory. In other words, to be faced with the truth of who we were and who we are is not shame but joy, to face the truth of who we are to become: the false person trampled into death by the Cross, the one being saved free at last to stand with Christ in His Resurrection and worship the Father in the Spirit and in truth. A fourth verse added to Lead Kindly Light, that hardly anyone ever sings now, see this clearly:

Meantime, along the narrow rugged path,
Thyself hast trod,
Lead, Saviour, lead me home in childlike faith,
Home to my God.
To rest forever after earthly strife
In the calm light of everlasting life.

Edward Bickersteth, Anglican Bishop of Exeter,
for the Hymnal Companion to the Book of Common Prayer, 1870

This is no mere after-life that is described, but setting the present earthly strife in the calm of the divine and uncreated light. “Home to my God” is not after; it is now. For as the Lord has promised to everyone who sees their sin, who falls short of the glory of God and dares to come beside Christ to be sanctified: “You shall be with me in Paradise today.” (Luke 23.42)

Sunday, 9 April 2017

Who is this Son of Man? Homily at the Divine Liturgy of St John Chrysostom, Palm Sunday, 9 April, 2017, Ukrainian Catholic Cathedral of the Holy Family, London

When the Virgin Mary is told by the angel that she is to be Mother to God Incarnate, she asks, “Who can His Father be?” When Joseph takes her with Jesus to be presented in the Temple, they wondered that He was a called a Light, uncovering the secret of every heart. When the apostles are in the boat in a storm that Jesus calms, they ask, “What manner of man is this?” Jesus asks Peter, “Who do people say that I am?”

Of course, we have abundant answers. At His baptism John identified Him as the Lamb of God, come to take away the sins of the world; and the Father’s voice declared Him to be His favoured Son. Jesus Himself announced that He was the Good Shepherd, the Light of the World, the Door, the Bread of Life, the Servant. But the point is that few could fully grasp how the One Who described the Kingdom refused to call Himself its King. Who can He be? Where can He have come from? What kind of a man is this?

On the mountain of Transfiguration, Peter and James and John at last perceive Him in a new light - uncreated, a light that casts no shadows but illuminates the soul to see Him as He truly is. They hear for themselves that the Lord is the choice of His Father to restore all things. But the great revelation, which they will need all their perception and imagination to come to terms with, is that the great restoration for which they hope comes only when their Lord is raised from the dead: first, he must die as Son of Man. (Cf. Matthew 17.1-12)
Still the questioning continues. The apostles argue: “Why can You heal the afflicted and we cannot?” (Matthew 17.19) “Who shall be greatest in this Kingdom of yours?” (Matthew 18.1) “How many times do I have to forgive to be able to join in it?” (Matthew 18.21) “We have given up everything to follow you – where does it lead, what is there for us?” (Matthew 19.27) Amid all these demands from the disciples, it is no small wonder that a last healing that Jesus performs is when He comes upon two blind men calling for His mercy: “Lord, we want our sight,” they cry out (Matthew 20.33), as the crowd try to shut them up. The contrast with the disciples cannot be starker: those who have been given the vision of light cannot grasp its meaning; the two blind outcasts recognise it immediately and want to see it for themselves.

It is in this new light that Jesus, then, goes on to His controversies with the Temple authorities, and in which the people, who for a moment acclaim Him as king, turn into a jury that convicts Him of treason and clamours for His crucifixion. It is left, then, to Pontius Pilate to answer the questions that have circled for years - Who can He be? Where can He have come from? What kind of a man is this? The one who asks Him, “Are you the King of the Jews?”, places him at his own Seat of Judgement, vests Him in purple and crowns Him with thorns and says, “Behold: The Man.” Jesus has all the way through said that there is no meaning to everything He is that cannot be found in Who He is as the Son of Man - a human being, the summary of everything that a human is, a person in the world of creation, a man of sorrows acquainted with grief, one among many appointed to serve. People say that in this Jesus is mocked, or even that He is hated. It is true, of course; but it is even truer to say that, in this moment now, He is shown to be Who He is.

