25 January 2016

Sunday 24th January, Week of Prayer for Christian Unity, St Stephen's Anglican Church, Lewisham

When Pope Benedict came to Westminster Abbey in 2010, he called for unity between Christians in their life and faith in the Risen Christ, so that we could give a convincing account of the hope that lies within us. (I Peter 3.15)
In other words, everyone expects there to be rival supermarkets, rival football teams; and no one would stake their life on any claim their fans and advertisers make. But religion is different. Everyone expects the Church to be one. Religion means “tied up with God”, so people of religion are supposed to be people of peace and goodness, people of love and unconditional forgiveness, people of brave hope. Most of all they expect our prayers should get through to God, because God has got through to us, and made us different as human beings. Not better, but capable of seeming to look like the one Lord we worship, the Christ we recommend as the truth and the hope of the world. They are telling us, ‘You pray every day “Thy Kingdom come, Thy will be done, on earth as it is in heaven”. But on earth, you live in separate heavens. You have your Anglo-Catholic heaven, your Roman Catholic heaven, your Pentecostal heaven, your Evangelical heaven, your Orthodox heaven and many more. Which is the true one? Where is this Kingdom come on earth? How do we find our way to it?”

Pope Francis has been very blunt about this. He has noticed that when the criminal gangs currently posing as Muslims come to murder our Christian brothers and sisters in the ancient Churches the Middle East, as well as in parts of Africa and Asia, they never ask, “Are you Anglican?” , or “Are you Coptic?”; “Are you Orthodox?”; “Are you Protestant, or Catholic?” They just ask, “Are you a Muslim, or a Nazarene?” Pope Saint John Paul, Pope Benedict and Pope Francis have each said that what unites us all is the martyrs for Christ’s Name. Following Christ to the end and what He called “No greater love than to lay down your life for your friends” (John 15.13) achieve complete communion in His own sacrifice, for the martyrs first and the fruit is for us. Pope Francis calls it the “ecumenism of blood”. It is true that it brings us very close in concern for each other, even thousands of miles apart; it makes us realise that what counts before the world is the common account we give, not of our rival institutions, but of one Church, our One Lord, the One Faith, One Baptism and the One God and Father. (Ephesians 4.5)
In today’s Epistle (I Corinthians 12. 12-30), Saint Paul imagines an argument between the parts of the body in which the eye tells the hand, “I have no need for you”, and the head says to the feet, “You are no use to me.” He says, “Instead, God put all the separate parts into the body for a reason”. But we Christians behave as if St Paul really said the opposite, “God put the body into separate parts for a reason.” Yet, the night before Jesus died the Lord prayed, “Father, may they all be one, as you and I, Father and Son are one, so that the world may believe it was You that sent me.” (John 17. 21) He did not say, “May some of them be one”, but all. He did not say, “Anglicans have no need of Catholics,” or tell anyone to believe that their institution was the “one, true Church” to the exclusion of others. He told Saint Peter, out of love for Him, to feed His sheep. (John 21.15).  And He told the sheep, “Listen for My voice and follow Me” (John 10.27) and thus “become one flock with one shepherd, for I lay down My life, which is why the Father loves Me.” (John 10.17)

It is clear then that, to Jesus, the unity of His disciples - the complete and obvious wholeness of His Church - is not just a matter of obeying His words, however much it costs us. It is about the laying down of His own life as the price He paid to gather us into His Kingdom, and give all humanity a vision of its blessed living that lies not in an after-life, but from here and now. The Catholic Church has therefore set itself the task of putting back together again the visible and organic unity of the Church as Christ intended, so that it could really be a genuine picture of God’s own unity, Father, Son and Spirit; so that the world might believe us when we talk about a new life this side of death, real and physical, but also spiritual and already risen from the dead with Christ. Yet even the Catholic Church feels deeply that divisions among Christians make it difficult for her to attain in actual life what it is to be completely Catholic in every way. (Unitatis Redintegratio 4, Vatican II, 1964). So what is to be done?
It all reminds me of a book called Lilith, by George Macdonald, the writer who inspired C. S. Lewis and Tolkien, where a horse and carriage full of people, find themselves dead. A rich man and his wife behave with cruelty to the coachman they employed; the coachman kicks the horse; the horse refuses to move; the others argue, blaming each other in their terrible predicament. As time drags by, they realise that every time they hit out at each other, every time they do something nasty and selfish, a bit of their bodies falls off. Finally, the coachman kicks the horse again and, both reduced to bones, they collapse in a heap. But meanwhile, one of the party has noticed that when there is a word of kindness, a shared difficulty, help and compassion, somehow their sinews seem to grow stronger, the bones knit up, the flesh becomes firm and faces regain their brightness. The selfish man and wife quickly go back to their old ways and start to fall to pieces once more. But one re-learns the lesson and, slowly, comes together again. The other, as the rest resume their journey, is left behind, cursing from his heap on the ground. But what’s this? As the coach moves off again, it too starts to fall to pieces and the party realises that it cannot leave anyone behind. So they return and help the one who is not ready, to find his new life and be put together again. Then, in their resurrected new bodies, they move on from death into the Kingdom, no longer dead but alive.

