11 January 2015

Homily for the Sunday after Nativity, Ukrainian Catholic Cathedral of the Holy Family, London, January 10, 2015

St Paul tells us that the Gospel he proclaims is not of earthly origin, from no human source (Galatians 1.11). When we hear this, our present-day assumption is that he means it comes from “the other side”, that it is supernatural, that it is in the department we separate off to one side of human life, the department we call religious.

But it is not what he means. Yes, he said he had a religious experience; yes, he was speaking of a profound spiritual incident that changed everything he thought and altered everything he did from then on. This is why he called it “not of earthly origin”, because it certainly did not come from anything he had experienced in the world before.

What he was really speaking about is that the impact made upon him that came from Jesus Christ, a real human being born of Mary, yet who came from the Father: the Man from heaven. The revelation he had was of the same order as the disciples after the Resurrection. It was inexplicable in earthly terms as far as they knew them - because the dead man that they all saw was not merely a resuscitation, but instead the same person they had known now living in a new creation. It was shedding its brilliance in this world, but was not being determined by it.

St Paul had been accused of making up his new found proclamation from his own changed tunes, or from schemes he had devised with other people. He was accused of inventing a new kind of preaching about Jesus that was different from the original Kingdom proclaimed by the Lord Himself. To this day, he is accused of founding a new religious institution, the Church, against the spiritual intentions and teaching of Jesus. Thus he was also blamed for not consulting the apostles before beginning his preaching, of being vain in pursuing his personal version of the infant Church’s mission, and thus undermining the authority of the Twelve. But it is all nonsense, then and as now. The other apostles found now fault with it and realised it was fundamentally the same as their own gospel. This was not so much because of the words and terms to be used, or the way they were expressed, but because for all of them it was clearly about a Person, who had come into the world as its Light.

Peter, the rock on whom Christ built His Church, saw this. James, the Lord’s own brother, corroborated it. Paul had truly been in the Light of the same Person as had shone through them too: the Son of Man, the Lord’s anointed, the Son of God, Emmanuel-God-with-Us, the Master, the Good Shepherd, the Ascended Lord of Earth and Heaven, the Way, the Truth and the Life.

Most of us do not have such dramatic revelations as St Paul’s and our encounter of religion feels much of the time as though it is firmly bound up with earthly origins, ideas and people. But think again of how it was for St Peter and St James. James, who we remember today (Galatians 1.19) knew Jesus all his life in such a very human way, as a relation in the same household and family. For James, therefore, the revelation that came to Paul in a flash came through a lifetime of growing up together from boyhood through adolescence, during which familiarity did not breed contempt but formed the close bond of affection and admiration that we can understand from our own families and life-long friendships. St James knew he had grown up with heaven – he would not realise it all the time, for it would have been like second nature. Thus for all that it was in earth, it was of no earthly origin. Jesus his brother was God among Us. For St Peter, the relationship was more recent. He began with being spellbound by a charismatic teacher coming to find St Andrew and then him on the shore of Galilee where they worked as fishermen. After that, it was a series of incidents in which Peter is brought up short by Jesus, Who shows him where he has not grasped the Kingdom of God, culminating in the one where he misjudges the purpose of the Lord’s Arrest, first in the garden and then in the palace courtyard to which he follows Jesus, but where he also denies Him not once but three times. And yet this was all the outward symptom of a deep inner connection with Jesus, the way in which the Lord intrigues those who seek Him out, so that the faulty foundations in Peter’s life of faith can be reconstructed by the resurrection and bear the life-long confidence in Christ to be built on them, a confidence that will one day cost him in turn not less than everything.

All of us, perhaps, have experienced a little of what it is like to know Jesus like St Paul, St James, or St Peter, to find ourselves in the presence of the Man from Heaven and to be changed as a result. Most of us have been growing up in our faith and belief in Him like St James. All of us have been trying to comprehend Him, yet repeatedly found ourselves letting Him down like St Peter, but nonetheless persevering and finding our way through to some kind of constant faithfulness. There may have been the flash of light, perhaps just once in our lives, like St Paul, a vision or an experience of God’s closeness to us, that has stood us in good stead all the way through and irrevocably altered the way we think and live. Perhaps it is a mixture of all three.

