20 September 2015

Homily for a Memorial Requiem Mass for Principal Joseph Cassidy, St Chad's College, Durham, 20 September 2015

The words of this evening's liturgy and its prayers are substantially unaltered from the text that St Chad himself knew in Latin, doubtless by heart, when he said Mass for the departed as abbot of Lastingham, then as bishop at York for the Northumbrians and later at Lichfield for the Mercians. The hallowed use of centuries, therefore, stands behind us as we voice them once more for the repose of Joe's soul; for the mercy of our God Who created him out of love and longed for His creature's perfection and completion in the Kingdom of heaven; and as we offer the very action of God Himself in sacrifice so that the world might be saved - saved from sin and set free from all that holds us back from the Kingdom (cf. Romans 8.21) and keeps us short of the glory of God (Romans 3.23); and saved for the new creation we are intended to be when in the last day we will find how we never die because in Christ Who was crucified there is none other than resurrection and life without limit (cf John 11.17-27).

Not only St Chad but Joe Cassidy treasured these words, and the offering of this sacrifice, from deep within his being from the moment of his ordination as a priest in God's one, holy, Catholic Church. We know his journey from Catholic to Anglican; from Jesuit to husband and father. We know too that his spiritual formation remained integral to his personality and ministry; and his priestly vocation was of the essence of him. Where I stand now in this sanctuary, he stood once too. And I remember vividly and with some awe, the holy men who stood here before him: John Fenton, a great seer of the Lord in the Scriptures and wise in prayer; and Michael Ramsey, archbishop of Canterbury and an apostle of God's glory. Tonight it is the turn of Catholic "Chadsians" - thanks to the gracious invitation of Dr Ashley Wilson the Chaplain of our College - to add the most sacred act of our Religion to all the other prayers that have gone before. We do so in the same spirit of unity in grief, affection, missing what has been lost, desiring to do something generous that will aid Joe and this College to which he dedicated his life, and so in a spirit of close meeting and solidarity.

Our Mass, you may have noticed, has a slightly different register from the beautiful, moving, poignant and glorious Memorial Service at which we all assisted this afternoon in Durham Cathedral in the Anglican tradition. For instance, in our prayers we have named Joe with his full name. This is not to be stiff and formal but to recall his Baptism, when "Joseph" was given to him as the name by which the Father calls him in his heart of hearts to become His own adopted son (cf. Romans 8.15). Again, we wear black vestments, not to be miserable, but to be true to our mourning and also to our confidence that the night into which Joe went off, as he began his sleep in the peace of Christ, was not the night of guilt and lost goodness into which Judas fled, but more like the Dark Night of the Soul in which God, Whom we cannot see, warmly and sweetly works his wonder of silently, intangible recreating us, purifying us, making us holy, finishing His forgiveness of us, and utterly raising us from out of the dead. It is not for nothing that at Notre Dame in Paris the vestments worn on Easter Day, the Feast of Feasts, were black - sumptuous, woven with silver and gold, their most striking and beautiful, showing light against the dark, their most brilliant and their best.

With these ancient words and conventions, it is the most loving thing to do, to pray for the forgiveness of Joe's sins, not because we fear for him or accuse him but because we are assured of the Lord, seeing our condition, has nothing but unconditional mercy. It is the most loving thing we can do to plead for the repose of his soul, because we are believers in God's inexhaustible promise of Paradise. It is the most loving thing we can do to ask for his admission to the glory and joy of heaven, because we and Joe had long been united in confidence that we shared it, by this very foretaste of it in this world.

Much has been said of Joe's capacity for love and inspiration, as well as his passion for justice and righting what was wrong. I speak for not a few alumni, who had mourned our belonging to St Chad's through too many difficult episodes in its history or ours, leading to what looked like at one point like its almost inevitable demise. We had become strangers in our own land. Joe reached out to us and restored what was lost. He enabled us to take pride once more in our place in St Chad's life and history. He did not approach us merely because as alumni we could be useful; he just wanted us to be part of everything. "Not the things that are yours, by you yourselves" (II Corinthians 12.14, the College's motto) - Non vestra sed vos indeed.

And now it is our turn to reach out with the same love and zeal for him to be brought in, from the night of repose to the glory of living eternally in the midst of God's light and truth. A contemporary of mine at St Chad's reminded me this afternoon that in one of John Fenton's great sermons he had said, "People tend to think of heaven as all clouds. Another image of heaven in the Bible is a feast. I know which I would prefer it to be." When Joe came to St Chad's it was under very heavy clouds. By the grace of God, he made it into a banquet of life, belonging, love, learning and joy. Tonight we pray that out of the clouds of passing out of this world into the Kingdom of heaven, like his Ascended Lord before him, aided by our prayers and the power of this sacrifice, Joe will enter upon the eternal feasting of life and love and joy.

