10 August 2014

Homily for the Ninth Sunday after Pentecost, Ukrainian Catholic Cathedral of the Holy Family, London: The Plight of the Church in Iraq

Sunday of Christ Walking on the Water , Ninth Sunday after Pentecost, 10th August 2014, Ukrainian Greek Catholic Cathedral of the Holy Family, London

Troparion of the Resurrection, Tone 8. You came down from on high, O Merciful One, and accepted three days of burial to free us from our sufferings.  O Lord, our life and our resurrection, glory be to You.

1 Corinthians 3:9-17              Matthew 14:22-34

It is difficult at the present time to think of the Church as being built, when daily news arrives of our ancient sanctuaries being destroyed, either as collateral damage in war, or as a direct act of intended destruction on the part of violent, jealous men, who hide behind religious zeal their true identity as bank robbers, as perverts that rape girls and disabled old ladies, and as psychopathic serial killers that are even now murdering our brothers and sisters in the Household of Faith, or condemning them to the searing heat of the desert without food, water or shelter. It looks like the Church is being destroyed in the lands where it first took root, Iraq - the cradle of civilisation, where different peoples (such as the  Assyrians,  Arabs, Turkics and Persians) and different faiths (such as Sunni and Shia Islam, Zoroastrianism, Assyrian and Syriac Christianity, Catholic and Orthodox) have lived in harmony side by side for centuries.


But somehow and somewhere in all this we are to see the work of the Lord who is faithful to his people and to all humanity, even when we are tested, as St Paul tells us, in the fire. The apostle’s words recalls to us the Lord’s own parable of the house built upon sand and the house built upon the rock.  The point he is making is not about the relative strength of faith, but the strength of the grace that we rely on, as opposed to our own efforts. It almost goes without saying that the House of the Lord which is the Church of God in Iraq, led so nobly by the Chaldean Catholic Patriarch of Babylon, Patriarch Louis Raphael Sako, is a house whose foundations are the gold and silver and precious stones that really have been tried in the fire. The buildings and everything they have may have been taken away - as St Paul says “the builder will suffer loss”; and did not our Lord say “from those who have nothing even what they have will be taken away”? – but the grace of God has been shown to be the foundation not just of an ethnic or religious identity, but of the house of their faith.

Compare this with the story of St Peter, bidden by Christ to walk on nothing more than water to meet him. Peter did not believe that it was possible, started out, thought again and began to sink. It was the Lord’s hand, not his own efforts and will power, that caught him.  Jesus questions the strength of Peter’s belief in him, yet at the same time makes it clear that everything that can be achieved and withstood depends not on our strengths but on the hand of God.

Paul speaks of testing construction handiwork by fire; the construction of Peter’s foundations in faith is flooded out by water. But it is the same story. In time, with the help and grace of the Holy Spirit, he rebuilt and became the Rock on which Christ was able to build his Church. Likewise the Christians of the old Roman Empire were able to face the onslaught, knowing what was to be demanded of them, because they saw that Christ is the centre and summit of all existence and of human society, whatever the appearances. Thus Paul clearly recognised the coming of a moment when God’s temple, where the Spirit dwells in Christ’s own people, would be destroyed.

I cannot presume to know what our brothers and sisters in Iraq are going through, having lost not only everything they have but, for the second time in a century for some of them, being driven out of their historic lands and holy places. I cannot begin to enter into their grief, bitterness, desperation and mourning: now is not the time for those in the comfort of Britain to exhort them to fortitude, courage and joy in adversity. But we and they can recognise in their suffering and destruction the Lord who trod this path before and who, as he passed through death, spoke somehow of forgiveness, redemption and the promise of paradise.

Because of this, we who are Christians pin all our hopes on the resurrection, knowing that it is not some far off after-life, or a dream to console us in our pain and misery. The resurrection of Christ back then, is the same as the coming of the Kingdom of God now. For as we sing today, “You came down from on high, O merciful One, and accepted three days of burial to free us from our sufferings.”

