25 November 2016

St Andrew Dung-Lac and Signs of the Light, Homily at the Ordinariate Mass, Church of the Most Precious Blood, The Borough, Southwark, 24 November 2016

The Emperor Minh Mang, at whose behest St Andrew Dung-Lac was executed, ruled Vietnam in strict accordance with Confucian philosophy. Its stress on the importance of family and social harmony did not rely on a spiritual or supernatural worldview for its values. There was religion, of course, with temples, gods and offerings to be made to them; but it served to conform the divine powers and unseen forces to the needs and priorities of humans, rather than the other way round.

The activity of Catholic priests in the 17th, 18th and early 19th centuries told a rather different story. Here was word of a king whose Kingdom was not of this world, who had set about making the earth into a realisation of heaven, and who was not an unseeable mythical hero, but a man of flesh and blood, recognised as God among us because He banished the power of evil and injustice not by the imposition of power, but by His absolute self-sacrifice. His Cross was thus more powerful than any earthly lord, however much they might strive to establish order and harmony, because it unlocks unbounded love, and the vital preceding steps of unconditional forgiveness and the gift to trust in God. Here was a king not just to be revered, but to be loved. Here was a man who did not think He could rule heaven and manipulate it for earthly objectives: here was The Man who embodies heaven and changes the world to heavenward aims.

You can imagine St Andrew Dung Lac in 1839, and others like St Joseph Marchand, who went before him to martyrdom in 1835, St Pierre Borie likewise beheaded in 1838 and St Jean Charles Cornay in 1837: they were seen as subversives, unsettling the harmony of society and turning “proper religion” upside down. No wonder that Emperor Minh Mang called Christianity “the European Darkness”. Not for the first time were Christians seen as impious, and enemies of the plain light of the common good.

But the Lord has told us in the Gospel (Luke 21. 20-28) that you will only see the Son of Man coming in power and the great light of glory, out of a sun and a moon and stars that have been darkened by signs of agony in the world, menaces that fill people with fear, and misery and violence across every land. In other words, when we read the adversity in our times and our lives for meaning, we Christians are to look into them not for vindication, or revenge on the enemy, but for the working out of the purposes of God in the world, according to the pattern of His own life when He lived it in our own flesh. As we pray each year, Christ “went not up to joy but first He suffered pain, and entered not into glory before He was crucified”. Thus the same Christ who walked in Galilee and gave Himself for our sakes in unreserved love and forgiveness, is the Christ who is active in the world now and who will come at the End of Time; there is no other Christ. And we know in our hearts that this is our life, too: no Cross, no Crown.

Yesterday at Westminster Cathedral, Aid to the Church in Need arranged Red Wednesday, when it was bathed, in common with many other Church buildings, in red light to recall the bloodshed of the martyrs. This is not for pity, or bitterness, or even for special Christian pleading, but to confess our trust in Christ and the innocent blood He poured out for us, when He went before us to perfect our faith. Present at the Mass was the Syriac Orthodox patriarch, Mor Ignatius Aphrem II, whose community in Syria and Iraq alongside the Catholic, Orthodox and Assyrian Churches has borne the wood of the Cross to follow Christ as He foretold. But what is remarkable about the Christians of the Middle East and their bishops like Mor Ignatius Aphrem who encourage them is the faith, the confidence in God, and the joy that never ceases to shine through. It was Pope Tawadros of Alexandria, head of the Coptic Orthodox Church, who noted that when the possessed Islamic State murdered his migrant-worker flock on a Libyan beach, the young men simply said, “Lord, have mercy,” before they died. They knew that their Redeemer lives and that in their flesh they would stand and see God in His Presence, behold Him not a stranger. No words of revenge, no unforgiving curses, no bitter defiance. Just the appeal of sinners to have the grace to be forgiving, that we may likewise find forgiveness, and bring into the world slightly more love than there is at the moment.

This is the life of heaven: to be free not only of sin but of grudges and hate, free of belief in power that can strike down, freed up for the enduring, imperturbable, inexhaustible impetus of love.

To the world, this is obscure, mysterious, convoluted, twisting reality. How can the Syriac Orthodox Patriarch of Antioch smile and profess his unshakable belief in the Resurrection of Christ and humanity in the flesh? How can he spout this when all around is death, and the worst abuse and destruction cries out for redress? How can he speak of forgiveness from such weakness? But this Christian darkness is just to us how things are in the light of the Light of the World.

“Let your light so shine before men,” He said, “that they may see your good works and glorify your Father which is in heaven.” Let your works be goodness, virtue, mercy, forgiveness, love and persevering trust in Christ and His promises, and the Son of Man’s glory will be seen in who YOU are, and HOW you are, and how you act. The Kingdom of Christ the Son of Man will be seen coming in power and great glory for now by no other means. Then the Light will shine in the world through you.

St Andrew Dung-Lac, pray for us.
Martyrs of Vietnam, pray for us.
Martyrs of Iraq, Syria, Egypt and Libya, pray for us.
Martyrs wherever Christ’s goodness and forgiveness are hated, pray for us.

And wherever darkness calls itself reality, wherever it withholds mercy and calls it justice, wherever it shrouds people so they cannot see their hope, as God the Word spoke first to our Creation: “Let there be Light.”

17 November 2016

Doctor Strange and the Miracle from within: Homily for the Twenty-First Sunday after Pentecost, Ukrainian Catholic Cathedral of the Holy Family of London, 13th November 2016

Those who have been to see the wonderful super-hero film Doctor Strange, will be aware of the tale of a virtuoso neuro-surgeon, who is brought down in the midst of his pride, after crashing his car. Losing the skill of his hands, he turns to the supposedly mystic east for arcane wisdom and supernatural powers, in order to recover his dexterity and thus his former self-image. He meets a spiritual master, who tells him that his problems arise from his conceit, and that he must undo all that he thinks and believes, and start with genuine humility to learn to be who he is meant to become all over again. As the story unfolds and Doctor Strange unlearns his self-centred life, he discovers not only the difference between good and evil, but also the hidden moral force for good that guides and guards the universe, the potency of which he begins to harness.

But as his hands acquire different new powers, we begin to scent that all is not as it seems. Doctor Strange defends himself from the attacks of supernatural enemies; he contains their activities; he slips in and out of the different overlapping universes; he rolls back time to restore good and out-manoeuvre the evil consumed with bitterness, vengeance and violence. He resets history. And then it begins to dawn on those who have contended in the struggle for good to prevail over evil that, while they won, the power they drew upon was the same as the power drawn on by evil, and that they have broken the morality of their code not to subvert the laws of nature in pursuit of good. Finally, it is laid bare that the spiritual master who has provided a moral compass throughout must thus herself be deeply flawed. She has nurtured and protected Doctor Strange; but the powers to circumvent the order of the universe that she has forbidden to her disciples are those which she has relied upon to achieve for herself a life eternal.

As I watched the film to the unravelling of its moral, I kept thinking, “The end does not justify the means” and those who say “Let us do evil that good may come of it” (Romans 3.8). I also thought that the eternal life promised by harnessing the hidden force at the heart of creation is only the promise of Satan to Christ on the mountain height – “Fall down and worship me, and all this will be Yours” (Matthew 4.8-9). In other words, the Kingdom, whose blessedness we sing and aspire to so often when we celebrate the Divine Liturgy, does not come by force, and power imposed on people from outside and beyond the world. It is the solidity of virtue grown and resilient from within the soul of each heart and each society. Even in The Lord of the Rings, the good wizard Gandalf’s powers are futile, when it comes down to a straight battle in the world between real good and real evil. Again and again, the evil power of Sauron forgets the lesson he is forced to learn only after he has been defeated - evil gets exhausted; it runs out, while virtue and holiness arise out of the limitless store of freely given love that is the principle on which the universe is created and sustained as it proceeds. This is what is meant by Aslan, the redeeming and self-sacrificing Lion in C.S. Lewis’s Chronicles of Narnia, when he speaks of “the Deeper Magic from Beyond the Dawn of Time” (The Lion, the Witch and The Wardrobe, chapter 15): God works His power upon us, to soften our hearts, achieve his miracles of the new life, and to bring in His Kingdom, from within nature and from deep inside us. Indeed there are miracles, and visions, spiritual experiences, and moments of direct confrontation between the human being and the mysteries of God; but they are rare. But even these come from within the workings of nature as it is restored by God’s grace, from within the soul as it repents and turns to look for God and trust Him.