The point is that, whoever we are and whatever the Christian life is like for each one of us, our fellowship in the Church and the Christian faith itself are about the Lord Who came to the world with no earthly origin, in order to have the one thing he lacked - human nature - and to work within our human nature our human redemption, so that there could be human fellowship in the life of God Himself.

What the Lord meant to St Peter, St James, St Paul, St Joseph whom we also remember today (Matthew 2.13), and pre-eminently to the Mother of God was that to meet Christ in His Church is to be at the very entrance of heaven into the world, and the world into heaven: “I am the gate –whoever enters through me will be saved. My sheep will come in and go out and find pasture. I have come that they may have life, and have it to the full.” (John 10. 9-10)

In other words, today’s celebration of the Sunday after the Nativity is a feast of our rebirth as human beings in the Spirit of Christ, Who is born among us in the flesh. What had an earthly origin thus receives the eternal living that is heaven’s. Today the Lord of no earthly origin shows us how He takes on the form of human beings, so that we creatures can take on the form of God. He shows that just as God can unite with human nature in one and the same Person, so human beings can enter into and be part of the life of God. It does not require us to leave the world to live with God in His heavenly Kingdom, just as it did not require Christ to be unheavenly to convert the human Paul. “For God is with us” (Isaiah 8-9, from Great Compline on Christmas Night), and with God is how we are too.

04 January 2015

Homily for Christmas Day, Mass of the Day, St Mary's Church, Cadogan Street, Chelsea

It must have been about twenty years ago – you couldn’t do it nowadays – but it was on the radio all one Christmas week: three modern day Wise Men decided to retrace the steps of the Magi from old Mesopotamia, taking their time on camels or donkeys, camping their way through Iraq, Baghdad, Jordan and finally into Palestine and on to Bethlehem. The modern Magi were three scientists, whose expertise corresponded to the knowledge and interest of the Wise Men of old: one was a chemistry professor; another was an astronomer; and the third was a theologian.

The BBC thought they would have a cracking programme, as three great people made a journey in search of the Jesus that the Wise Men were seeking, full of insight and clever conversation from three completely different disciplines colliding in flashes of brilliance: perfect radio. What happened was rather different. After a week or so, the modern Magi got used to each other and fell into a rhythm. A few days more and they had run out of things to say. When they came back, they said how for much of the time, as they walked and rode, their thinking calmed and they just made their way through the Middle East toward Bethlehem in each other’s company in silence. But it was not that they were lost for words. It was more that they were infused, you might say, with being tranquil. They spoke when they needed to and when they had something to say. But otherwise, they were content to rest in the silence they had come to share.

And here we are today, like many before us, coming to seek out the Word made Flesh; and we find He is likewise saying nothing. But we are paying close attention, straining to hear any sound or inkling of the Word that we might miss. To the first Christians who spoke Greek, this title of Jesus’s – The Word (John 1.1) – meant something a little more than ‘word’ means to us. They would also have understood it in something like the way we talk of a rationale, God’s reason for being God, God’s reasoning in his desire for us to come to be part of Him. There had been many words in prophets, laws and Temple liturgies; but now God was going to explain Himself and reveal His reasoning , His rationale, His reason for being Himself - a God Who saves His creation from its self-destruction - not in phrases and arguments to justify His purposes, but in a Person. Actions, we tell ourselves, speak louder than words. And here it all is: the ‘Wording’ from God in flesh and blood, not breathed out onto the air, but full of unspoken meaning.

Jesus often resorts to being the Word in this way in the stories that we love throughout the Gospels. We have the parables and the pronouncements of healing; but when it counts, the Word we first beheld in His manger once again creates the space of silence around Him. So the Archangel appearing to Mary who is to be Mother of God says to her, as the first thing to be achieved, “Peace.” (Luke 1. 28) When the storm is at its height on the Sea of Galilee and the disciples are frightened for their lives, the Lord says, “Peace, be still.” (Mark 4.39) When He works His great miracles of healing, He tells those who have been saved to say nothing of what has happened to them and instead, we might say, to live in the moment and let the work of the Kingdom of Heaven speak for itself. (Mark 1. 44) When the woman is accused of adultery, while her accusers take their rage out on her, the Lord proceeds through silence to the foregone conclusion of mercy (John 8. 6). When He Himself is accused before the High Priests, King Herod and Pontius Pilate, He says little in response to their interrogation and public denunciation (Mark 14. 61). All the words happen around Him, as the Word of God in Person speaks for itself. As He is led to His Cross, the Lamb to the slaughter, He opens not His mouth (Acts 8.32). What He is doing and being is all that there is to say.