In other word what a King in His Kingdom in another world looks like in this one. In today’s Kontakion, we sang, “Mounted on a throne in heaven, You are mounted on a colt here on earth.” We can add, “Sitting on the Father’s right in glory, in this world you are fixed to a Cross beside a thief.” Or, to put it another way, what is transfigured by heaven with brightness, the world disfigures before it will look at it. What God brings into the light – whether it is the beauty of Christ truly God and truly The Man, or the secrets of every heart – we in the world disguise by means of darkness, or we spoil it out of revulsion at the divine glory that could be ours.

On Thursday at Westminster Abbey, there was a service of hope, to commemorate those who had suffered and died in the recent attempted attack on Parliament. Ahead of the service, one of the mourners was bitter that the attacker had died at the scene: “Pity he got shot. He should have lived to suffer the same way we are suffering.” Another person, an injured survivor now mourning her husband said, “I don’t feel I could heal … as a person if I had hate in my heart. Kurt wouldn’t want that either, so there is no hate.” Both are raw and honest expressions of loss and grief; and both are reflected for all eternity in the presentation of The Man by Pontius Pilate – a King degraded, His Kingdom rubbished;  a man made to suffer because of the threat He poses; an innocent victim refusing to be provoked from love to hate; lives torn apart by those to whom they mean nothing; nothingness where there had been so much; scars for ever in place of happy goodness; even frustration of the human chance for shortcoming and unbelief to find fulfilment by means of love divine. No wonder there is honest bitterness for lost love; but there is forbearance and hope, too:  the best of us. There it is in refusal to hate and in the face of Christ forgiving that will not go away. Forgiveness is the unavoidable reality that He brings from above and beyond us, that we must deal with, just as He has dealt with the reality of our suffering and our Passion, by making it His own.

Today’s readings – Paul’s exhortation to the Philippians to find the God of peace in whatever is true, just, pure, and good (Philippians 4.4-9), followed by the gospel story of the Lord’s triumphant entry into Jerusalem (John 12.1-18) – are appointed in the old English Latin rite to be read in Advent, the time that leads up to Christmas. As we read them in the Byzantine Church as we approach His Passion, thus they imply our expectation at the coming of The Man born to die and rise again, about Whom we ask, “Who can His Father be; where can He have come from? What kind of a man is this? What has He come for? Who is He?” As the story unfolds, He tells us to see Him as the One Who will restore all things, but as One Who can only raise them up if He enters into their lowest point, and lifts them from beneath their very depths. So, the only way to envisage Jesus on clouds of glory is to behold Him on His Cross. The only way for His Light to reach and shine on us, is if we peer into the gloom and let it pierce us there. The only way to know we are loved is to let it dissolve our hate. The only way to cry “Hosanna” truthfully is to accept that we have also shouted, “Crucify.” The only way to be forgiven is to accept a way to forgive. The only way to satisfy justice is not to seek revenge. The only way to be blessed is not to curse. The only way to bear the suffering and the painstaking healing is not to inflict more wounds. The only way to find peace is, for sure, in what is true and just; but this is only halfway. We press on to what is pure and good and worthy of praise from the God of peace. This is so hard for us to bear, for it is more palatable – as discovered by Christ betrayed – to shut down, close off, break, hit, destroy.

Yet, as always, our life in Christ and the way the liturgy, and its readings and chants are deployed for us to meet Him turn everything round to stop our thinking in its tracks. For what we see at Pilate’s Seat, on the Cross, is not just Jesus, Truly God and truly The Man: it is God’s presentation to us of how we are to be and what we are summed up in Him. If The Man is throned in heaven as an innocent condemned on earth, how much is it the case that we with all our sins and shortcomings look divine to God in His realm of heaven? Here our resentment at Christ’s beauty finds it unbearable to behold, as we take what we please for ourselves, and disfigure the gift that is truly good; there we look transfigured in the light of Christ as God reveals the unbearable secret bad in every heart, and takes it out of the gaze of His love. Here we are mortal like Lazarus, but already like Lazarus we are also risen from the dead?

