14 November 2015

Homily on the Seventh Tone Resurrection Hymns, Heavenly Hundreds, the Justice of Christ and the Massacre in Paris, 14/15 November 2015

The Byzantine Divine Liturgy, in the view of many Western people, is ornate and richly complex. In fact, while the prayers are longer than those in the Latin tradition and an obvious difference is the cumulative and insistent effect of the numerous litanies, its basic shape is quite similar to those of the mass of the Latin rite, suggesting a common tradition in the Church’s early days in the Roman Empire. In the core of the service there is even less variation than at a Roman Catholic Mass. The prayers hardly ever vary; the Introit is always the same – The Trisagion which is the response to Psalm 79; the Great Entrance or Offertory is nearly always the Cherubic Hymn, being the refrain to Psalm 23; and set verses from Psalms 22, 56 and 113 are sung every time –  "Save Your people and bless You inheritance"; "Be exalted, O God above the heavens"; "Blessed be the Name of the Lord!" The Scripture readings and the psalms linked to them for the Sunday or Feast are almost all that changes. This is how it developed in the Great Church of Hagia Sophia in Constantinople, and this is the Liturgy that was shared across the Eastern Roman Empire and up into Eastern Europe, and now across the world.

Except to say that in the ninth century, a monastic renewal flowered in a monastery in the south-western corner of the vast City of Constantinople, the famous Stoudion, or the Studite monastery led by St Theodore, who with his collaborators gathered together all the Christian hymns from the Greek, Syrian, Jerusalem and Sinai desert monasteries and cathedrals they could find, including those of St Romanos the Melodist, St Ephrem Syrus and St John Damascene. They arranged them into great cycles of weekly, daily, festival and seasonal hymns, mostly to add rich variety to the unchanging psalms of the monastic offices, but also so that great Christian poetry could bring out the meaning of the Scriptures and canticles as they reflect upon Christ and teach reveal His power of redemption. Each Sunday, we notice that these hymns are grouped according to one of the eight tones of Byzantine liturgical musical theory. Today we use Tone 7, which is known as the Grave Tone on account of its sweet but sometimes plaintive tone. In the west, for instance, this is the scale used for the gentle melody that opens the Requiem Mass. But in the East, the eight sets of Sunday hymns, are always about the Resurrection; and they glorify Jesus Christ for being risen from the dead and being the conqueror even of our destruction. So it makes no difference if the Tone uses a musical scale that to our modern Western ears sounds major, or minor, subdued, exotic, plaintive or joyful – each mood is a lens through which to view the Resurrection. Each kind of “mood music” thus becomes yet another way for the Resurrection to approach us and make itself understood whatever our disposition, whatever our circumstances, whatever our personality.

So it is no surprise that the main chants for each Sunday, weekday and feast gained popularity among the faithful. They were borrowed from the services of the monks and added to the Divine Liturgy with the highest place of honour in their own right – the very last of the songs to be sung as the priest arrives at the Altar itself. Thus it has been for over a thousand years; thus we have sung them today. It is as if a different way of praising Christ sets us up each Sunday to hear His Word, to behold Him in His Mysteries, to welcome Him in His Temple, to receive Him Who is our God into our human lives - as He once took the flesh that he raised from the dead, and as He will more and more receive us who are humans into His own life, the very life of God the Trinity.

I cannot help but feel that the chants for this Twenty-Fourth Sunday after Pentecost, a Sunday of the Seventh Tone, are so deeply poignant this weekend, as we pray in shock at the murder of 127 innocent people in Paris, with many other critically injured too, by cowardly members of a psychopathic death-cult pretending to follow God and the path of Islam. At the same time, we remember the millions displaced and degraded by false Muslims across the Middle East, including our own brothers and sisters who have been called upon to give their lives for others and for Christ.

So today’s Troparion speaks of lamentation, but also how the Cross of Christ destroys death.  Once death has done its worst, what is left is mercy, capable of opening the door of Paradise, just like the stone rolled away from the Tomb that shows to the mourners that God’s new reality for humanity has prevailed, and in the midst of lamentation there can be signs of hope and joy.