Think of the Parable of the Sower, which is today’s Gospel (Luke 8. 5-15). Jesus speaks of His own working in our souls: “the seed is the Word of God”. God the Son does not impose the outcome of the Kingdom – the establishment of peace, the achievement of justice and righteousness, the vindication and prevailing of all that is good. It comes from within. He continually sows seeds for it, to find the good earth in every person where it may sink in, take the time it needs to germinate, draw on the nurture and nutrients it needs to gather strength, put forth tender shoots, and grow from one season to another, until its ripens and the fruit is borne. It is often missed that Our Lord implies this to be a process in us that has to happen time and again, over and over: the never-ending cycle of our growing in the Kingdom to harvest time, when the Sower comes round again, never giving up on His purposes, or on the hope that next time around the barren ground will let the seed sink in, that now the thorns will not choked it, that it will not die because of the aridity of our spirits. It was Blessed John Henry Newman who recognised that “miracles are no remedy for unbelief” (Parochial and Plain Sermons, Volume 8, Sermon 6): there is no resetting of history and nature to command our belief or our virtue. If we look to Christ, we look in vain for a Super-Saviour, like Doctor Strange with his startling, magical, evil-busting but morally ambiguous powers, defeating the dark consequence of violence only because of an even more potent effort of destruction. To the wicked and corrupt generation who say, “Give us a sign” (Matthew 16.4) and “He said He would destroy the Temple and raise it up in three days; let Him come down now from the Cross, and we will believe in Him” (Matthew 27. 40, 42), Newman says, “Let us … put aside vain excuses; and, instead of looking for outward events to change our course of life, be sure of this, that if our course of life is to be changed, it must be from within.” Yet, he continues, “We have desired and waited for a thing impossible,—to be changed once and for all, all at once, by some great excitement from without, or some great event, or some special season; something or other we go on expecting, which is to change us without our having the trouble to change ourselves. We covet some miraculous warning.” Instead, it is enduring, self-sacrificing, goodness, virtue, longing for holiness, determination to seek the good – refusing to do wrong in the hope that good may come of it – that mark the grace of God, sinking within and finding fertile fruit until the fruits of His Kingdom are harvested season after season. For, as Newman concludes, not unnatural intervention, but “love of heaven is the only way to heaven.”

In today’s Theotokion, we are reminded that, as this has happened in humanity before, it can happen with us. St Anna is seen as the barren one who gives birth to the Mother of God. No longer the stony ground, by the seed sown from the Kingdom she becomes the mother of the Mother of the Saviour and thus the nourisher of our life. Likewise, in today’s Resurrection chants (Tone 4), we view the grave, but not the existence of death. It is not the tomb that has been hollowed out, but death itself. It has been “plundered” and robbed of the Lord Whom it held back behind its gates until the third day. We, too, are being excavated from within, as the sin and resistance to love are steadily removed. The gates of unlovingness and our lazy hope for some magic to come along and change us, are “shattered”. What happens next is what St Paul found had happened to him: “I have been crucified with Christ,” he says. “And it is no longer I who live, but it is Christ Who lives within me” (from today’s Epistle, Galatians 2. 16-20).

So here we are, with no Gandalf, no Doctor Strange, and only the Sign of Jonah to the wicked and corrupt generation: the Son of Man Who dwelt in the heart of the earth, came forth to Resurrection not through a dazzling display of worldly might or other-worldly magic, but by transforming His creation from within, from the beginning, step by step, by being born in it, by dying on one of its Trees, by taking on our sin and undermining it, and by nurturing the earth to bring Him forth as its own fruit, out of the sheer determination of love. The Deeper Magic does not inflict itself, nor does it meet violence with smarter violence. Love of heaven is the only way to change the world and its affairs; for we know that it is the only way to change ourselves. And we will know Who our Saviour truly is when we can say, “I have been crucified with Him; and it is no longer I who live, but Christ Who lives within me.”


18 October 2016

Can the Ordinariates represent Christian Unity

This paper was delivered at the Third Receptive Ecumenism Conference at Fairfield University, Fairfield CT, in June 2014 and then substantially developed at the suggestion of Professor Paul Murray to set the discussion of historical origins, Anglican patrimony and ecumenism of life in the context of the crystallised and phased method of receptive ecumenical learning that he had set out in 2011 at Bose, for the inaugural session of ARCIC III.

It also draws on two earlier talks given to two "groups of Anglicans" in early 2010 - the first on the ecumenical significance and potential of the Anglicanorum Coetibus, and the second reflecting more on what constitutes the Anglican patrimony and the mutual enrichment of Anglican becoming Catholics and Catholics drawing from Anglican tradition in a forthcoming ecumenism of life together - and contribute to the ongoing ecumenism of the Catholic Church with the Anglican Communion.

The full paper can be downloaded here.

13 October 2016

St John the Theologian on a Sunday of Tone 7, Homily at the Ukrainian Catholic Cathedral, London, 9 October 2016

We remember the Beloved Disciple John today, above all the apostle of the eternal life and love of God. But, being Sunday, we invariably commemorate the Resurrection, for week by week we are given a constant experience of the reality that we enter into and that enters into us. To this end, we have eight sets of hymns, one for each musical tone, that we sing each week in turn over a couple of months. This Sunday we sing the hymns of the seventh tone, last week the sixth and next week the eighth. In this way, the hymns are always familiar when they come round; but they are always fresh, too, because each week we move from one perspective to another. We do not get used to just one set; and with each new week we are surprised by a different angle upon Christ.

In this week’s troparion, we say to Christ our God, “You opened paradise to the thief, You turned the myrhhbearers’ lamentation into joy.” We go on to proclaim that this is because He is risen, and He replies – through the apostles and the Church’s songs – “Yes, I am risen, for I am merciful – that is the reason why.” In the kontakion, we go on to imagine the Saviour saying to us, “Now come forth to Me – Come to the Resurrection.” So it is not just that the Merciful Lord came to us at Bethlehem, went up on the Cross to bring mercy to us, or came up out of the Tomb to bring the Kingdom to us. His outward movement towards and into us is also about our coming to Him, being brought in our movement towards and into Him: “Come into the Resurrection!”

In a talk at the fascinating conference on paths to Christian Unity that has preceded this Liturgy, we heard how our shared Christian faith is not just a matter of body and soul, but of heart and imagination too. In the beautiful and striking hymns that we have sung in turn since the first millennium, we in our eastern Church for our part are taken, then, into this realm of imagination by which we enter the Kingdom of the heart of Christ Who adores us more than we can possibly adore Him. Here, we can meet, and love and worship together, with and in the Church of heaven which is invisible to us but where there is no division from Christ. As the Orthodox Metropolitan Platon (Gorodetsky) of Kiev, said, in words of pioneering mystical ecumenism that inspired Father Paul Couturier to reimagine the Week of Prayer for Christian Unity, “The walls of separation do not rise as far as heaven.” So, perhaps the eastern imagination of the life of resurrection and being brought into it week by week – “Come into the Resurrection” – with our very visual worship and its movement of colour and image, and fragrance and sound – is something we can humbly offer to our fellow Christians, adding to the dimensions of body and soul, heart and imagination in the Life of Christ that we lead in His Body.

For the power of the liturgical and spiritual imagination – which is of course something that belongs to all our traditions in different ways – takes us back to reflect on the meaning and nature of God’s love with St John the Beloved. In the Catholic and Orthodox Churches of the East we often call him St John the Theologian, not just because of the words and mysteries he wrote out, but because it was the disciple whom Jesus loved that spoke to God, who has as a result spoken of God, and whom God has spoken to, close to Him, right to the heart. St John thus says, “No one has ever seen God” (Epistle – I John 4.12-19); and then he meditates profoundly on the perfect life of love in Christ as nonetheless the very vision of Christ in God. We have not seen God, but God has seen us. We have not loved God before He first loved us. We are to be seen, then, as those who are loved by God. More than that, what is seen us is none other than the love and eternal life of God, none other. “No one has ever seen God”; but they can see us.

And so, this angle that we have on Christ that I spoke about before turns out really to be His angle on us. We imagine we behold Him in His risen glory – and we are excited by love and life to the full. But while this is so deeply true of the nature of things even in this world, what we are really seeing is Him beholding us out of mercy. It is the Merciful who is risen from the dead, and our own resurrection from Him will be because we too have been changed into Mercy, that is the living vision of God’s life of eternal love. For when we say, “Save us,” it is from being merciless, being unloving, and thus unliving in Christ that we cry to be kept.

May this Christ, who is that Mercy Itself, save us; for He is good and He loves mankind.

18 September 2016

The Sweepings of the Wheat: Homily for the Twenty-Fifth Sunday of Year C, Most Precious Blood, Southwark, 18th September 2016

Unless my memory is very much mistaken, when I was a little boy doing errands for my grandmother, I am sure I noticed the hand of the greengrocer on the scales as he weighed the potatoes. It all happened so fast – potatoes rumbling into the pan, an array of weights onto the balance the other side and – I am sure – the greengrocer’s hand never left the potatoes. Was he holding them down? Was he making them seem heavier, so we got fewer than we paid for? It is easy to play tricks on a child, but something was suspect and you never forget these things.

The prophet Amos (Amos 8.4-7) tells us people were cheating with weights and measures two thousand eight hundred years ago. He is scathing, too, about those who try to charge for the sweepings of the wheat. Yet, it never ceases to amaze me how much we are prepared to pay for dross and junk, for food that is bad for you, for bad service, mad fashions, services that are no longer good enough, or even there; but we still pay out.