Then there were all those times when Jesus is wandering through Galilee with His disciples and, next, going up to Jerusalem, to the events that would lead to His Cross and in the end the dumbfounding Resurrection. We know quite a little of His talks to the people and what He said when He taught and healed. Yet we hardly know most of what He may have said in the vast tracts of time spent with His closest friends, the future apostles. Surely this is because it must have been for these disciples like it was for the three modern Magi: on their wanderings to encounter Jesus, they found themselves in a rhythm of silent company. We are told that Jesus would go off to pray on His own (Luke 5.16). But when He was with them He still had this habit of silence. Sometimes He would ask a question and wait without expectation of an answer. Sometimes we was just being the man of quiet, leaving mysteries up in the air, setting silence around Him as you wondered. Thus to the disciples he was not just their teacher, but their Master, their spiritual master.

You can imagine that disciple who had followed Jesus for months and years, yet who had neared a conclusion that he was still very much at the beginning of the way to the Kingdom of Heaven, as Jesus spoke so much of it that He seemed to be living in it even here and now. You can hear all his anxiety bursting out: “Lord, teach us how to pray.” (Luke 11.1) In the text of our Gospel, the Lord’s answer follows immediately, as He reveals to them the words of the Lord’s Prayer. I expect it was somewhat different. Likely there followed silence, into which the disciples’ attention was drawn ever more closely, as there gradually emerged the words of the prayer for how to live on earth as in heaven, how to live with God and in the world, and how God’s Kingdom comes when it becomes our will to desire only the will of God. This was no conversation. This was all happening in that rhythm of company and quiet that the Modern Magi discovered on their route to Bethlehem.

For us, Christmas with its joys and celebrations is full of energy, of tasks and meeting family and friends; and that is how it should be. We have little time to settle into the rhythm of company on our way with God; but we can still be very clear-sighted that a quiet presence lies on the heart of this feast, and the rationale for the coming of the Word in Person is for Him to be with us, so that we may repeatedly desire nothing but to be with Him and fulfil His will for us. This awareness has another name: prayer. Praying, for us with our busy minds and our lives packed with activity, is difficult for many; it is just as difficult for priests as it is for lay people: we are all in this together and getting us to pray truly is God’s life’s work. It can be a less than obvious path to find, or a hard journey to make, until we realise that praying is not just about thinking holy things over, or coming up with words, or performing devotions, though all these have a part to play: praying is spending time in the company of God. More truly it is God spending his eternity in our company. Certainly our mind wanders; certainly we are lost for words. But which one of us in a long marriage, or with our family, or in our friendships, has not known times with another human being we know so well when, likewise, there is nothing to say for the moment and it is all right to say nothing, all right just to be in the other’s company? For, when we find there are no words, we may fret that no words are coming to the surface, but we do not walk away from our family, or give up on our friendships as unsuccessful, or fruitless. Instead, we stay and we go with the moment. It is the same with praying.

It is does not even matter in our praying if there is argument, recrimination and estrangement, just as intense as the highest expressions of love and devotion. It is the same in human families and friendships. What matters is the rhythm of company that endures in the other’s presence. It does not depend on us, our mood, our worthiness, or our effort. If it did, we should fail at every attempt. And I am sure there are times when each of us feels that praying is difficult, we are failures at it and might as well just give it up. How good the devil is at discouraging us, when we think to ourselves, “I believe, but I can’t get the hang of this praying thing; it’s not really for me”; or “It isn’t my personal spirituality,” or, “I’m spiritual, but not religious.” All these are justifications for obscuring ourselves from realising that we live at every moment with God who is present to us. Yet praying is not a burden, or a technique. To begin, our part is a simple. It is just to recall that we are lost without Him, to ask for His help and mercy, and decide again and again to stay in that company which has come to seek out our company, not because we are deserving, but out of His love. Beyond that, looking for the words to say, or coming up with reasons, is not our worry. Ours is to trust the One Who keeps our company. Distractions come and go; the imagination wanders; every thought, grudge, problem, sin, or fantasy can intrude and then pass on their way. But the Saviour who is Lord of all that happens out in the world is also Lord of all that happens within us. This is why he is in our company not only when we pray but also while we do and say and are whatever it is; for praying is not our being with God, but our God being with us – Emmanuel means God with us (Matthew 1.23). And who can separate us? (Romans 8.39)