Likewise, the Kontakion realises that death has no hold over us. Christ too, it says, “went down”; but the collapse shattered the power that drags humanity down, and falls in on top of it.

Then the Theotokion, the hymn to the Mother of God, confronts the fact that, if all that is true, then it is not just something that happened to Jesus in ancient history, nor is it purely something that we have to look forward to after we have ended life here, and passed upon our way: it turns everything inside out now. For Mary is the treasury of Christ’s Resurrection from before she gave birth, through to this very moment and beyond. It was then that she brought us up from the pit, when our Salvation – not an idea or an act but a Person - was born; and it is now that we are saved as she pushes us out, by our own hope, from the depth, towards the Resurrection. And, again, the Resurrection is no mere idea, nor an act, but a Person. So He says to us, as our hope turns toward His voice, “Come forward – come to the Resurrection”.

The Catholic and Orthodox Churches of Ukraine are conscious of a special bond with “those who are persecuted for the sake of righteousness”, by those who “insult… and utter every kind of evil word falsely” (Matthew 5), because less than two years ago 130 defenceless, civilian protesters in Kyiv, mostly Christians seeking a peaceful resolution to their society’s problems - and demonstrating for nothing more than you and I in Britain take for granted as our birth-rights of honesty, truth, freedom and democracy - were killed by the forces of a corrupted state. In Ukraine these innocent, brave and hope-filled people are revered as the Heavenly Hundred. So very many of them were Eastern Christians, Catholics and Orthodox, whose spiritual life was constantly animated by the rhythms, hymns and music of the Byzantine tradition of the Church’s worship. Every eight weeks they will have heard the same songs we have sung today and taken them to heart, living with the Cross, with Salvation, with the Resurrection as second nature - the simple truth of what it is to live in this world as in the next, on earth as it is in heaven, in my own skin as if in Christ’s, joyful in Christ’s life because on my own I can do nothing.

And now in France, as in Iraq and Syria, Egypt and Libya - and also as in London ten years ago and New York in 2001 - more people are being robbed of their lives and hopes, by the enemies of righteousness and the Kingdom of Heaven (The Beatitudes, Matthew 5, Third Antiphon). What does our confidence in Christ say to them and to the devastated friends and family who love them, as well as to the fear of the rest of us who wonder what more lies ahead? There is a message that not many will want to hear at the moment, but it is the message that dwelt in the heart of the Heavenly Hundred in Kyiv and richly with our fellow Christian Copts who, on the seashore of Libya moments before their martyrdom, calmly prayed, “Lord, have mercy.” It is the message of our salvation, the message of the Cross, the message of the Resurrection, the message of the Person who is our life, our hope. Here it is in the readings that, providentially, our Church has appointed for the Twenty-Fourth Sunday after Pentecost in uneven years:
"If you want the world to change and for the Kingdom of God to come:

-         Love your enemies and do good. Be children of the Most High who is kind to the ungrateful and wicked. Be merciful as your Father is merciful. (Luke 6. 35-36)

Why? Because you must never forget, even when you pray for the thorns in the flesh to be taken away:

-         My grace is sufficient for you. For my power is made perfect in weakness. (II Corinthians12. 8-9)

So, "blessed are those who are persecuted for the sake of righteousness. For theirs is the Kingdom of Heaven." May this Kingdom come on earth, as it is in heaven.

“O Mother of God, all-praised treasury of our Resurrection, we hope in you; bring us from the pit… for you have given birth to our Salvation.”


Homily on Mercy for the Nineteenth Sunday after Pentecost, 11th October 2015, Ukrainian Catholic Cathedral, London

It is striking that, when Pope Francis speaks of mercy, it is always in such a physical way. He speaks of balm; we all know the soothing touch of bathing and ointment, as relief on the surface soaks in to refresh, or heal the person inside. Pope Francis speaks of how mercy is the opposite of beating people up with condemnation; water poured on a dry garden to make justice flourish; the opening of door that lets the unbeliever in. He also recalls how the father did not wait for the Prodigal Son to knock on his door, but ran out to embrace the one looking for the way back.