Then again, the apostle Paul (I Timothy 2.1-8) talks about those who are being saved; and into our religious imagination piles this idea that Jesus is collecting us like every little piece of cash and putting us in the bank, saving us up, not allowing us to be spent up as a wasted resource – either by others’ ill intentions or our own – so that a tidy sum can be built up, to buy something really worthwhile. Our Lord has a wry tale (Luke 16.1-13) about a steward who first creams off the top of his employer’s income to line his own pockets, then reinvents himself as a dodgy benefactor with someone else’s money. His boss lets him off, but Jesus makes the point that if you cannot be trusted with other people’s interests, how can God trust you not to ruin what he has already given you? St Paul’s image of Jesus the only one who does the saving, recalls Our Lord’s own clear advice: “Store up for yourselves treasure in heaven – for where you treasure is, there your heart will be too.”

So we have two human tendencies contrasted – the instinct to get what we want quick by cheating and exploitation, and the instinct to build up the resources that we need, by patient preparation and calculation based on trust. Perhaps St Paul and Jesus, with this talk of saving and accounts, are thinking of that wonderful story told by Jesus about the man who finds out that there is a pearl of great price buried somewhere in a field, and so he goes to the owner with all the money he has, to buy the whole field and be sure of getting hold of the treasure that lies unseen within it.

Jesus is speaking of course about our spiritual lives and making clear that (first) the Kingdom of heaven lies buried deep within our world and deep within our souls; and (secondly) that there are no short cuts to it. We can only get it to emerge by patiently working the soil, digging our own hearts, minds and souls over, so that the Holy Spirit can cultivate us, with the people and society around us, until the beauty of Christ in all His glory and power flourishes in the lives of those who live justly, compassionately, generously, truthfully, peacefully from the greatest to the least in all that we are and all the we do.

When I was a young man, a kind but earnest protestant friend asked me, “Are you saved?” He knew I went to Church but he did not think that Catholics or Anglicans came up to his standard of proper Christians. What he meant by “Are you saved?” was saved ”from” sin, saved “from” damnation, saved “from” myself. But this is not exactly how Our Lord and his apostle tend to use the idea of salvation. They mostly mean it as saving positively “for” something – for the Kingdom of God’s power to come as an experienced reality, saving for future hope, saving not for imminent judgment but for present blessings of confidence in what He promises, saved for being instruments of forgiveness and the good in the world. We know the worst of us, and we know the best too. So we know that this is all within reach.

Yet, looking at the world around us, it is easy to think that this could be Christian wishful thinking. We may talk still about the good of Christ saving us, but even those with a sense of spiritual desire dismiss the idea of needing to be saved as strange or presumptuous. It strikes me that nothing is either new in this. It is not news that people still waste their gifts and futures, people still hoard up the wrong treasures, only a few have the right priorities and values in life, only a few see where and how the hand of God is at work, only a few are actively involved in working their lives like that field that will one day flourish, and produce not just any old crop but the fruits of the Holy Spirit when the buried pearl is at last found.

It should not surprise us. God tends not to work on the grand public scale of dramatic shows of overpowering strength. He always works from within, and from the little scraps of what is left over from what we have. From within is how he came into the world through a single individual, Mary. He rescued the mere remnant that was left of His once faithful people Israel. Through brave, honest souls he brings healing and peace, transformation and hope. To this day, His miracles come from wIthin nature and not like magic against it. So, when the Church can seem to be a declining minority, all that is left of a spiritual life in Christ that was once second nature to everyone, it is easy to think that religion is a private viewpoint, a matter for the individual or a small group making a path through life, rather than the true account of the sheer basic fact of how the entire universe has been built and operates by Christ. It is easy to think we are a sideshow, mourning our loss of influence or relevance. It is easy to wonder if we have a future at all. Why would anyone wish to talk about Christ saving us?

But it is not like that. For the irony is that, when Jesus spoke of setting your heart on treasures stored up for heaven, He meant His own heart, Whose treasures are we human beings He is saving up to adorn His heaven. We are just like the sweepings of the wheat from the floor that no one in their right mind would buy, let alone invest in; and yet God has been prepared to pay for us the highest cost. We are pearls of great price, for whom Our Lord has paid up everything in His hands to buy the field we are in. We are part of his tireless labour of sheer determination to work the land, so that what it brings forth is seen to be full of goodness, of trust in what He has promised, His creative power to bring justice and delight, to keep on passing through adversity and emerge with inexhaustible forgiveness and the light of life.

To bring all this about there is no tipping of the scales, no short cut. It is not so much about our lonely perseverance, as about Christ’s painstaking labour in the field he has bought, working on us from the inside out until we produce the costly value buried within, to make His Kingdom come on earth as it is in heaven. That it may be happening in you and me, is because the whole earth is the Lord’s, being worked on constantly, inch by inch, soul by soul, heart by heart.

Every year in Holy Week, we recall the words from the Lamentations of Jeremiah (1.12), “Is it nothing to you, all you that pass by? Behold and see if there is any trouble like my trouble?” No, this trouble is not nothing – deep down, it is the happening of everything at the hands of Christ Who fills the universe and makes it to exist only for love.

12 July 2016

Seek first the Kingdom of God: Homily for the Third Sunday after Pentecost, Ukrainian Catholic Cathedral of the Holy Family, London, 10 July 2016

Seek first the Kingdom of God (Matthew 6.34). These words insistently return to the mind in the midst of the constitutional and moral crisis in which the United Kingdom is now embroiled following the referendum, after a majority of those voting approved by a narrow margin withdrawal from the European Union.

In the weeks and months before this fateful vote, unlike at General Elections, there was no collective guidance from the Catholic Bishops on the issues at stake in terms of Catholic social teaching, or indeed the interests of the Holy See and the Catholic Church in this country. This is doubtless because there was an honest case from the point of various Catholic Christians’ faith for either choice. The Church stands above the political fray, since its wisdom applies to this world from the Kingdom of heaven. But, after the result was known, it was clear that great bitterness and resentment was unleashed, with some terrible mutual recriminations – young versus old, north versus south, Scot versus English, British verse foreigners, even white versus those of other colours. Cardinal Nichols, Archbishop of Westminster and President of the Bishops’ Conference, immediately called for calm, “respect and civility”, appealing to our better nature as a country, and to its implicitly Christian civilisation when it comes to a generous “welcome for the stranger and shelter for the needy”.

Let us now set the referendum decision and its aftermath explicitly in the context of Christian faith and discipleship. Since we as Catholics strive for the communion of all in Christ in the Catholic faith, and by leading truly a spiritual life in union with Him, it is important that we look forward to the next year, with its undoubted upheavals ahead, with our eyes fixed firmly on Jesus Christ our pioneer on the life we pass through in this world (Hebrews 12.2).

This last week, I have heard of a Spanish restaurant in south London vandalised with offensive graffiti, and we all know of the similar attack on a Polish centre in north London. I also learned of a British charity for the needy, which has built up considerable work in other European countries, now considering a new office in Germany to protect its work across borders; and a Belgian colleague speaking Flemish to relatives on the phone on a bus, was confronted in public with a threat that her job was shortly to come to an end. Among us we know of numerous other incidents of physical and verbal assault, ranging from the xenophobic to the unvarnished racist.

To this we say that the Kingdoms of the World have become the Kingdom of the Lord and of His Christ (Apocalypse 11.15), and that the Kingdom of God transcends all our ideas of patriotism, nationality, nationalism, state-interest. “Here,” says St Paul, “we have no abiding city... for our true homeland is in heaven”. (Hebrews 13.14 & Philippians 3.20) And the Lord Himself says to "seek first the Kingdom of God" (Matthew 6.34). At Vatican II, the Church taught that the authority of the Church and of civil society are not subject one to the other, but are free to achieve their highest aims as they operate in their respective spheres. This does not mean that the Gospel and the authority of the Church to proclaim it fail to apply to the world, and that the Church must refrain from interfering in the affairs of society. On the contrary, it is the teaching of the Church that the objective of both Church and State, Religion and Society, is to serve the realisation of God’s Kingdom on earth. It is thus the Church’s prophetic duty to call the world, its leaders, its governments, its cultures, its societies and each individual member to constant repentance, to return again and again to the principles of the Beatitudes, to strain repeatedly to ‘hear the Angels sing’ of glory to God on high and peace on earth to those of good will, and thus to orient the entire world toward the blessed state that is ours by virtue of our creation in God’s own image.

Secondly, it is vital to recall that, in the beginning, what has now become the European Union (whatever you think of it) was established largely by Catholic Christians intent on realising this Kingdom of God in the hands of the remaining people of good will, transcending states and languages and divisions, so that the resources of Europe could never again be used for making war, or for oppressing the free dignity of human beings to live to the full before God, in faith and hope and love. No more Fascism and Nazism; no more atheist materialist communism. Everywhere confidence in truth, in goodness and justice.