The Lord answered Pilate that His kingdom was not of this world (John 18.36). Well, neither is our kingdom of this world. “Here we have no abiding city” (Hebrews 13.14): “Our homeland is in heaven2 (Philippians 3.20). This is actually where we are living now; this is how we live, this is how we act. And as Pilate clothes God incarnate in purple robing and a crown of thorns, saying, “Behold: The Man”, the Father is holding the fellow-humans of the Son of Man at His own judgment seat and says, “Behold: this will become divine.”

Monday, 13 March 2017

The Light that Lightens Everyone - Homily for the Second Sunday of Great Lent, Ukrainian Catholic Cathedral of the Holy Family, London, 11 March 2017

Last week on the first Sunday of Lent, we observed the Sunday of Orthodoxy. This recalled the time when, after years of controversy during which the Byzantine Imperial authorities had banned representations of Christ and the Saints, a new Emperor restored them; and the icons were solemnly processed back into the Hagia Sophia, the Great Church of Constantinople on 11th March 843. Also known as the Sunday of the Triumph of Orthodoxy, it was a victory for the true Christian belief that God, the Kingdom of heaven and our salvation are not just ideas but something we touch, and see and the hold on to us. Our faith is in the Incarnation, in the Incarnate Word, God who did not stay a Being to be guessed at, but who revealed himself in the Son of Man. Our faith is about a creation through which God encounters us, heart mind and soul, but also body. He became human with us, that we might become divine with Him. To make and see the icons, to touch and behold them, is not to exalt a mere earthly creation and enthrone it where God ought rightly to be, but it is to encounter - in the process of their preparation and painting, in their consecration and veneration - the living work of the Holy Spirit bringing God into our midst and all the Kingdom of Heaven with Him.


If we do not believe that this is so, and that Christ and the Mother of God, St Joseph of the Holy Family, of St Nicholas and St John Baptist, St Mary Magdalene and St Gregory Palamas are not present to us and we to them, in this moment and by this means, we are saying, “Thank you, Rabboni, but we do not believe You and Your Kingdom of God can physically touch us now; we are inspired by the ideas and believe the faith coming to us from the past, but we are rational people and it makes no sense that you can be found in the things of the world today, or that the things of the world can bring us into contact with You, least of all these representations; except symbolically, of course.” It is as thought we are saying, “Yes, our logic tells us that since You and Your saints are not shining out of the icons, You can shine out of us either.” In other words, we are holding back from Christ, and holding back from our salvation in which we humans may shine with the light that comes from God Himself. We believe Him with our minds, we love Him with our hearts, we hope to be instilled with Him in our souls, but we say the opposite of St Peter, who said, “Do not wash just my feet, but my entire body and all over”. We are doing the opposite of St Mary Magdalen whose faith-instinct was to reach out and hold onto the Risen Lord. We are thinking differently from St Thomas who said, “Let me put my hand in His side.” This is why the icons meant so much to the Orthodox of the ninth century – the icons were their hold on Christ and His Kingdom, and Christ’s on them in the here and now; the tangible sign that they were being saved, the living evidence that the Saints were impinging on the world, as the Christians in the world were likewise being drawn into the heaven of God Himself. Here is the iconostasis, never a barrier but always the Veil of the Temple that is torn in two, so that Christ’s sacrifice may take its effect in creation. It is the porous membrane through which from heaven the Lord and His saints look upon us with God’s mercy as we behold them, too, aspiring for the glory that is theirs to be ours, even now where we are.


It makes sense, then, to have celebrated a kind of Feast in the beginning of the Great Fast, because what we are observing is the path of our redemption taking effect, how Orthodoxy - which declares its faith in the unity of the Creator with His creation - keeps us following the Incarnate Christ as we step through this world and in the next world at the same time. So we make our way through constant turning to face the Glory as it shines its Light on us, and so we pass from disobedience to new life.


Today’s gospel (Mark 2.12) reflects the same theme. It is not an iconostasis or a Veil through which the Lord bursts in with the glory of His Kingdom, but a roof. The paralysed man is lowered through it; and Christ sees the faith of his friends and the hope of the man in the power of God to heal and save humanity for the New Reign that is coming. It renders disbelief and sin beside the point. The people place their confidence in Christ, and Christ bestows on them His faith in them. They enact a kind of burial, and the body of the paralysed man encounters not death in a grave but the Lord of life. The man stands up; he rises like Christ. And touched by God he pursues no earthbound life, but passes into new life, and leads them all to behold and love, to praise and gaze on, God in His glory.