17 September 2015

Homily for the Twenty-Fourth Sunday in Ordinary Time, 13th September 2015, St Mary's Cadogan Street, SW3

Who do you say that I am? (Mark 8.27-35)

Jesus is not interested in public opinion, or chatter, theories or ideas. It comes down to this: Who am I to you? What am I to you? St Peter replies, “You are the Anointed One”.
This is a vast statement. We, of course, filter his answer through centuries of speaking of Christ, as if it were a surname, or even of the Messiah, by which we can tend to think of an emissary from heaven to bring our times to their fulfilment and their end.

But Peter knew he was saying far more. He rejected the idea that Jesus was a Prophet, even the greatest like Elijah. Nor was he a prophet like the much loved and inspiring John, even though they were cousins from related families. He did not say that Jesus was a king, because the monarchy in Israel at the time was a foreign dynasty and a puppet government of the Roman Empire. Nor did he say that Jesus was a priestly figure, because, while the Temple was the Temple and the law required the People to go there and offer sacrifice and the priests had sacred duties to perform, the functionaries there had long since lost touch with the people’s life and faith, as Jesus’ satire, the Parable of the Good Samaritan, with its unflattering portrait of Temple priests and Levites of people with neither purpose nor respect, powers to be worked around rather than powers that manifested the Kingdom of God.
Peter simply says, “You are the Anointed One from God” (cf. St Luke’s account). He is expressing the ancient faith of the Hebrews, long discarded by the priests and the kings in Jerusalem, that God not only visits His people but dwells in their midst with power and wisdom and brilliance. He does not speak to them only in texts and Scriptures, or govern them with laws and authorities. He is present to them, He stands before them and they stand before Him. They worship Him with both love and recognising insight; while He bestows on them light and joy, and help and blessing. Most of all, He bonds with them.

This is how St Paul will soon be writing, “Nothing can separate us from the love of God which is in Christ Jesus,” (Romans 8.39) and also, “It is not I who live but Christ Who lives within me.”(Galatians 2.20) It is how Jeremiah wrote, “They will be My people and I will be their God.”(Jeremiah 32.38) It is how Job was able to reflect, “I know that my Redeemer lives, and at the last He will stand upon the earth. In my flesh, I shall see God … Him and no other.” (Job 19. 25f.)
To Peter, Jesus stands on the earth, close to the springs of Caesarea Philippi. He sees no priest, king or prophet but God His Redeemer, the one the country and the desert people had been expecting for centuries, the living manifestation of God With Us. In the ancient first Temple on the mountain in Jerusalem, it used to be that the successors of King David were bathed in fresh water, anointed head to foot in perfumed oil, and clothed in white array, before entering the Holy of Holies as the highest and greatest embodiment of all God’s People, taking them with him on his heart, and conscience and his very life into the very place of God’s Presence. There he was enthroned in light, and acclaimed as God’s own adopted son, united with Him in the Spirit and the exaltation of heaven. He would then descend, not bringing his own majesty, but bestowing blessing, forgiveness, healing and the power – as Jesus would later put it in His own prayer – the power to live in God’s Kingdom on earth, as it is in heaven.
Ancient kings were looked on as somehow embodying the coming of God into the world. But here it was for real in what St Peter saw before his eyes in that moment of truth beside the clear waters: “God’s Presence and His very Self, and Essence all divine.” (Cardinal Newman, Praise to the Holiest in the height, from The Dream of Gerontius)
The question, “But you, who do you say that I am?”, is one that will not go away. To people who think themselves modern and developed, He is just the founder of another world faith. We have heard it all in this week’s debate in Parliament on whether it is right and moral to assist someone in the termination of their lives. We are hearing it echo in our national dilemma over how to allow immigration manageably and yet also respond to the desperation of our fellow human beings who are fleeing towards us for their lives. We hear in the exchanges of the markets, where humanity is not only the customer, but a commodity and in some cases a loss.
If Jesus is just a great human spiritual leader, we are free to form our judgment and follow him or not accordingly. But if He is God, God with Us, then there are consequences, because what we are saying is that this is not just a pious belief, but the way the universe is actually arranged. God is everything. We stand in order before Him, the One from God Who has brought to us the principles of how the Kingdom of heaven is arranged, not the realms of this world.
In the end, as so often with how Jesus speaks, the question and the story is not actually about Himself, but about us. He is in fact asking us, “Well, now you know Who I am, what does that make of you? Who do you say that YOU are?” The word Christian does not just mean a follower of Christ. It also means someone who has been christened: someone who, like Christ, is an Anointed One, someone from God.
In other words, can I be what Peter saw in Jesus so clearly in that moment of truth beside the waters? Am I a door for the sheep or a block to the Kingdom? Am I one who comes into church, washed in baptism, anointed in chrism and united with the Lord on His throne of brilliance, consumed with His own Body and Blood, only to come out somehow without being the living embodiment of His joy, His blessing, His reconciliation, His peace, His truth, His forgiveness, or the hope of His Kingdom? Am I Light of the World, or one who just wants the light shining on me to turn away, while I prefer to carry on untroubled in the dark?  This is not just about doing good, or better, deeds. It is about a state of being: “Who do you say that You are? If I am Christ, so too are you.” What would happen if we could recast that verse of Cardinal Newman’s hymn:
O, that a higher gift than grace – to me!Should flesh and blood refine – mine!
God’s presence and His very Self – in me!
And Essence all divine – that God may be seen through me!

