12 July 2014

Homily for the Synaxis of the Twelve Apostles, Ukrainian Greek Catholic Cathedral 13 July/30 June 2014

1 Corinthians 4.9-16
Mark 3. 13-19

Glory to Jesus Christ. Glory for ever.

In 2014 with the Julian Calendar, Saturday has been observed as the Feast of SS Peter and Paul. It is an observance common to East and West, marking the time of complete union between the Greek-Byzantine Orthodox and Latin Catholic Churches and looking forward to its restoration, because it celebrates the martyrdom of the two great apostles of the Church at Rome and their repose in the basilicas there that bear their names.

Indeed, it is little realised that St Peter’s Basilica has only recently been known as a Papal Basilica. Until little less than ten years ago, it was known as one of the Patriarchal Basilicas. This does not mean that it was linked to the Pope as Patriarch and Primate of the Western Latin Church and successor of St Peter at Rome, as you might think. Instead, it signifies that, ceremonially, it is assigned to one of the five patriarchs of the Church from before the Great Schism, four of which were once represented at Rome alongside the Pope by a Latin-rite counterpart. The Pope’s own Patriarchal Basilica is his Cathedral – St John Lateran. S. Maria Maggiore is historically assigned to the Patriarchate of Antioch, St Paul’s to the Patriarchate of Alexandria and St Lawrence outside the Walls to the Patriarchate of Jerusalem. St Peter’s is the Church in Rome where the Ecumenical Patriarch of Constantinople always has his seat of honour. This is why, since in 1964 the venerable Pope Paul VI and Patriarch Athenagoras lifted the mutual anathemas and the ‘dialogue of love’ between the Orthodox and Catholic Churches could begin, the Ecumenical Patriarch always sends a delegation to St Peter’s every June to keep the feast with the Pope in hopeful anticipation of our union to be restored and to pray for it at the tomb of the Apostle Peter. The favour is returned each November when a delegation from the Apostolic See of Rome visits the Apostolic See of Constantinople likewise to pray with the Ecumenical Patriarch, and to keep with him the feast of St Andrew, whose successor is he is seen to be and whose relics are honoured there.

You may recall that, at the end of the period of the Crusades to drive out the Islamic invaders of the Holy Land which had been part of the Christian Roman Empire, the shameful and ultimately disastrous Fourth Crusade turned on its fellow Christians instead and Latin Christians sacked and looted the city of Constantinople, all but undermining the lasting viability of the Byzantine Empire. This is a wound that is still sore for the Greek Orthodox and which the Roman Catholic West still underestimates, because it is far from healed in the memory and it accounts for a great deal of the suspicion and animosity that significant sections of the Orthodox world continue to bear towards the Latin Church which it feels has never made good the hurt. Nevertheless, when the last remnant of the Byzantine Empire at Morea in the Peloponnese collapsed under the Ottoman onslaught in 1461, it was to Italy that the Emperor Manuel II Palaiologos took with him the relic of the head of St Andrew to exile. He entrusted it to Pope Pius II, who enshrined it in one of the four central piers of St Peter’s. Here it remained until 1964 when Pope Paul VI, in a great work of Catholic reparation for the injuries to Catholic-Orthodox relations in the history we share together, restored it to the Church of St Andrew in Patras that it had left five centuries earlier.

So having honoured St Peter and St Paul on Saturday, with Sunday coincides the feast immediately following, a second gathering, or Synaxis of the Twelve Apostles. We have heard the names listed in the Gospel of those entrusted with the authority to proclaim the message of Christ and to cast out the powers and spirits who stand in the way of the Kingdom. Among them is included, of course, St Andrew, the first apostle to be called by the Lord from the shores of Galilee as he was mending his fisherman’s nets. Here too is Peter and all the others, including Judas who let Jesus down and was succeeded by St Matthias. Not mentioned is St Paul, although in today’s Kontakion of the Apostles he is ranked next to St Peter, the rock of Christ’s faith, and alongside the Council of the Twelve. It is always St Paul, though, who puts things most vividly. He sees an apostle as a spectacle, something that God exhibits. You might think that he means something admirable or splendid to look at; but as always he sees things as they are. What may at first look powerful, influential and even wonderful and inspiring, he knows from the inside is set up to be torn down and humiliated, or, as he puts it, “rubbished”. But he is not complaining. He is just telling us what the glory of heaven must look like when it comes into the world: beauty which human beings in their sin and enthralment with death cannot bear to behold: beauty which they must mar, obliterate.