In the world of religion, to judge from the way we speak sometimes, it seems to be all about ideas, principles, articles of belief, laws and texts. Of course, they all help us to clarify what we believe about Christ and how we follow Him more faithfully. But they are not an end in themselves: it is people for whom the Lord came. And the tool that God has given to His Church is not theory in words, but theory in practice and the name he has given it is mercy. It seems to me that Pope Francis has changed the entire nature of our discourse about matters of pastoral care and justice, perhaps for decades to come. Thus it is all very easy to talk of justice and mercy, but he insists to us, they have to take form in physical ways, for concrete people, with practical help that, just like the balm and the wronged father’s loving embrace of a forgiven son, lets the blessing sink in, as the heart changes out of sheer gladness. This is why our God took flesh and became a man. This is why he felt real pain all through a true death. This is why he rose from that death, not as a religious myth, but in the flesh. This is why the Church has been given sacraments to use so that from the other side of reality, heaven can touch our bodies in the world and enter our inner beings to take them into the Kingdom, grace by grace. It is interesting that the Pope quotes St Bernard, the great Father of the Cistercian Order, which has stressed how both the work of prayer in choir and practical tasks and labour out of love unite in the contemplative monk so that there is no escapism into the world of the mind but heart, soul and body are all at one in God – a spirituality that is incarnate and concrete, just as the hard practical fact of human existence is also thoroughly path in the Spirit. St Bernard says, “My merit is God’s mercy. I am by no means lacking in merit as long as He is rich in mercy.” This is no sentiment, no pious wording. It is the experience of a life lived physically as well as spiritually, with struggle, adversity, but also joy that comes from mercy.

What then is this mercy? We think of mercy as exceptional to justice, a begrudged pardon, being let off. In response we may explain its virtues: loving-kindness and self-sacrifice, sacred-heartedness, and restoration, all borne of forgiveness, which changes everything. But these virtues are not mere attitudes: they, are concrete in the fellow-feeling of One Who lived among us and died and rose again in one of our bodies. Christ’s compassion is in miracles that happened not in the mind but to things and people, the tender care from hands that turn tables as well as bless.

But why should Christ be merciful and ask us to be merciful too? (cf. Luke 6.36 – Be merciful, just as your Father is merciful). In Psalm 88.3, King David says, “Mercy shall be built up for ever; in the heavens Your truth shall be prepared.” So mercy is the perpetual heavening of earth. Recall what happened when Caesar Augustus issued his decree, “the whole world being at peace”. Not long afterwards, a host of angels appeared praising God and saying, “Glory to God in highest heaven and on earth peace to people on whom His favour rests.” In our Liturgy we call those people the ones with good will. So it seems to me that our first thought, when contemplating what mercy can mean to the world and for its people, is that we need to begin with God’s own perspective. Beholding His universe, and the creatures within it, He saw it to be very good. God’s thought to be merciful first arises from His view from the outset that creation is good.

The second thought is that in the Good Creation things are amiss, and so are we. To some the remedy is tighter control, tougher punishment, humiliation, shame, force of correction, or even resorting to magic. But to God, it is to be all mercy, for forgiveness is what is needed to break the cycle. Our nature’s fall from grace marred God’s image in us, and to see that clear again is what he is searching for. The ultimate disfigurement of God’s image in us was to put His own beauty to death on the Cross. But in that most extreme of emergencies, when God Himself is torn inside out through our humanity, nothing perturbs the Word of God from breathing out the mercy He came to say: “Father, forgive them.”

So God is merciful because He sees what He created is good, and what is amiss He will forgive. But He will not leave it there. In His moment of bloodshed with words of judgment that pronounce for ever our absolute forgiveness, we are reminded that the word we translate as ‘holy’ in our Liturgy in Latin is ‘sanctus’, which means something that has been bloodied. The priests, the altar, the veil in the Temple, were consecrated from being spattered with sacrificial blood. This was what enabled them to serve God’s purpose in His presence. It brought about communion between God and humanity. In the same way, everything, everyone, that Christ shed His blood for has not just been forgiven, redeemed, or saved. It is to be made holy. So the third to God’s mercy is that it takes a world that God perceives to be good, forgives it, and then makes it holy.