St Paul said that if anyone destroys God’s temple, the holy place which we Christians are, then God will destroy that person. So let our prayer today on behalf of all our suffering brothers and sisters in the temple of God, the House of Faith in which we all dwell in the Spirit, be that those who hate the Church and who hate the humanity made in the image of God’s Christ himself, may be brought not to the destruction of their lives but of all that is wrong in them. Let them now be put to the test – whether it be water or fire – so that all that is evil and vain, and resentful and unforgiving and merciless, may melt away and the underlying structure of God’s handiwork be revealed – a frame on which there can be more grace, more forgiveness, and more humanity. Let them be converted to the Lord and live.

And as for us, in this Cathedral of the Holy Family, under the patronage of St Joseph who provided a home for Our Lord and the Mother of God, which began as a Church for inspiring and consoling those in exile, and which now stands as a sign for nations and societies in whom the Temple of the Lord is being rebuilt, let us remember that we have nothing to stand on unless it is the Lord that reaches out his hand to hold us up. We stand because he has stood up having been beaten down by death. Now risen from the dead, he leaves nothing behind that calls out to him, “Lord save me.” For, seeing us, who call upon God’s help to be the human beings that God means us all to be – people of love, and grace, forgiveness and hope –the world recognises Christ and turns to him as Lord. So, hearing our words and our songs ringing true, could it be that those who do not know him and even now oppose him and would bring down his Kingship - could it be that they too - would sing:
O Lord, our life and our resurrection, glory be to You?

In hope of this, let us say with Patriarch Louis Raphael the prayer he has just written and issued to all the world that the cries of the Christians in Iraq will be our own in complete solidarity:
Lord, the plight of our country is deep
and the suffering of Christians is severe and frightening.

Therefore, we ask you, Lord,
to spare our lives, and to grant us patience,
and courage to continue our witness of Christian values
with trust and hope.

Lord, peace is the foundation of life;
Grant us the peace and stability that will enable us
to live with each other without fear and anxiety,
and with dignity and joy.

Glory be to You forever.

04 August 2014

Homily for the Sunday of the Five Thousand: St Theodore's Greek Catholic Church, Cardiff

Eight Sunday after Pentecost, 3rd August 2014, Ukrainian Greek Catholic Parish of St Theodore, Cardiff, Wales

Kontakion of the Resurrection, Tone 7. No longer shall the dominion of death be able to hold humanity, for Christ went down shattering and destroying its power. Hades is bound. The prophets exult with one voice.  The Saviour has come forth for those with faith, saying, Come forth, O faithful, to the Resurrection.

I Corinthians 1. 10-18                                    Matthew 14. 14-22

One thing that occurs to you, when you hear the story of the Feeding of the Five Thousand, is that it emerges our of an animated discussion between the apostles, who see themselves as practical men, and Jesus, Who, as the hours have passed by, seems to them to have lost all track of time and the physical endurance of His hearers.

But this is precisely it: He has not. For another thing strikes you. There are other people in the conversation and that have uttered not a word: the Five Thousand themselves. Their engagement with Jesus’ discourse has been completely absorbing and it is they who have lost all track of time. They hang on His every word; it has been sustaining them through the day and of this Jesus is perfectly aware.

What St Matthew in his Gospel is describing is the season of fasting, originally in the spring, that is common in different forms within the tradition of the Abrahamic religions that we know as Lent and Islam, for instance, knows as Ramadan. In the Rule of St Benedict for his monks, the complete fast from food is the same as subsequently adopted in Islam and lasts from rising until evening, when a light, nutritious meal of vegetable produce may be taken, together on holy days of feasting with some fish. So, here we have it. During the day, those who have gathered round Jesus close in order not to miss a single word come before God to contemplate His teaching, to seek his spiritual healing and, at the close of day, to eat with His blessing, giving thanks and dwelling in the heart on all that has happened in the day before. Thus drawn up into God’s presence it is not merely a meal during the time of fasting on earth, but a share in the Banquet of heaven as well – with the loaves of bread come also the fish for a celebration.

Now, talking of monks, I remember Cardinal Hume saying that obedience is not a blind submission to a superior’s commands, but means mutual listening – the word “obedience” comes from the same root as “audience”. Thus the young monk obeys the abbot, because he is bound to listen to the teaching of a father. In the same way an abbot remembers his time of listening to his own novice-master, to the abbot when he was a young monk, and to the many spiritual fathers that preceded them all. But St Benedict makes clear to the abbot that he is not there just to be listened to, because he must listen to the other monks – not least the younger monks, for the Lord’s will can sometimes make itself known in the fresh zeal and new pairs of eyes of the young, when older ones have grown weary, and jaded, or even hard of heart.