What has emerged in the last few weeks has clearly been lying under the surface for years and now feels unbound and empowered to assert itself. Perhaps it is a catharsis that will soon be over as the poison is dissipated. Perhaps we face a more lasting darker outlook, recalling that such attitudes were once commonly assumed and potently pursued before the Second World War in this country as elsewhere. So we must remember that the Lord Who said, “Seek first the Kingdom of God,” went on to say, “and His righteousness.” It must therefore be the heartfelt duty of every Christian, who believes above all else in the Universal Reign of Jesus Christ over all peoples and nations, to withstand all thoughts, words and deeds that contradict His design for humanity’s perfect liberty in Him, and that contradict the dignity of all human beings, regardless of colour, race, religion, age, sex, or language, or outlook. It must be that Christians who “seek first the Kingdom of God and His righteousness” declare unrighteous, unChristian, all that stands against Christ’s will for us all, both to be one in His own single humanity and to thrive as He has appointed us in His single creation with all our differences and backgrounds and origins. For we see that by the Holy Spirit He has both been penetrating our societies so that they may providentially become more like His Kingdom, and is even now redeeming from them all their ills, oppressions, cruelties and acts of spiteful pride and wickedness, by the power of His holy Cross.

I fear that this will require of us great strengths in the time ahead as we make a new history. Perhaps we are in an unreal calm before a coming storm, or perhaps, as we hope with the Cardinal, we will prove after all to be good neighbours. Perhaps, though, when we insist as we must upon Christ’s bearing on the world, it will involve the further vilification of the Church. Perhaps to exalt the Kingdom of God and righteousness will involve profound sacrifices for the sake of the truth, of justice and the love of God. But the evil at work will not prevail. It must bow. For “the earth is the Lord’s with all that is in it” (Psalm 23.1) and “the Lord alone … will be King” (Zechariah 14.9); and “He will reign for ever” (Apocalypse 11.15). Him alone do we serve (cf. Matthew 4.8 & 10).


09 July 2016

Homily for the Sunday of the Fathers of the First Council of Nicaea, Sunday after the Ascension, Ukrainian Cathedral of the Holy Family, London, 12 June 2016

Nine years short of 1700 years ago, bishops representing the whole Christian Church in the Christian Roman Empire gathered to agree the wording by which we still declare our faith, in the Creed proclaimed at the Mass and the Divine Liturgy throughout the Catholic and Orthodox Church. This is the faith that Christ is of one substance with the Father - they share the same nature equally; just as any earthly father and son do, so do the Heavenly Father and Son.

It was the first time the bishops had needed to be called together, because an unprecedented controversy between good people threatened to tear the Church apart and even finally undermine it. For the consequences were all or nothing. Could a human be divine in the same way as the Father? Could someone who had been born in time, also be the Son from all eternity, before all ages? A priest called Arius had concluded that Jesus was the first of all God’s creatures ever to be produced, and He was divine only in the sense that His divinity had been given Him by the Father. It was not His own divinity, but someone else’s, lent to Him. Thus the Son may live eternally with the Father and the Spirit now, but He had a beginning, and there was a time when He did not exist. In Arius’ thinking, even though Jesus had a divine nature, he came after His Father. But others argued back – if He was inferior to the Father, how could Jesus be the one who reconciles us with God?

Various theories were proposed, to make sense of the belief that everyone shared, that Christ is both divine and human. From direct memory, He was a real human being who was born, and lived and died, and then rose again, ascended into heaven and sent among us His Holy Spirit. But how could a human being also be God? Is not God a spirit? Is the Father the spirit who inspired a human being, and filled him with His own divine life, making Jesus His Son, so that His sacrifice on the Cross is acceptable and wins our forgiveness and salvation, so that we, just like Him, can be adopted by the Father, and receive a share in God’s nature as His children? The explanations for how this could all add up were many and inventive. Thus, Jesus had a nature that was like the Father’s. But does that mean he was unlike us? Or, He was a human that became divine too, by adoption. But does that mean He was in the end unlike God? Or, He has a human and a divine nature – they are united with the Father by a single will, or energy, or character. But does that mean he was half-God and half-human, unlike any other human being, or unlike God at all? There had even been those who said that the Father and the Son were one and the same Person, but in different forms for different times and reasons. Like a telescope sliding in and out, first there might be the Father, in the Old Testament; then the Father is followed by the Son in the Gospels, and afterwards comes the Holy Spirit.

None of these explanations is adequate. They only go part of the way to explain what we recognise in our life in Christ within the communion of the Holy Spirit in His Church. Or else they lead to distortion, leaving us without Three Persons in the Trinity, or offering us a Christ who is either a human like no other, or a heavenly being who only appears to be human but who isn’t God either.

So we keep coming back to the explanation that was settled upon by the Fathers at Nicaea. First, they agreed that, if the work of the Cross and Resurrection genuinely brings about our forgiveness, our redemption through Christ’s Bloodshed, and our reconciliation with the Father, then it had to happen physically, in our own, real, human flesh. If it did not, it was a mirage, a myth. There are plenty of stories about the interventions of heavenly figures like Hercules or Shiva –these are religious myths, but they do not have any effect – they are not a fact of life in creation. So Jesus had to be a real human being with a completely human nature.

The second thing they considered was, if a real human being died on the Cross and rose again, how did it connect with God? If it was just a miracle visited upon one human being from outside, it may be an inspiring, symbolic story, but where is the effect involving the rest of us? So the Fathers agreed that the incarnation of Christ, and His Cross and Resurrection, to bring about our salvation and our reconciliation with God, was not just a human event. It had to involve God too. Otherwise, how did a human Jesus unite us with God on His Cross?How did His own resurrection take any of the rest of us any nearer God from out of our mortality than we were before? How were the difference and the distance between God and humanity overcome? So, they agreed, Jesus must have been God too, God the Son, united with His Father from all eternity, and united with us – true God, true Man.

Arius still could not bring himself to say this. He saw nothing incomplete in saying that Jesus the Man embodied the Word of God that He had received, so that His sacrifice for us was acceptable, and the resurrection vindicated it. Perhaps he was recalling his own father with honour, and pictured a Divine Son who was lower than God the Father - God as he is in Himself. But the Fathers of the Council of Nicaea, said no; this was not enough. If Jesus Christ is not God as He is in Himself in the same way as the Father, then the connection between us and God is not made, and we are not saved. If God did not become man, then man cannot become divine as Christ promised in the Gospel - which we read every year both at the time of the Ascension leading up to Pentecost, and in the days of Holy Week leading up to the Cross – when he said, “All mine are yours, and yours are mine.”

So the Fathers of Nicaea insisted that Jesus did not merely possess a divine kind of nature; he did not have a nature like the Father’s. His nature is the same as the Father’s. This is why, especially in the Christian East, we unequivocally and repeatedly say that Jesus is Our Lord and God and Saviour.

There is still a tendency in the West to think that, because Jesus is Son of God, He is somehow on a lower rung in the hierarchy of heaven. It suits the world we live in to imagine that He belongs in the world of the religious imagination, a mythical heavenly being. Or, He is just the same as other great religious leaders in history. But Christians assert something entirely different, when we stress the full force of what we mean every Christmas when we hail the birth of Emmanuel, the Son of God who is God among us. It is fully God that is born. It is fully in our flesh that Jesus, who is our God, died on the Cross and rose again to buy us back to be one with the Father as He Himself is one. This is not mere spirituality. This is not a religious point of view. It is the Christian understanding of human nature, bearing the full impact of Christ our God. It is the Christian understanding of what human nature has been made into and that we are thus becoming.

In the Lord’s Prayer, of which today’s gospel is an elaboration (John 17.1-13), we ask daily for the Kingdom to come on earth as it is in heaven. We often think of the concept of heaven on earth and how it is realised, or struggled for. It is thus easy to think of heaven in earthly terms, while we pass through the world in expectation of its perfection beyond this life. Yet the hard part is the most demanding. It is not to live in this world as if in the next. It is to realise that where we actually live we are in heaven already. This radically affects our behaviour and our outlook. We do not follow Christ out of duty. We do not keep his commands out of exhortation and obedience. We do not long for the Spirit out of inclination. We live in the Kingdom because we already and permanently face into its blessedness. We follow Christ out of love and because we are caught up in His blessedness. We keep His commands, not out of obedience but because we love nothing else more. We long for the Spirit, not merely as an exercise, but because our entire being is taken up with Him.

The renewal of the Church and its perseverance in the faith is thus not down to our effort, as we constantly imagine, but always down to the action of God, as He unites with humanity in Christ, so that when they ask for a description of God’s identity, His Name and His work, we reply, “God is with us”. He does not just bring heaven down to us on earth, but makes earth penetrate heaven. Thus here in this space we are in no other place than before the Throne to which Christ ascended in glory.

This week, across our Ukrainian Greek Catholic Church, we pray for our parishes to be vibrant, to be places where human beings may encounter the living Christ, to be bodies of people, individuals, who are themselves encounters with Christ in heaven. Imagine what it would be like if coming to Church was not just about us coming to worship Christ our God. Imagine what it would be like if it was about Christ coming into us, so that He could make himself seen by others in us. Imagine what a change it would make of us.