But are these not just religious ideas? What about those practicalities we were so struck by? In the Latin Catholic Church, there is a special Eucharistic Prayer for Various Needs, in praise of Christ Who ‘went about doing good’. It reads:

It is truly right and just, our duty and our salvation, to give You thanks at all times and in all places, Father of mercies and faithful God. For You have given us Jesus Christ, Your Son, as Lord and Redeemer. To children and the poor, to the sick and the sinners, always He showed that He Himself is the Merciful One, and made Himself close to those who are oppressed and afflicted.

So Christ is not merciful because He is the Son of a Father of mercies, or because it is how He feels, or because it is how He has decided to act. He is the Merciful One: Mercy itself.

Therefore the fourth aspect of mercy to bear in mind is that, as well as God’s regard for the world as good, His forgiveness and His resolve to make us holy, Mercy is the nature of God and it takes flesh in the person of Christ and hence in us. Christ’s aim is to ‘make One New Man … in One Body…”, bringing all that is lost, amiss and discarded to the lifting up of God on His Cross – thus into His Ascension and His Kingdom, so that nothing lies beyond its power to heal and change, with new reasons for living and being.

When we say so insistently in the Eastern Liturgy, “Lord, have mercy”, we bring ourselves back to the Merciful One, we find it is more the truth that He is for ever returning to us, meeting us before we reach Him, always attracted to us and never repelled by our ugliness, never begrudging compassion, never merely tolerant.  And we are to be like that in turn, “merciful as your Father is merciful” – to be mercy as Christ is mercy personified. As Pope Francis reminds us from the words of St Bernard, “I am by no means lacking in merit as long as God is rich in mercy.” My merits are Christ’s: if God is mercy, so I am mercy too.

If God regards me as good, forgivable, potentially holy, and - even more than that - someone who can be so united in His life that I can become all mercy too, what does it make of me now? How am I to go on? The Prophet Micah tells us to “do justice, love mercy and walk humbly with your God” and yet there is something even more.

In Psalm 84, King David sings that “mercy and truth have met together”. So the merciful and those in need of mercy encounter each other in the light of truth. For Cardinal Newman, Blessed John Henry, this was a resonant conviction – it all comes down to the facing of two facts: the truth about the individual and the truth about Christ - and thus the inevitable effect. Either the individual turns away, unable to bear the presence of truth – not so much the truth about God, but the truth about “myself” in the light of God’s face; or else the individual comes forward into the light and feels the touch of the Creator wanting back the person He has made, of His forgiveness, His holiness, union with Him and existence in His own life, the summit of mercy. So mercy and truth indeed meet, not as formerly estranged but as the reality of each other.

To some, mercy (misericordia, with its undertone of meaning a saddened and even impoverished heart) is too exquisitely painful to bear. This is why mercy is often described as tender. It and we are neuralgic when it is applied and gets to work. It is no wonder that people reject it and insulate themselves from it: there is too much pain to go through. But God wants us, not our insulation, not our disguise, or our wrapping - whether it comes out of sin, or pain, or injustice, or from the belief that we must appear to be something we do not have it in our nature to be. God cannot be merciful to a disguise, only to the real person in which He seeks to view His own image, uncovered and shining back at Him.

So our understanding of mercy applied to us, and how we apply it to others, concerns a search for integrity – how the world ought to be, how we ought to be, how I ought to be, how we are true, and good, and heaven’s citizens on earth. To be merciful as our Father is merciful involves uncovering the disguise hiding the true person, with our true nature. So I am very struck by how, in Pope Francis’ recent decree reforming the Church Marriage Tribunals, he speaks of the judicial process becoming ‘converted’ to the ends of mercy. Indeed this is the way to get to the truth; and the truth will set you free.

Charles Wesley put it this way:

He left His Father’s throne above
So free, so infinite His grace—
Emptied Himself of all but love,
And bled for Adam’s helpless race:
’Tis mercy all, immense and free,
For O my God, it found out me! (from "And can it be)

Mercy does not just find you, it finds you out. So: mercy – good, forgiven, holy, one and new in Christ, the very being of His mercy, converted wholly to shining out as the living image of God, true and free.