This is what Jesus is doing with His crowds of followers. Here is a pattern of mutual obedience. There is conversation, as with the disciples, but the communication is plain: He listens to them listening to Him. They wish for more and He pours out more and more.

Then there comes an intriguing detail in the story. The disciples propose sending the crowds into the villages to get food, so that the listening and being absorbed in the Lord’s word may go on into the night. We have seen this detail before; or rather we shall see it later, as St Matthew’s Gospel story unfolds. It is that the Lord Jesus found Himself outside. Next time, it would not be outside a village near the shore of Galilee: it would be outside the gate of the city of Jerusalem, on the rock of Calvary, dying on the Cross for our sins. Next time, the night before, He will again have taken bread, raised His eyes to heaven and given thanks. Once again He will break it and fill the lives and souls of those crowded round Him. Once again, few words will be recorded and at the centre is a stillness from which you cannot turn your ears or take away your eyes.

It is no wonder, then, that St Paul has just told us that preaching the Gospel does not need eloquent wisdom: it is the power of the Cross that says it all.

The crowds by the shore of Galilee listening, watching; the few disciples left at the foot of the Cross listening, watching: it is all the same. To anyone else, this “nothing happening”, is their hearts and minds and to the very edges of feeling in their bodies, to us it is the very presence of the action and the power of God.

This weekend we are remembering the way the powers of Europe fell into war a hundred years ago, a war whose consequences are still being played out. It changed European society for ever, and the attitude of ordinary people to religion and faith went through enormous changes, as state atheism, Marxist ideology and Nazi occultism set out to dismantle Christian civilisation after the self-inflicted failure of the old Christian empires. It is often said that in the unimaginable horrors and degradation of the trenches, decent, loyal, dutiful and patriotic soldiers abandoned their hope in God and lost any sense that Christ’s Church had anything to do with them. But this is far from the true picture. We know the stories of thousands of men who had lived their lives back home on the fringes of the Church, now turning to the chaplains to make their peace with God, seeking confirmation and Holy Communion. One of the most famous chaplains was Geoffrey Studdert Kennedy, a magnificent Anglican pastor, preacher and poet, nick-named Woodbine Willie by the soldiers because of his unconditional service to anyone in their moment of greatest need, even if they had nothing but scorn for the Church, ready with words of God’s blessing and the assurances of faith at the same time as offering a draw on a Woodbine cigarette, a last human comfort in this world before turning to the next. The story of many Catholic chaplains is just as moving. At first the War Office sent the many Catholic recruits to the front with little thought to provide them with priests, because it did not understand the central place of the Eucharist, Confession and, should the time come, Unction in the practice of Catholic faith. But it did not take long for the authorities to realise that this was not just a question of morale but of the Catholic servicemen’s raison d’ĂȘtre. The Great War changed many people’s prejudices about Catholicism when they saw the unpretended devotion of their fellows and the brave, unstinting solidarity of the priests not just with their own men, but with all who were thrown together in the raw experience of inhuman death and degradation.

Unlike anything anyone had seen, here were Christians - and they were also needing to be Christians on behalf of those who could not evoke or declare a faith at all, yet face the same questions and horror as those who did – watching at the foot of the crucifixion of humanity again, and looking to see upon the Cross the figure of Christ. Here were Christians, amid the terror and the din of all reasonable explanation to the contrary, straining to hear Christ’s words - of peace and encouragement, and beatitude. As St Peter himself said, when many other disciples lost heart and turned away, “To whom else shall we go? You have the message of eternal life.” No wisdom can account for it; no eloquence is worthy of it. It is only the power of the Cross that interprets it, and the faith of the Christian is thus able to descry in the supreme sacrifice on the Cross not only the atoning death but the offering of life that must ultimately prevail and be our only hope (Ave Crux, spes unica).

So today we sing, in union with all who have placed their trust in Christ, with all who have hung upon his every word, watching, listening, hoping from every corner of their being:

No longer shall the dominion of death be able to hold humanity, for Christ went down shattering and destroying its power ... The Saviour has come forth for those with faith, saying, Come forth, O faithful, to the Resurrection.