Archbishop Michael Ramsey used to explain the faith of Nicaea – about how the Father is like the Son and the Son like the Father. He would say that we get it all the wrong way round. Instead of getting people to think how Jesus was the likeness of God, consider that in God is as He is in Christ, that in God there is no unChristlikeness at all. Now imagine what it would mean if we could say, in David, in Sarah - whatever our names - in me there is no unChristlikeness at all.

16 May 2016

Homily for the Sunday of the Myrrh-Bearers, Ukrainian Catholic Cathedral of the Holy Family, London, 15 May 2016

Sometimes this Sunday is called the Sunday of the Myrrh-Bearing Women, but in English we do not need to be “gender specific”, because what Mary Magdalen, Mary the mother of Joses and Salome were doing is part of a larger story, in which even more people figure, men as well as women (Mark 15.43-16.9). For in first-century Palestine there were groups of people, like charitable guilds, whose task was to care for the dead, prepare for the burial and help the bereaved in their mourning. The Myrrh-Bearers formed such a group of righteous people, along with Joseph of Arimathea and Nicodemus.

We recognise what they were like as people, from the same kind of people who always help out in parishes with funerals, or who, when a crisis happens, you can always rely on someone to know what needs to be done. Thus to this day, burying the dead is counted a “corporal work of mercy”. This does not only mean attending the funeral, but the practical action of laying someone to rest. Many of the practicalities involved are now seen to by the funeral director. But even though many of the arrangements are in such hands, others may still make tasks their own - preparing food, helping with transport, singing and reading at the funeral, making charitable donations. Sending fragrant flowers recalls anointing the body with aromatic spices to overcome the odour of our life’s decay. It is ab act of physical honour to the person whose life has gone from this world. In the Eastern Church, you will have noticed that mourning families come to Church for a special service of prayer for the dead, often after the end of the Divine Liturgy, for which a special loaf of bread is baked and koliva is made, a memorial dish of wheat and raisins. Its blessing by the priest blesses the mourners who will consume it, and it honours the memory of those who are missed and now look to the resurrection to eternal life. In the Western Church this service can take the form of a memorial mass, and people will often make a donation to a Church with a request for the intention of a particular mass to be devoted to the repose of someone’s soul – and a tangible card with the date, the name of the Church, and the signature of the priest will be sent to the mourners as an act of kindness on one level but of faith on another – faith that the power of Christ’s sacrifice will forgive the burden of sin and lead us to everlasting life.

So, even in different ways, we are still setting out to do works of mercy for the dead like Joseph of Arimathea and the Myrrh-Bearers of old. But what were their tasks?

We are told in the gospels that Joseph of Arimathea is granted the custody of the dead body of Jesus for burial. Most of the other disciples are terrified of possible reprisals from the Temple and Roman authorities and are in hiding. St John’s corporal act of mercy is now to take the Blessed Virgin Mary into his own home, there to comfort her in her grief. He has enough to do; but also he may have been too junior to approach the authorities in such a tense moment. So it fell to a member of the Sanhedrin itself to choose this moment of all moments, and seek a rare, personal audience of Pilate the Governor. Aided by Nicodemus, he puts together one of those groups from among the nearest disciples, willing to perform the accustomed tasks for burying the dead. But the imminent setting of the sun means the Sabbath is about to begin and there is little time. Joseph has bought a new linen cloth to wrap the Lord straight from taking Him down from the Cross. There is a treasured tradition that at this moment the Mother of God takes her Son into her arms for one last time, just as she had first held Him after he was born and wrapped in His swaddling cloths. But there is hardly any more time. St John tells us that myrrh and aloes were wrapped on the Lord’s body and held in place with the linen. He will have seen this, perhaps. There is not a moment for preparing the spices to anoint Him. Everything else will need to wait. The stone is rolled in place and the Tomb is sealed. A guard is set up by the authorities, and no one is allowed near until Sunday morning.

If there had been time, Joseph, Nicodemus, the Magdalen, Mary the Mother of Joses, and Salome would have taken the body away to one of their houses. There the spices would have been mixed and steeped in olive oil. Then they would have anointed the Lord’s body in its horrifically injured state, to relax the tensed muscles and sinews, soothe the bruises and wounds with aloes, to clean and disinfect it with the myrrh and other spices. After this they would have bathed it in water, rinsing it of the dried blood, the sweat and uncleanliness, to restore to it some human dignity. After that, they would have bound His body in the linen with more of scented spice, before taking Him, within a matter of hours of His death, for a proper burial attended with open mourning from those who loved and followed Him.

But, whenever you read the Gospels, you see that nothing happens without a reason; and nothing falls without the Lord’s own plan for events and people, each fulfilling God’s purpose.  Thus it is neither possible nor necessary for Jesus to be anointed with myrrh and spices after His death for three reasons:

  1. He has already been prepared for His descent into death by the Magi, one of whom presented Him with myrrh when His incarnation was first revealed
  2. A woman at Bethany - whom St John identifies as Mary the sister of Martha and the much-loved Lazarus that Jesus had just raised from death - had already anointed the Lord in preparation, He said, for His imminent burial
  3. Jesus was already the Lord’s Anointed, for the Spirit of God had been seen to rest upon Him, and the Father’s own voice had declared Him to be the Divine Son of Man, the Lord Himself.
And it was neither possible nor necessary for Jesus to be bathed in water for three more reasons:
  1. He had already been baptised in the Jordan, and there revealed as the Lamb of God, Who would be slain and revealed as Worthy to be the true King in the reign of God’s Kingdom
  2. In the city of Nain, where Jesus had raised from death a distraught widow’s son, another woman covers the Lord’s feet with the water of her tears, turning to Him with complete repentance, so that He grants her forgiveness on the depth of her faith in Him and the sacrifice He is about to offer on the Cross
  3. Water was brought to Jesus at Cana in Galilee, we are told, on the third day. This water He turns into wine, as He re-sets of Creation with the first of His miracles. So it is that, on the night before He died, He took the cup and says He will not drink wine again until He drinks it new in the Kingdom. And it is on the Cross that He takes wine turned to vinegar in the moments before His death, when water with blood flows from His side. On the third day, He rose again. He cannot be washed with water ready for His tomb, because the New Order of God’s Kingdom is inaugurated on the Cross, and the steps leading to the Resurrection have already been set in motion. The water has flowed, and it is already the time of New Wine, on the third day. 
It is as though people, time and events have been suspended while all this takes its course. No one has time to react to Jesus’ death in the way they know how. Joseph is entirely consumed with making arrangements urgently before sunset; he has not given a thought to grief. It is the same for the women. Pilate, who only a few hours ago had guilty misgivings about condemning a plainly innocent man under public pressure, is surprised and worried about what trouble may happen next. The apostles are mostly afraid and in hiding; they will not even know about Jesus’s death until later from St John. Only Blessed Mary and St John have time in these first hours at the beginning of the Sabbath to go away and mourn and weep. And when the reports of the Resurrection first come in, by turns terrified, joyful, and astonished, they are met with alarm, inability to get the words out, anxiety and even adrenalin-fuelled running to see. Hardly anyone has had time to make sense of any of the events that have occurred.

It is this moment that the Myrrh-Bearers are caught up in, when the consequences of believing in Jesus dawn. Belief is not just in the mind; it takes physical bearing too and there are practical consequences. Those who carried linen, water, oil, myrrh and aloes are frustrated in the performance of their righteous office. They had to set everything they brought aside, and now instead must take up a story of bold faith, of being unafraid and forgiven, of a new Order. Those who were there to take down a body from the Cross and lay it in a Tomb, were told not to hold on to the soon to be Ascended Lord, but take up a cross and follow for themselves the path He had just trodden. Those apostles whose hands had bolted a door behind them, frightened out of their wits at what might happen because the Lord had risen and who would come through to get at them, would with the same hands take bread and wine and make the Lord known in the Breaking of Bread, and so from that day to this.

This moment of realisation matters and on it hangs all else. Last weekend, I was sitting at bus stop and a man who had enjoyed a very good lunch came and sat beside me. My fears of an inebriated and fruitless conversation softened, as I conversed with this rather clear-minded person. He began as I expected: “Of course, I am not religious. I don’t hold with it. I cannot see how there can be a single Creator being.” We were now on the bus. We’d established I was Catholic priest. Then he asked, ”Do you believe all that stuff happened?” As I reflected on an adequate answer, he shouted out, “Ah! Ah! No funny answers, No ‘It depends…’! Tell me what you think. Do you believe it all happened or not?” So I said, “Unequivocally, yes. He rose from the dead. If He was not Who He said He was, then it is all just another religion, one path of spirituality to choose among others. If He did not rise from the dead, if there is some tomb somewhere in which He still lies, then nothing I believe in stands. If indeed He rose from the dead, it changes everything – not just about my opinion, but about everything in creation. You may not believe or feel it. But if it happened with Jesus, it happened in the whole of humanity. Some of the things in the way we speak are metaphors, some analogies. But this? This is the simple truth. So, without any prevarication, yes, I believe it all happened.” Then he told me that he was glad to hear once more a Catholic answer to his question.