Mindful that He is there, and time and again deciding to call on His help to stay with Him, we can be assured the Lord is building a certain quiet space inside our soul (Mark 1.35), in which the presence of the One we love can breathe and take on a life of its own within us. The English classical scholar and hymn writer, Edwin Hatch (1835-89), put it this way:

Breathe on me, Breath of God, until my heart is pure,
Until with Thee I will one will, to do and to endure.

Or, as St Paul said of all this, “It is not I who live, but Christ who lives within me.” (Galatians 2.20)

This space is where we drop into the rhythm of His company, just as the Magi found on their way with the Word of God. By the same token, it is why it is so important that we must make our churches sacrosanct oases of stillness, not places for our noises, of conversation and activity, but places full of those moments when people encounter God’s company on our journey and drop into the natural rhythm of the soul, the soul alongside its Creator Who is come to be with us and while He is with us to open us to heaven (Luke 3.21).

In the next parts of our Liturgy there will be frequent moments of silence among the rites and the singing, during which God will make His approach known to us in the love and joy we experience and the holiness we are being drawn into. Then, at the end, many of us will go to the Crib, to pray for our loved ones and those in need, pour out our devotion and unburden our hearts to the Christ Child who is also our Redeemer. When you do so, I ask you a favour. In the silence of the company of the Word of God with us, please remember the suffering Christian Church of the lands through which the Wise Men of old and the Modern Magi rode. Today the members of the Chaldean, Melkite and Syriac, Assyrian, Armenian Churches in Syria and Iraq, Orthodox and Catholic alike, are facing expulsion, persecution, martyrdom and extermination in the lands where Christ has been praised since the beginning of the life of the Church in history. In the midst of our celebration and happiness, please pray that the Light of Christ will long shine bright in the lands where Christianity was born, that He will make the way to the future for His people there clear and confident, and that the God Who is silent is the Word of God dwelling richly within them (Colossians 3.16), God with us, as near now as He was when He was found in Bethlehem, as when He mounted the Cross to suffer death for our sake, and when He rose past the death He had destroyed, promising to endure with us to the end of time (Matthew 28.20).

Homily for the Twenty-Second Sunday after Pentecost, Ukrainian Catholic Cathedral of the Holy Family, November 9, 2014

Galatians 6.11-18 – Luke 8.26-39

Picture Saint Paul dictating his letter to the Church in Galatia. When his assistant has finished, Paul takes up the pen personally, and adds some final thoughts. He speaks of writing with large letters. Perhaps he is losing his eyesight, for he was once an expert writer and religious official himself; or, perhaps, writing as small as his scribe could, to get as much wording on the page of the expensive parchment as possible, was now too painful for him – he speaks of being unable to deal with the Church troublemakers, because he bears the marks of Jesus on his own body.

These are very interesting last few sentences, conveying the thoughts right at the forefront of St Paul’s mind. He compares and contrasts outward physical appearances with the inner truths that last because they mean something. He begins with the outsize appearance of his handwriting; and he ends with the outward appearance of wounds upon his skin. But he turns to attention to the greater fact of life that lies among and within what we experience as real in the world. Thus he questions the Galatian Christians, a community of Jews and Gentiles alike, if they have lost sight of what being a Christian is all about. Christ was circumcised not because it was a cultural convention, but because from time immemorial it had been a sacramental sign of the people’s faith in their covenant with God. “An outward and visible sign of an inward and spiritual grace,” it was the mark of an undertaking by the Hebrews and the Jews to take the law of God to their own hearts and keep it as the light of their lives. But here were people who did not take the law of God seriously themselves, yet insisted that the new people who wanted to follow Christ’s conform to an outward appearance, an appearance that on its own meant nothing without the inner meaning of love, obedience, and bonding with our God.