St Gregory Palamas we commemorate today for a Second Sunday of the Triumph of Orthodoxy. This is because he is the one in the Eastern Church who taught the Christians to dwell upon this glory as the Light that lightens every one. See the halos on the icons; they show the brightness of the Kingdom but cast no shadow. The same light came from Christ at His transfiguration on Mount Tabor, as the apostles were more thoroughly converted to behold it. In our world of now, we too, in our prayers and contemplation but also in every corner of our being, may know God and stand in His uncreated light, as once the paralysed man beheld the glory and wonder of Christ. St Gregory’s opponents said that God in His essence is unknowable, mocking him for saying that you could see what was invisible. But Gregory insisted that they were missing the point: God is not just wisdom and spirit; He is Person, too – making Himself known in the Christ Who appears as both man and God to the paralytic and to Peter, winning their heart and mind to the core of their being. He is the Person who shows Himself to the disciples on Tabor, as much to His mother in the cradle at Bethlehem. He is the One Whose Light is beheld in the physical reality of the Icons, and in the illuminated life of those whose loving hearts can dwell on the Lord Who dwells in them. St Paul realised this when he saw Christ’s Light fill every corner of his soul and frame. He said, “It is not I who live, but Christ Who lives within me.” In the way of thinking, in the West, about this Light that lightens every one, we could ask ourselves, as Thomas a Kempis did throughout The Imitation of Christ, not “What would I do if I were Christ?”, but “What would Christ do if He were me?”


Perhaps you will see, then, the breath-taking importance of these two Sundays as we make our spiritual progress through Lent, for they come back to the same question. Did Christ die on the Cross two thousand years ago for an idea of God, for spiritual Wisdom, or for a vision of human spirituality? Or is it that He is all there is to life of heart and mind, of body and soul; that He feels and is to be felt in every touch, that His light looks and is to be looked upon in every mind’s eye; and that there is no darkness that His Light coming into the world does not take in, that there is nothing of us that is beyond and outside Christ who fills the universe to make God Himself known, nothing that can lie beyond His Kingdom visible on earth as it is in heaven, nothing in us in the end that holds back from “His Presence and His very self, His essence all divine”, closer to us than our own breath?


Michael Ramsey, the great Anglican archbishop of Canterbury, who dwelt constantly in the Light of the divine Glory, said, “God is as He is in Christ, and in God there is no unChristlikeness at all.” In these two Sundays of the Triumph of Orthodoxy, by the same token, we are able to say that “God is in us, so in us there is no unChristlikeness at all.” If only it were so, we can hear ourselves thinking – but unless our hope is in vain it is the only possible reality for humanity that there is.

Sunday, 12 February 2017

The Prodigal Son, Homily at the Ukrainian Catholic Cathedral of the Holy Family, London,12th February, 2017

Every year, as we make our journey towards Lent, just as we complete the last week in which we are supposed to eat meat, we hear again of the Prodigal Son as his hunger begins to bite (Luke 15.11-32), but also of his father who slew the fatted calf for a feast to bring him back home.

But this is a story of deprivation, heavy fasting leading to repentance, and loving restoration only on the surface. For, if you look at the parable as a whole, one of the longest in the Gospels, it is a story of God the Father and God the Son, of the Passion and the Resurrection. Toward this aim we keep to the track of Lent, and it is why we recall the prodigal every year at this early point on our path to the Cross and then to new life, and by the Ascension to the Kingdom of blessedness in the Spirit.

But, you will protest, the prodigal son bears no comparison with Christ. The prodigal son was selfish; he split his family estate and impoverished his brother’s inheritance; he lived beyond his means and squandered everything that once supported half his entire family on high living and satisfying his physical urges, as he misused the women he encountered. How can this person resemble Christ the Father’s Son?