To the Myrrh-Bearers, the Angel said, “You are looking for Jesus of Nazareth Who was crucified. He is not here; He is risen. Go and tell His disciples that He is going ahead of you.” This command rejoices not only their hearts and ours. It conveys the simple truth about humanity and the created universe that it is re-set for a new Order, the Kingdom of God where this natural body of ours is sown and a spiritual one rises up to eternal life (I Corinthians 15.44). Its echo even the unbeliever strains to hear is still there.


10 April 2016

Fourth Sunday of Great Lent - St John Climacus, Homily at the Ukrainian Catholic Cathedral, London, 10th April 2016

One of the strands of the Gospel readings through Lent and into the Fifty Days after Pascha is the power of Christ faced with our limitations and not so much altering our condition as making humanity transcend it.

Here is the map of the journey we are on. Before Lent we have the Pharisee (Tenth Sunday before Pascha: Luke 18.10-14) and the Prodigal Son (Ninth Sunday: Luke 15.11-32) who cannot recognise how threadbare is their own sense of entitlement and self-sufficiency. Then we have Nathanael who cannot see anything good in the Nazarene until the Nazarene sees something good in him (Sunday of Orthodoxy, First of Great Lent: John 1.43-51). Then we have the paralysed man let down through the roof in Capernaum to be healed by Jesus, whereupon Jesus makes him stands on his feet by the power of forgiveness - a dazzling foretelling of Christ’s own descent from the Cross, His burial and resurrection and all that they will achieve (Second Sunday of Great Lent: Mark2.1-12). After Good Friday and Pascha, we will hear again of the reservations and then the faith of St Thomas (Sunday of St Thomas, First after Pascha: John 20.19-31), the astonished blindness of St Mary Magdalen upon finding in the Empty Tomb “The Young Man Sitting on the Right Clothed in White”, not recognising before her the Angel of “The Forever Young One Who is Risen and Enthroned at His Father’s Right in Glory” in the Holy Trinity (Sunday of the Myrrh-Bearing Women, Second after Easter: Mark 15.43-47 & 16.1-8). Then we will hear of another paralysed person whose human impediments will be overcome at the Pool of Bethsaida by the power of faith and forgiveness, both coming from God in Christ (Sunday of the Paralytic, Third after Easter: John 5.1-15). We will hear, too, of the woman at the well in Samaria with an answer for everything, until Jesus plays back to her the truth about herself - until she sees herself as Jesus sees her, a person made for the worship and love of God (Sunday of the Samaritan Woman, Fourth after Easter: John 4.5-42). Then the man born blind will trust Jesus’ directions to bathe at the Pool of Siloam, and let Jesus touch him, so that the first thing he sees is not the physical world he is never beheld before, but the Man from God whom he falls down before and worships (Sunday of the Man Born Blind, Fifth after Easter:  John 9.1-38). This will bring us to our own encounter with the Lord at His Ascension, and then St John’s explanation (Sunday of Pentecost:  John 7.37-52,8.12) that the Christ Who came from Bethlehem, was the Light Who dispelled the darkness of humanity in Galilee, before all was perfected in the glorification that took place in Jerusalem – the Cross, the Tomb, the Rising from the dead to the new Jerusalem out of which He will pour the rivers of living water: no more pools, wells, Galilees and Jordans, but the Holy Spirit Himself.

It is for us to identify with each of these people, each of these scenes and each of these events. It is for us to place ourselves within them, and see ourselves as we are seen by Christ. We go on a journey thus from conceit and self-pity, from lack of lively faith and dynamic discipleship, from inability to perceive what is standing before us, from self-deception and wounded pride. Along the way, we are warned to look for the signals of Christ coming His Kingdom, its majesty hidden in plain sight (you might say) in the realities around us (Meatfare Saturday, Luke 21,8-9, 25-27, 33-36). We are told to be discerning about ourselves and our true dispositions, and how Christ makes himself appear in our midst – sheep or goat, King or outcast? Which is it, and who like Him are we supposed to be (Meatfare Sunday, the Eighth before Pascha:  Matthew 25.31-46)? We are told to be forgivers if we expect to be forgiven, and to pile up treasures in heaven and not here (Cheesefare Sunday, the Seventh before Pascha:  Matthew 6.14-21). The greatest treasure, we come to learn is the beam of the Cross that we will heave up onto our shoulders and lose everything else, but not that (Sunday of the Holy Cross, Third of Great Lent: Mark 8. 34-39). We will realise that like the sons of Zebedee we have nothing to say other than that, yes, we are prepared to drink the cup that Jesus drinks, and, yes, to seek for ourselves His baptism into death’s unknown (Fifth Sunday of Lent: Mark 10.32-45). We too will end with seeing Christ at the point of completing His work, realising that we are the ones who have been kept by the Lord and not been lost - learning every step of the way to keep to His word, until we see everything else fall away and what is liberated is the joy (Sunday of the Fathers, Fifth after Pascha: John 17.1-13).

The point we have reached today is the experience of the young man overwhelmed by a spirit that makes him undergo seizures, taking away his ability to speak and hear (Fourth Sunday of Great Lent: Mark 9.16-30). To the father and his family, this is the work of an unclean spirit, alien to the boy’s wellbeing and survival. We may recognise his symptoms as possible epilepsy, but this is not to explain away the story. What Jesus reveals to us in this, and in all the stories and words He uses, is that inevitably we come up against our shortcomings and our limitations, not least the aspects of our personal existence and factors surrounding our lives over which we have no control. We meet them in our sin, and our pride, in their impotence. We our thwarted by them in the limits to the capacity of our bodies, to the limits placed on our egos, our ability to get our own way, and to our never-fully satisfied passions and appetites. We are frustrated, too, by the forcefulness of others, their egos and neediness, their sin and worldliness; and we are not above returning the selfishness. We are confronted, too, by the oppression of intangible forces, whether they come from deep-rooted systems and habits of injustice in the world and how it works, or the influences of whole societies and cultures, or the powers at work in life and nature that we cannot see, still less understand.  Jesus is pointing out to His disciples that the adversity of concrete, material living is inseparable from the world of the spiritual. It is not that something wrong with our spiritual lives shows up in an effect on our physical bearings and experience, although this can sometimes be true. Jesus is telling us something much deeper than that. Soul and body are neither divided compartments in life, not operate on different planes.  He is saying that it is all of a piece – we humans are both physical and spiritual, and we must live lives both in the world and in the Kingdom of the Spirit.

Seeing that we are not the masters that we imagine ourselves to be in our own lives, let along the world where we seek to prevail, what are we do? We do not have complete freedom, so are we are to enslave ourselves to the world? We imagine ourselves to be fine and righteous, and yet cannot see we need to seek forgiveness; so do we resign ourselves to self-satisfaction or serial imperfection? We do not recognise the spiritual side of life and we trust what we can hold onto rather than what it staring us in the face, as heaven accosts us in the eyes and mouth and hands of its Only Son. So is all we have to be mournful at what we have missed out, defeated by finding out our lowly place in the scheme of things? Or do we do take the journey to come to the light, to know the power of Christ’s forgiveness at work in us, to “keep to His word” and to let all else fall away so that what stands free at last is His own joy? (John 17, Fifth Sunday after Pascha)

To act as our own master is futile as well as misleading and even dangerous. But, with all our limitations and shortcomings, to place all that we are, everything that has formed us, good and adverse, any gift or aptitude that we have, all our personality, our incomplete faith but our instinctive adoration at the service of the Master Himself, this is the breakthrough to humanity that He came to bring about. St Paul says that dying to sin we are alive to God (Romans 6.11). Jesus Himself tells us to pray that the Kingdom will come not in some next world or other, but on earth as it is in heaven (Matthew 6.10). So what, says Christ, if the Kingdom can come not just as a phenomenon on earth but as the joy in people, His own joy at coming to the Father? (John 17.13)

Today we recall St John Climacus, author of “The Ladder of Virtues”. In the icon portraying the spiritual path he set out, you will see the ascent of the Christ-seeking soul, step by painstaking step. Some souls you will see have deceived themselves and fall down, while others attain to the Divine. Jesus promised Nathanael that he would see that Christ is the Ladder on which the ascent to heaven is made (Sunday of Orthodoxy, John 1.51). But He also says that the angels who conduct us to God by ascending also descend. The Light that we look up for also enters down to shine into our darkness. It is not overwhelmed by sin and human shortcoming, but pierces it, transfigures it – makes it look different from how it appears, to make it look like what it truly is designed to be, patterned on the Son of Man.

For as Christ is divine and became human, so we who are human become like Him. Human and spiritual, material and filled with God because of His image within us, we live even now the resurrection. Though dead in one dimension, in reality our lives are hidden with Christ in God (Colossian3.3). Here the Spirit flows His living waters through our hearts (John 7.38, Sunday of Pentecost), so that what we were is washed away by what we shall become.