We are reminded of the words of the Prophet Micah, expressing the patience of God at humanity’s continual cycle of betrayal, disobedience and trying to buy back God’s favour with a surfeit of religion and sacrificial offering. The Lord asks, “O my people, what have I done to you? How have I wearied you?” The response is predictable: the offer of year-old calves, rams in their thousands, rivers of oil to burn the Temple lamps, even a human sacrifice. Wearily, Prophet Micah explains it all over again: “You have been told what would be good; you have been told what the Lord requires: to do justice, to love goodness, and to work humbly with your God.” (Micah 6. 3, 8)

It is, of course, easier to perform the outward appearance of religion – the customs, the behaviours; the fretting over the way other people bow, or make the sign of the Cross; the sharp eye on other people’s morals, while presuming forgiveness for one’s own shortcomings; the profession of righteous activity backed up with a word of criticism (a hint of our own insecurity perhaps) for those who we want to show are not up to the mark. There is nothing new under the sun; and St Paul was as worn down by self-righteous troublemakers as his successors have been right down the ages to this day. He told the Church at Corinth that people like that are like brass gongs – a lot of sound is made when the hammer strikes, but they make no music of their own: much reverberation, but no heart; much noise, but no love (cf. I Corinthians 13.1). Pope Francis says exactly the same about the poison of gossip, telling religious superiors this week that it actually be more honest to come to blows, so much more insidious and harmful is the hidden attack of pitiless, unloving gossip (Address to 54th National Assembly of Religious Superiors of Italy, 7 November 2014).

He has spoken, too, of Christians who are lukewarm and mediocre, people who look like Christians, but who are really worldly. He says, “They are enemies of the Cross of Christ. They take the name but they do not follow the responsibilities of Christian life. Do I like to brag? Do I like money? Do I like pride, arrogance?... These types of people get corrupted bit by bit and end up becoming pagan Christians” (Homily on 8 November, 2014, Santa Marta, Rome on Philippians 3.18). He is quoting St Paul, who saw the remedy to all this in self-giving love. For he points all those people who make trouble - all those obsessed with outward form, all those intruding their own anxieties into the souls of others - to the only thing that matters, to Jesus Christ on his Cross, the Cross that makes everything else beside the point. Appearance, law, immemorial custom, personal identity, self-realisation, individual spiritualities: all these mean nothing, unless we have become a new creation at the hand of Christ nailed to its Cross.

It is no accident that St Paul seizes on what must have seemed to be an endless and enervating fine argument about circumcision. It is as though he is saying, “Do you foolish Galatians not realise that when Jesus was circumcised, it was the first time He shed His blood for us? Do you not realise you are arguing about the Cross itself? Do you not see that all this argument about who gets to belong to the people of God - who can and can’t come in - has itself been crucified. With Christ’s death it has been killed off and, unlike Him it has not risen from the dead. Only Christ is alive and His resurrection is what has freed us to be made into new creations.

He tells them that marks he bears in his body are those caused by a Cross that ended his old life. They are also caused by the Resurrection freeing him to be made into something different now. “I have been crucified with Christ,” he has explained to them. “It is not any more I who live, but Christ who lives within me” (Galatians 2.20). His parting word is that this grace, the very living of Christ in a human soul, will be in their spirit too.

And what of us, with our conflicting thoughts, wants, feelings, grudges, self-pity, words, thoughts, excuses, dreams, conceit and sin? Are we the pagan Christians of which Pope Francis spoke, gradually corrupted by mediocrity, settling for less when we are free to have everything if, like the Lord we follow, we did but do justice, love mercy and walk humbly with our God? The devil would certainly like us to think so, crowding into us so many of his unclean spirits, to make us feel defeated and overwhelmed, tormented even by the attempt of Christ at relief, neuralgic even at the thought of his touch.

Instead, let us be the ones who call out “Save us,” to the one we can see is not the Punisher but the Lover of Mankind (Kontakion of Sunday, Tone 5). Let us long even to endure that crucifixion with Christ that made St Paul into a new creation. Let it be that just one spirit casts out all else, one spirit that dwells in us richly: Christ who is God’s love, Christ who is our unbreakable bonding with His Father. 

Fr Mark Woodruff