But, if you remember, what St Paul said to the Church at Philippi (Philippians 2.7-8), you will see what I mean: “He made Himself of no reputation, and emptied Himself into the form of a bond-servant, found in the likeness of a humbled man.” And St Paul gets to the heart of the matter when he write to the Church at Corinth (2 Corinthians 5.21): “For our sake, He made Him Who knew no sin to be sin, so that in Him we might become the righteousness of God.” In the Gospel today, then, we see a human son who is sinful, but someone from whom the Divine Son refuses to be separate, even in the moments of the young man’s furthest separation from his father – especially in the moments of his furthest separation from his father. We see a wasted and then broken man, with whom God the Son has identified and, even though He is sinless, taken on that man’s sin, and turned it inside out to face the light and overjoyed love.

Slowly, in the degradation from honour, to abandon of self-respect, to waste, disgrace, humiliation, the pains of acute hunger, of calling out in utter loneliness to his father, the final brokenness, we see the steps that Christ too would come to take in His own work of saving what was lost, and redeeming it back. Christ is God the Son, likewise as a man resolved to take a journey that entails an exile from His Father, so that at the sorest moment He too will cry out for His Father, “Why have you forsaken Me?” Thus, to the sin-filled prodigal, the Son who knew no sin lends His own righteousness. In abject isolation the prodigal is joined by Christ. Within that disfigured humanity, the Humanity of the One who will go to the Cross to be disfigured too, instils the deepest instinct of the life of the Trinity itself and causes him to set his mind on Resurrection and Ascension: “I will arise, and go to my father”.

The righteousness of Christ in the heart and mind of the sinner who has destroyed his own life, grows and changes; it flourishes and gives rise to hope. The prodigal son who was regarded as dead comes to life. His father is likewise taken up with the momentum of redemption, and runs out to find what was lost restored to him. He exclaims, “The son is come to life again.” He proclaims and foretells the Resurrection that leads all of us who are still picking our way through our sin. But it is the younger son, whose new life speaks of what has been going on unseen within him, in mystery, behind the scenes. To allude to St Paul again, the prodigal son, by his humanity restored from its living death and set on glory rejoicing, says, “My life has been crucified with Christ. It was not me who was alive in that pit of mine, but Christ who was living within me.”(cf. Galatian 2.19-20). “He Who knew no sin, became my sin for my sake, so that I might become His righteousness.” (cf. 2 Corinthians 5.21).

So, when St Paul, as he does in today’s Epistle (1 Corinthians 6.12-20), exhorts us to fasting from food and warns us repeatedly about fornication, it is never in a life-denying way or to induce guilt and misery, still less to take away pleasure and enjoyment in the Creation God has made and in which generation after generation is designed to take its part. Like the father in the Gospel going after his firstborn son to come back to the feast of forgiveness and restoration, Paul asks us what we really want, what ultimately satisfies us. What brings us the fulfilment of our deepest aspirations, what is the cause of our lasting joy? Is it what we feel are our just reward; is it food and an ample way of life with plenty of resources? All these run out. Is it physical gratification to fill the void of loneliness? We may be made this way, but how it ebbs and flows. So what is the great connection that brings lasting happiness and God’s intended sheer joy of being alive? Judging what this is, is what we in turn are to be judged on. St Paul says it is this: being united with Christ who paid the highest price for you, sacrificing Himself so that you might no longer be lost to death, becoming your sin so that you could become God’s own glory, in every corner of you, heart, mind and soul; body, spirit and eternal life.

In other words, turn inside out and face your coming glory. If you yourself cannot turn your heart and your outlook from the dark inside, let Christ within you push His face through your sin to look out and see God’s light. Let the voice of the One Who knows no sin be the one to say by your lips, “Father, I have sinned against heaven and before you.” Even if you call yourself unworthy, even if you are not ready, let the Christ within you stand forth in you, for His Father to run and embrace you, and clothe you in that robe of joy restored. Let Christ’s be your eyes to behold His Father’s coming judgment on you, looking back at you, adoring you and weeping over you, loving you back to everything that is His, because all that He has is for you.

This inexhaustible, unconditional love is the judgment that dissolves impenitence and going round in earthbound circles without hope. So let Him Whose Cross takes away the sin that destroys you, be your endless Resurrection – your heaven on earth for now, but your place in the blessed Kingdom for ever.