The prophet Micah tells us to “Do justice, love mercy and walk humbly with your God.” (Micah 6.8). This truly is the way to the Kingdom and we keep the path clear and well lit by treading it. But ours is not a meek and mild faith, and nor is our following after Christ. The Kingdom is awkward. It does not fit the world, and the world does not fit the Kingdom. That is why Christ came to it with light, with truth, with love to reconcile what has gone wrong to what puts it right. The Lord Who healed, inspired, revealed and transformed water into wine, and death into life, is also the Lord Who opposes what he encounters, Who turned over the tables in the Temple, Who rebuked Peter, cursed the fig tree, and was such a figure of contradiction that He was put to death on the Cross.

So, when the Lord asks us, “Who are you saying that you are?” and we reply, “Christians, Anointed Ones, the ones who follow You, People from God”, we remember His answer: “Well that means renouncing yourself and taking up your own cross too.” Then if, like St Paul, we get to the point of saying, “It is not I who live, but Christ who lives within me,” it is not because we have shed some light and joy, hope and reconciliation, and blessing in the world. It is because what shines through is a person who is Christlike not by virtue or religious prowess, but because everything has been penetrated by the cross of self-giving sacrifice and unconditional love toward God and to all. If that is Who I say Jesus Christ is, then that is what I say I am to be.

15 September 2015

Homily for the Fifteenth Sunday after Pentecost and the Sash of the Mother of God, Ukrainian Catholic Cathedral of the Holy Family, London

The celebration of installing the Sash of the Mother of God at a Church in Constantinople seems to fit well a Sunday of the Sixth Tone. For today’s Troparion hints at the Annunciation, when the Son of God becomes incarnate in His mother’s womb, as something to be revealed in the moment of His Resurrection out of death.

Just as the power of the Most High God overshadowed Mary to receive within her a Son from the Holy Spirit, so now “angelic powers were upon Your Tomb … Lord”, signifying the action of the Holy Spirit present at the raising of her Son from the dead.

Just as the Blessed Virgin asked, “How can this be?”, and was told that the Son within her was “God-with-us”, so now another Mary seeks out the Lord in His flesh, and understands that “God-with-us” is not “God-within-a-Tomb”.

Just as the Virgin’s womb contained the Creator of the Universe without confining Him, so now the Lord who “captured Hades without being overcome by it”, fills not only the Tomb but also “all the dead from that murky abyss, and bestowed Resurrection upon humanity” (today’s Kontakion). Through Mary’s womb comes the Life of the World; out of the Tomb comes the Giver of that Life.

In the Kontakion of the Feast, we went on to sing, “Your womb which received divinity was girded about by your precious sash, O Mother of God.” How has this sash anything to do with this Life of Christ; is it not simply a legend? The sash, otherwise known as a cincture or belt, is a garment made of camel hair, the largest remnant of which is preserved at the Vatopedi monastery on Mount Athos. There are other pieces in Georgia, Prato in Tuscany and at the Monastery-Shrine of St Matthias in Trier, Germany. From early times it was kept by the Christians of Jerusalem, who believed it had been entrusted to them, having belonged to the Virgin Mary. In the 400s, it was taken to Constantinople, the political capital of the Roman Christian world, where it was placed with honour in the Church of St Mary Chalkopatreia, not far from Hagia Sophia. Four centuries later, the Empress Zoe was seriously ill and received a vivid intuition that the Sash, if placed upon her, would heal her. Her husband Emperor Leo VI authorised the Patriarch to do as Zoe desired. Thus, just as the Lord told those whom He healed, “Your faith has made you whole”, so it was that the Empress was cured. During the course of a thousand years the sash was seen as a healing, protecting force in the City of Constantinople and thus the whole Christian world, a guarantee of the generosity and intercession of the Mother of God. So we have sung to her as the “protection of humans”, “might bulwark for your city”, “unconquerable force”, “generous treasury of good things”, her in whom “nature and time are made new”. For that which we celebrate today is not merely supernatural aid, or inspiration from God’s strength, but the fact that the Resurrection has changed everything, and now we live in our nature differently.