St Paul has in mind, perhaps, that moment in St John’s Gospel when Christ is brought out by Pilate whose soldiers have flogged Him, crowned Him with thorns and dressed Him in an imperial robe of purple. When Pilate seeks to release Jesus, he brings Him out to the Gabbatha Pavement. It is unclear whether the text reads next that Pilate sits on the Seat of Judgement, or sits Jesus upon it. Surely it is the latter, because St John means to show that Jesus is the King not of this world, that Pilate realises this, and is presenting the King of Heaven to the people. “Behold your King,” he cries out. So there He sits, a spectacle, exhibited, just like St Paul imagined it years later when he wrote to the Christians in Corinth. There He sits, rejected by the people, soon to be deposed as their King.

The irony is not lost on St Paul, who will also be recalling, perhaps, Jesus’s words to the disciples not long before: “When I am lifted up from the earth, I will draw all people to myself.” For it is the very rejection, the obvious public disgrace that is how the apostles’ message of Christ is expressed and how His meaning is conveyed. Be imitators of this disgrace, says St Paul, in words we do not easily wish to hear.

Only this week, we have seen the terrible films from Mosul of the crazed Jihadists, perverters of Islam, desecrating not only the graves of their own fellow-Muslim forebears in faith, but also destroying the tombs of the Prophet Jonah and the Patriarch Seth, honoured by Muslims, Jews and Christians alike. Once again, something beautiful about humanity has been made a spectacle and, to quote St Paul again, “made into the rubbish of the world”. It breaks our hearts to think we will never see these places, sacred presences in our world of the Kingdom of the Eternal in our midst, again.

But the Kingdom is not of this world; and what we are seeing of the fanatical destruction of holiness that has stood undishonoured in ancient churches and shrines for hundreds and thousands of years is part of the pattern we were told to expect. The destruction through human wilfulness of the unity of Christ’s Church and the obscuring of the one Body of Christ in the world, such as happened at the Great Schism; the sack of Constantinople and the destruction at rival Christian hands of the Christian civilisation and society of the old Near East; the long years of side-lined exile for the remains of St Andrew; the blasphemies to altars, churches, icons, sacred ministers, religious and lay people in Syria and Iraq, including their abduction, rape and murder; the impious sacrilege of the resting place of the holy prophets – all are part of the same pattern that belongs to what it is to be apostles and those who follow them as their “imitators”.

However beauteous is our Divine Liturgy - the very inspiration of heaven in earth - it has to be impossible to us to lose sight of what it truly represents. It is a parade of a spectacle to the world, just as St Paul said. When we clergy come out of the Holy Doors, it is a mistake to look on the surface and see gold and shining and glory. We and the mysteries of Book and Sacrament that we bear are being exhibited like the apostles, fools for Christ, weak men; and we are blessing and bringing good, with lasting forbearance and unfailing forgiveness, only because that is all that is left, once the world - and all of us included - have cast what looks beautiful away, leaving only what it thinks is rubbish, the dregs. It was the same with Christ, enthroned with His crown of thorns, then lifted up, then thrown down, cast aside. Yet out of this rejection and fall from grace came Resurrection. Thus “Death is plundered” (Troparion of Sunday, Tone 4). Thus, and only thus, does the risen “Christ our God … grant mercy to the world”. St Paul said, “Be imitators of me”. If we try to re-enact his apostolic grandeur through earthly splendour we will never achieve it. The true grandeur of our Liturgy, God’s work upon us, is that - for those who have eyes to see - it takes the road to the Resurrection by no other way than the Gabbatha Pavement, the rise up that hill of Calvary and then down again to the tomb, not far from the rubbish heap. Thus “death has been plundered, and Christ our God … grants to the world great mercy.”

Glory to Jesus Christ. Glory for ever.