13 March 2016

Sunday of Forgiveness: Homily at the Divine Liturgy, Ukrainian Catholic Cathedral, London, 12 March 2016

In the icon before us today, we see a penitent hermit in the desert of Judaea. There is the hill country into which Mary the Mother of God went after the Annunciation to visit St Elizabeth, the mother of St John the Baptist. There is purifying hyssop in the vale, blown in the wind that is the coming of God in Person (Psalm 28.5). There is the desert river whose flow returns, marking the turning round of our captivity, just as the Psalm tells us (Psalm 125. 5). There are the walls of the city of Jerusalem and on a famous outcrop of rock stands the Cross of Calvary. Looking up to the city and the Tree that surpasses all others is the entrance to the remote cave made into a monastery dwelling, where the hermit can fast and pray, and store up his heavenly treasures in secret (Matthew 6.21). We recall, too the Lord’s advice to His disciples to pray not for public attention, but for the loving intimacy of a child with his Father in a private place (Matthew 6.6), a sanctuary for the heart.

It is easy for us to imagine that this kind of life of prayer and returning to God in penitence is for experts and professional Christians, like monks, nuns and priests. But Jesus’ remarks on how, when and where to pray were for all of us. All of us need to find these opportunities, these moments, these words and silences, these places and spaces, where we can stand alone before God, just as He stands facing towards us with a heart and eyes only for us, each one of us, child to Father, Father to child. This is what we are concentrating on today, the last of the Sundays that herald the coming of Great Lent, the Sunday for repentance, for seeking God’s face, for coming back to him, for asking forgiveness.
Now, one of the criticisms that the Eastern Churches have about the Catholic Church - especially the Latin Roman Catholic Church - is its view of sin and repentance, forgiveness and virtue, in terms of law and duty, transgression and guilt, the mechanism of humanity’s Fall from grace and systems to repair it. Where is the Holy Spirit, and the compassion of the love of God when the talk is of breaking the law and observing the rules? Of course they are there in abundance in the western Catholic tradition; Pope Francis’s proclamation of the mercy of God, and St Margaret Mary Alacoque’s ardent devotion to the merciful and sanctifying Sacred Heart of Jesus both attest to this. But let us for a moment follow some thoughts on how the West’s approach looks to the East.
Saint Augustine, a Father to the Churches of both East and West, teaches about our standing in total need of God's grace, for no effort of our own takes us forward without His own. From Augustine's teaching, the Catholic Church takes the view that humanity as a whole fell from God’s grace, that this is part of humanity’s condition and experience, and that thus only by Baptism in Christ and His sacraments can the stain that in our nature that we have inherited be removed. The western Protestant Reformers exaggerated this. While rightly stressing our reliance on God’s grace and redemption for everything, John Calvin in particular went further than St Augustine and spoke of our "total depravity" – the complete corruption of our nature by sin, obscuring the image of God within each person. In response, the Catholic Church stressed how the image of God within every one of us bears the Light that the darkness cannot overwhelm (John 1.5) and remains sovereign beyond the power of sin, to urge our free will to turn to Him and seek His face. So we are not by nature completely wicked at all, but always open to God’s gift of faith and the workings of His grace. The great Catholic celebration of this insight is belief in the Immaculate Conception of the Blessed Virgin Mary, the first of the redeemed. It sees the guilt of Adam’s Original Sin as broken by the power of Christ’s redemption to be worked on the Cross. By God’s choice, Mary is the first to receive this grace that makes her entirely free from the ancestral corruption of sin. So her life is entirely open to God’s gift of faith, and thus to the Incarnation of God the Son in her womb.
The Christian East puts it slightly differently. Yes, Adam fell from grace but, then, “all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God” (Romans 3.23). His disobedience leaves its mark on us, and we have inherited his tendency to sin, and our sins are our own. Yes, Our Lady, the Mother of God, is Immaculate, without sin, and “all-glorious within” (Psalm 44.13), and this is entirely the gift of God. But just as much a part of human individuals’ situation of being mired in our ancestors’ tendency to sin is the inclination toward a new life in the Kingdom of God, to our true existence now, in the heights of Christ’s resurrection.
Think of what we have sung in today’s Troparion (of Sunday, 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, You are our life and our resurrection.
In other words, while the Western Christian tradition appears at first sight to stress law and obedience, the Fall, transgression and how amendment is made by redemption, the East, including the Eastern Catholic Churches, stresses the dimension of the liberation that is achieved by living Christ’s own risen life, by the power of the Holy Spirit in the Kingdom of God. What is on high comes down and is buried in the earth, so that what is earthbound rises and becomes lodged in heaven. This is what Our Lord meant when He said in today’s Gospel, “Store up for yourselves treasures in heaven. For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also” (Matthew 6.21). Of course, the Western Latin Catholic Church believes this too – both East and West recall the apostle’s description of “Our true homeland in heaven” (Philippians 3, Hebrews 11). And the East believes that we are sinners constantly in need of making repentance, and seeking forgiveness.

As we begin Great Lent this Monday, today is the Sunday on which we think of this repentance and forgiveness. But it would be wrong to approach it all in terms of humanity’s total failure, and the futility of trying to follow Christ only to see that our footsteps will surely falter. No wonder the Protestant Reformers felt confronted by the idea of our total wickedness and powerlessness to do anything about it. It would be even worse to think of repentance as an exercise in de-humanising ourselves, making ourselves abject, guilt-ridden and fearful beings before God Who has already looked upon what He has made and pronounced it good. He took flesh from this, and we know Him as Mercy itself. Of course we have no merits of our own and we rely on God’s power alone: our sins, our characters, our behaviour and our attitudes are an affliction that make us weep for shame. We have all experienced those moments when we have turned back to God with tears of both compunction and relief. But this is not because God has brought us to rock bottom – it is because He is raising us up.

If you look at the Desert Father kneeling outside his room where he fasts and prays in secret, storing up treasures in heaven where his heart is, you will see not someone who is dismal and destroyed. Nor will you see someone going through the duties of religion, because otherwise he is lost and hopeless. Instead, you will see a person with arms uplifted, someone whose eyes are set upon the Cross of Christ with hope-filled vision, an open face, a single-minded heart, and not a craven, downcast spirit. What you see is adoration; it is love. It is joy at being forgiven; it is the sheer sense of unworthiness at finding oneself lifted up into the presence of God’s Kingdom and being there and nowhere else - not because of my own efforts, but by the mercy and love of God for the sinner. He is the Judge Who has no use for blame; he is the Justice Who wishes everything to be put back into its true balance, restored to what He deems to be right for each one of us, and in each one of us. Here, then, we who bear His image within us find ourselves - called back to Him, owning our sins and wickedness, pouring out our hearts to Him, finding His forgiveness, freed from the tribulation of this world as a life in the next tis poured into us, to lead already now.
In the Gospels, the word for repentance is not confession or penance, but metanoia. It means “thinking again”, or “changing your mind”. It means not only reviewing our sinful past thoughts, words and deeds, but embracing a completely new perspective on reality, a new outlook on life. Metanoia is also the word we use for the profound bows we make in our Liturgy, such as when we sing the Thrice-Holy Hymn and make the sign of the Cross, saying, “God be merciful to me, a sinner”. In other words, repentance is not about our actions out of guilt and transgression, but the power of God in His holiness and on His Cross to forgive the past and make all things new. During our Liturgy we constantly sing, “Lord, have mercy”. This is not about our abasement in shame, unworthy as we are to stand where we do in God’s presence.  It is about our constant, repeated, never to be forgotten and always being recalled “thinking again” - our taking on a new perspective on reality, a fresh outlook on life. It means a life lived in the joy of the mercy of God. It means the adoration of the sinner who places every hope in the Cross. It means never the burden of law and duty, nor the misery of our fall from grace, but always the treasure stored up in heaven where our hearts truly lie.

Thus the repentance in Great Lent upon which we now embark is the life of the Mother of God without any stain: freedom from sin, and the liberation to enter the Kingdom as she is filled in every part with the Holy Spirit (Proverbs 24.4 and Ephesians 3.9). It is the complete pouring out of the heart and soul to God in love, as He pours Himself into us in the entirety of His mercy, the entirety of “His Presence and His very Self” (Blessed Cardinal John Henry Newman, Praise to the Holiest in the Height).

For reflection:

My God, I love Thee; not because
I hope for heaven thereby,
nor yet because who love Thee not
are lost eternally.

Then why, O blessed Jesus Christ,
should I not love Thee well,
not for the sake of winning heaven,
nor of escaping hell;

not with the hope of gaining aught,
nor seeking a reward;
but as Thyself hast loved me,
O ever loving Lord!

So would I love Thee, dearest Lord,
and in Thy praise will sing,
solely because Thou art my God
and my most loving King.