St Paul speaks of this as a treasure kept in a jar, something at work in the world yet coming from God, reflecting light from the face of Jesus Christ (II Corinthians 4.6-7). He describes how we are struck down but not destroyed, so that, while we always carry in our bodies the death that is Jesus’s too, in those same bodies what is also made visible is his life. He almost sings this, and it always sounds to me like a refrain in a hymn: “Death is at work in us, but Life in you!” The One Who raised the Lord Jesus, he informs us, will raise us into His presence too. And then we took up the theme in the Alleluia, when we called on the Lord to rise up to the place of His rest with the ark of His holiness (Psalm 131.8). This ask is the vessel who bore His divinity into the human race, Mary, who is now the human being borne out of mortal life into the presence of her Risen Son. And then, in the Gospel of the Feast we are taken into a house where another Mary is sitting at the Lord’s feet, listening to every word He says (Luke 10.38-42). St Luke notes that her name is the same as the Mother of God’s. It is deliberate, because he goes on to report the words of Jesus: that those who are blessed are those who hear the word of God and obey it (Luke 11.27-28). This lady in a house in a village is being like Mary. For the Lord is saying that to praise Mary for being His Mother is to misunderstand her; she is blessed because she heard Him, the Word, speaking in the depth of her soul and answered Him in faith and complete self-giving.

So we are back at the moment of the Annunciation, when Mary hears the Word from the Angel and says, “Let it be done to me as you have said.” She has rested in His presence from that moment on, and He in hers. At that moment, it is her womb that brings forth the Life of the World; one day it will be the Tomb of death, out of which will come the Creator of its Life. From that moment, Christ has been “God with Us”. From the moment of the Resurrection, it changes round: “our earthbound souls arise” (Charles Wesley, “Hark, the herald angels sing”), and now it is to be “Us with God” - at His feet hearing every word He says, carrying in our body the death of Jesus so that it shows His life made visible, singing, “Death is at work in us, but Life in You!”

And this brings us to the most intriguing past of the story of the Sash. The reason the Christians of Jerusalem had kept it with such love was because it had been entrusted to them by St Thomas, when he left to bring the gospel to Persia and on to India. Their account was that he had been delayed from returning to Jerusalem and had missed the funeral of the Mother of Our Lord. On his way to visit her resting place, instead he saw her assumption to heaven, during which she held out her belt to him, and left it behind in the world in his care as a sign of the power of Christ risen, and raising, from the dead: “Death is at work in us, but life in you!”

This incident is not recorded in our Scriptures, but the story of a possession preserved as a tangible connection with a deeply loved figure is not only reasonable to believe, it is deeply resonant with our incarnational religion where touch and physical form are intended to connect the spiritual to us and convey us to the spiritual: the sacraments, the icons, the relics of saints and the churches too. Besides, like much of our oral tradition that runs parallel to the Scriptures, in truth we have all the elements of the Gospel story and the proclamation of the Apostles brought together. Here is the womb that bore God into His world; here is the garment that covered it, now resembling the grave-clothes left behind after His Resurrection on the Third Day; here is the urgent, convincing faith of St Thomas in the sheer physical impact of the destruction of death; here is another Empty Tomb, once again not the end to a life but the Entrance to the Kingdom; here is the God who raised the Lord Jesus, now before Thomas’ eyes raising those who belong to Christ and bringing them into His presence. This is, as St Paul would soon be saying, “so that grace, as it extends to more and more people, may increase thanksgiving to the glory of God.” What begins in Christ, now takes up Mary, and will take us in turn. Thus, to St Paul, we may be a glory treasured in earthen jars, but a light now shining in our hearts reflects outwards the face of Jesus Christ himself.

When we look at the Mother of God, the Lord asks us not to praise her for being His Mother, or even for the great fame of her exaltation, though it is perhaps deliberate that this feast falls just two weeks after her Dormition and Assumption. Instead the Lord asks us to see her as St Thomas did, as the first of His beloved People in whom His promised Resurrection came to life before our eyes, “always being given up to death for Jesus’ sake, so that the life of Jesus may be made visible in our … flesh. So ‘Death is at work in us, but life in you!’”

What was true for St Thomas, for Empress Zoe (whose name, incidentally, means life), for the City of Constantinople and for the Christian civilisation it spread throughout the East of Europe, is true for us. Everything has changed in us; up we are taken, and not left behind. This is how we must see ourselves if the world is to see God in Us and Us in God. When the aeroplane lands at Lviv in Ukraine and you drive into the city, everywhere you see the image of the Protection of the Mother of God, as she holds out her sash as though we too are Thomas, looking for belief and faith to be confirmed, for signs and protection to be granted, and healing and hope to be assured. So it is, because she is raised into God’s presence, that she is the Protector and Treasury of good things and the Mother that we acclaim. It is because her Son is constantly “at Resurrection” in her and now in us that our souls know that nothing is the same as it was and all has changed since through her our “nature and time are made new.”