No me mueve, mi Dios, para quererte, St John of Avila, O.C.D., 1500-1569
Translated to Latin, O Deus, ego amo te, by St Francis Xavier, S.J., 1506-1552
Translated to English, in the Lyra Catholica (1849) by Edward Caswall, Cong. Orat., 1814-1878

14 February 2016

Sunday of Zacchaeus: Homily at the Ukrainian Catholic Cathedral of the Holy Family, 13 February 2015

At the most telling points in the Divine Liturgy, the deacon calls out to the whole Church assembled, “Let us be attentive”. There it is, just before the reading from the psalms, the Prokeimenon, and the Epistle; and the priest says it, too, just before the Gospel. It is repeated before we say the Creed, and again before the Anaphora, the great Eucharistic Prayer, is offered. Once more it is heard before the Communion, when the priest elevates the Holy Lamb, the Bread of Heaven, as a symbol of Christ lifted up on His Cross, drawing all people to Himself. (John 12.32)

But this is not just a clerical exhortation. Like so many of the phrases in the Liturgy, it shows how our worship grew directly out of the life of the Church described in the Scriptures themselves. For it is the injunction of St Paul himself, encouraging his not long ordained helper and successor St Timothy, as we have heard in today’s Epistle. (I Timothy 4.9-16) “Until I arrive,” he says, “give attention to the reading, to exhorting, to teaching”.
It is just as well that St Paul advises us to be attentive, because the Epistle and the Gospel, at first glance, seem to be saying opposite things. In the Epistle, St Timothy’s example is to be one of love, faith and purity in what he says and how he lives his life. Yet in the Gospel, the example of salvation we are given is a man reviled for what he does. (Luke 19.1-10) Note carefully that nowhere in the Gospel does St Luke say that Zacchaeus actually was an extortionist and defrauder, just that his job had made him rich.  In the thinking of the time, a person’s wealth is seen as a sign of God’s blessing on their righteousness; we still madly re-invent God as the One Who will bestow success if we pray, or believe, or act right, and we still try to strike bargains with God for benefits in return for good conduct. But Zacchaeus is assumed to be corrupt and blamed for his wealth by his fellows Jews, because the office he holds and the business he conducts serve an occupying power that is pagan. He is called a sinner because he is the agent of sinful Roman pagans.

Zacchaeus, who St Luke tells us has come looking for God, will have seen his fortune, however, as a gift from God. In truth, Zacchaeus knows he is rich, but unfulfilled. It is his spiritual emptiness that turns his heart to the Lord. The people’s contempt for him as an enemy collaborator, however, has a veneer of self-righteousness because of the religious dimension. And so he stands before you accused of sin. But really, it is his neighbours who are jealous, envious of what he has.

They have no cause. For, because Zacchaeus desires to look upon the Lord, and because of an open-hearted that eagerly responds to the loving call of Jesus to receive Him, he gives half his possessions away. The bitter and righteous did not attract this out of him, and they have nothing positive to say. But salvation is seen shining in generosity out of a man who has been moved not by condemnation but inspired by the sight of Jesus - the Glory of God in a Man Alive, as St Irenaeus says, adding that the life of man is the vision of God. (Adversus  Haereses, IV, 20, 7).

In The Idiot, Dostoyevsky has Prince Myshkin admiring the portrait of Nastassya, whose reputation is tarnished. He is asked why he appreciates such beauty, and he replies that a face like that is beautiful because there is suffering in it. One of those nearby is having none of it. She says, “Beauty like that is bold. That kind of beauty could turn the world upside down.” In the end, Prince Myshkin’s instinct is to be merciful and to see that the visual beauty he first admired comes not from rectitude, or even from moral conversion, but out of suffering that has turned a person inside out so there is nothing left, a beauty to which the Christlike response can only be forgiveness and unconditional love. Thus the theme of Dostoyevsky’s tale - after all the erratic behaviour and betrayal, the suffering, testing and forbearance, the brokenness and yet the desire for wholeness and purity of love - is famous: “Beauty will save the world”.

Look at Zacchaeus as Christ did, like Prince Myshkin looked at Nastassya. Look not for the sinner, but the beauty of a soul whose suffering has changed its heart. Let us be attentive to the reading. In the Epistle, St Paul tells a St Timothy who is evidently struggling to command respect and teaching authority, “Let no one look down on your youth.” Now see the paradox of the Gospel: Jesus comes by the tree and looks up at Zacchaeus. The Son of Man is drawn to the man in the sycamore and desires to commune with him.

Where else have we noticed this? Think of Zacchaeus in the tree again. See what Jesus saw: “a man despised and rejected, a man of sorrows, acquainted with grief.” (Isaiah 53.3) Think back to the words we so often sing at the Liturgy, the first words that Jesus taught for all to hear, words that Zacchaeus had come to hear for himself: “Blessed are the poor in spirit: for theirs is the Kingdom of heaven.” (Matthew 5.3). Think of Dostoyevksy’s Christ-figure, the “Idiot” prince, looking up at the picture of that beautiful face, not despising its low reputation but seeing a suffering soul in a beautiful light as it desires nothing more than to cast off its burden, the “ancestral condemnation” of which we sang in today’s Troparion. (Resurrection Troparion, Tone 4)

Now look at the icon of this Sunday. We see Christ pointing at Zacchaeus up in a sycamore. But he is really indicating the Tree that He Himself will one day likewise climb, the Tree to which He will be fixed, as another “Man of Sorrows, despised and rejected, acquainted with grief”. It is an image of the mystery of the Crucifixion. Jesus is drawn to Zacchaeus on the sycamore by the beauty of the longing emptiness in the rich tax collector’s life. He indicates that He will likewise “draw all people” to Himself when He is lifted on the Cross, that the beauty of the image of God in man will be transfixed and disfigured, but only thus reveal the beauty that will save the world. Zacchaeus sees his own poverty of spirit and looks to see the Kingdom. The gaze of Jesus finds him and makes him into the very picture of salvation. He recognises the Tree that will claim His life, yet gives to Zacchaeus up in the sycamore not a pre-emptive revenge but the Resurrection itself. As we have considered Zacchaeus arising from the ground into the tree, from our own perspective in today’s Kontakion we have sung, “God has raised out of bondage the children of the earth.” (Resurrection Kontakion, Tone 4). So let us be attentive. The central figure of this Sunday’s gospel is not Zacchaeus, but the Tree, the Cross. The central event is not so much repentance but moving from a living death to Christ’s Resurrection.

Before we leave the scene that Christ has set, almost in passing, there is something more to dwell upon. In showing us the Tree of salvation as the sign of victory, Jesus has shown not only His future, but the state of our lives. The image He has planted is not of Himself on the Cross, but an inadequate, imperfect, struggling, anguished soul – Zacchaeus, you, me - who has turned to Him in exhaustion, emptied of all that earth has to offer. You will remember that, after St Peter and the apostles professed their faith that Jesus is the Lord’s Anointed, in the light of King Herod the Tetrarch’s menaces, Jesus had said, “Whoever wants to be my disciple must deny themselves and take up their cross daily and follow me.” (Luke 9.23). So Zacchaeus is shown professing his faith in the Christ, taking up Christ’s Cross by mounting the sycamore tree. Jesus saw his suffering, his broken spirit, his desire to see the Kingdom. This is where Christ will see it in us too.

The throngs of people who crowded round Jesus were really hiding themselves behind their show of righteousness. Jesus knew their faith was fickle, that it would let Him and them down when put to the test. We were thinking earlier that, when they turned on Zacchaeus, they were jealous. But really they were hypocrites. They condemned Zacchaeus for working for the Romans and doing well out of the proceeds. But they were no different. They traded with the pagans and prospered; the economy depended on it. Their priests and kings were happy to operate a system with the foreign “sinners”, as long as it gave them earthly power. Their influence even reached throughout the empire. But Zacchaeus alone had the courage to put himself upon the Tree and ask to see instead the Kingdom of God. He was despised not for being a sinner, or on account of the motive of jealousy. He was despised because he attracted the attention of mercy and the sheer beauty of the Lord. The people hiding in numbers in the crowd wanted to see Jesus; they were less keen for any light to shine on them, so that Jesus could see who and what they were. Their cover of hypocrisy was blown. “God has shattered the gates of Hades,” we sang. (Resurrection Kontakion, Tone 4).

When St Paul encourages Timothy, he says, “Do not neglect the gift in you.” He tells him to be attentive to the reading, and to put love, faith and purity into words, and those words into practice. Let us be attentive to this. For in our case it means putting ourselves on a Cross daily to seek a greater sight of God’s Kingdom, so that there the Lord will find us exposing how poor in spirit we are without Him, how nothing in the world brings us lasting fortune or happiness, and how whatever inner beauty we have has come from hurt and adversity, from unsatisfied longing to see the Lord as He passes along our way. From our place on the Tree, like our Lord before us – let us be attentive, as He is raised up -, daily we see Jesus in His transfigured, agonising, crucified glory seeing us in our suffering and our need to be completely free through turning to Him. And we find that it is on our Tree that what comes forth from us is the gift in us that is not to be neglected. Forth come, from us like Jesus, generosity, adoration, goodness, love, full self-offering, forgiveness without reserve, salvation and mercy that never end. This is what it is to be the one the Lord finds; this is how His beauty will save the world.