So it is that the Church, feeling incapacitated in many ways by Christian disunity, urges each body of Christians to be very close to one another, whatever our disagreements, our past history together, our estrangement and such different styles of living in Christ’s Church. Seeing the riches in each tradition, it desires for them to be shared so that all may benefit, not locked up where the others cannot reach them. It presses us to be indivisible in service of humanity in the relief of poverty and the construction of peace and justice in a society that is a manifestation of the Kingdom of heaven.

But, when you look round the world and the Churches, you could be forgiven for thinking that we are getting further apart, with our distinctions getting sharper, with our unity, that once seemed so close we could touch it, now slipping further away as we react to conditions in a fast changing world. But we should not allow this. For there are signs that unity makes progress still. Look at the concerted effort of the Anglican Communion and the Catholic Church to confront human trafficking and slave labour, especially of vulnerable women. Think of the many ways in all our parishes and dioceses, Catholics, Anglicans and Free Church people work together to be of service to the poor. A job of mine during each week is to work with those who help prisoners to overcome their past. One of the best things I know is a wonderful house in Streatham called Nehemiah, run by an Evangelical group helping ex-prisoners to leave drugs and drink behind and make a safe return to society free from the causes of their crime, so they never reoffend. It is very successful at this. Most interestingly, it also relies on a friendship and partnership with the Catholic community, who are seeking to set up more of these wonderful, hopeful houses in other parts. Another example is the Ecumenical Marian Pilgrimage which takes place every two years going to Walsingham for a few days, and in the other years making  a day pilgrimage to some other place of pilgrimage. This year in May we will go to Marian Oxford, visiting Catholic, Anglican, Orthodox and Methodist sites. Your own Father Philip Corbett and I, a Roman Catholic priest, are fellow trustees of this pilgrimage; and it is amazing how, despite everyone’s different Churches and beliefs, how close a spiritual bond is formed, as we go deep together into the mystery of our One Lord’s Incarnation.
At the present time, some of the Churches seem to be determined to set themselves goals that surely cannot be reconciled with unity of faith and life together in the one Universal Church. Your own Church has a famous history of dedication to the Catholic faith, and of love for the good and future of the Church of England, as you witness to the larger Church, the Universal dimension of Christ’s Body, and as you seek to persuade your fellow Anglicans of the vital importance of the communion of the whole Church with the successor of Peter, the Pope. I know that differences within Anglicanism are potent forces seeking to persuade people that is best to live apart from one another, let alone from other Christian Churches. For the Catholic Church people, too, we wonder how union between our Church and the Anglican Communion can ever be achieved. You feel this too, and the same situation applies to the unity hopes of other Churches as well. But it is at precisely such points, where all appears futile and impossible, that we need to be closest to one another. Families disagree and relatives do the opposite of each other all the time. But they are still related; they still love each other; they still keep together. “Blood’s thicker than water”; and another dimension of that ‘ecumenism of blood’ about which Pope Francis speaks means that we are meant to cleave to each other the more we veer apart and seek only our own company. For what Jesus prayed, he commanded: we are not allowed to be separate. The world cannot see us making other plans. It cannot see us like that. It needs to be convinced when we speak of one Christ and one heaven, one Kingdom.

It is for God to bring about His miracle of unity, for that is what it will take. But it is for us to remove all obstacles, and to be as close as we can in love, service, faith and honest hope. In this Anglican parish, part of the great historic Anglican Catholic movement, you believe in the fullness of life in Christ given in the Catholic faith, and, even though we cannot yet share the Eucharist of the Lord together, it is a vital bond that unites us on the way. Fullness of communion is for God to bring about;  but in the meantime, as St Paul reminds us, we cannot say we have no use for each other. We persevere in our faith and witness, but never in a spirit of isolation. Even if it is a lonely path at time, on our journey through this world towards the Kingdom, as the coach and horses people realised, it is heartening that we are going nowhere on our own.

10 January 2016

Homily for the Sunday after Nativity (& Baptism of the Lord), Ukrainian Catholic Cathedral of the Holy Family, London, 9 January, 2016

If you are fortunate enough to find yourself, whether in person or on line, in St Stephen’s Cathedral in Vienna for the Feast of the Epiphany of Our Lord - the Manifestation of Christ to the Gentiles, as it is also known in England - you will witness a lovely custom. At the great High Mass, the Canons of St Stephen, the array of deacons and then the Cardinal Archbishop follow into church an acolyte bearing a staff surmounted by a golden star, and three young people dressed as the Magi bearing gifts of gold, frankincense and myrrh. I think the ceremony of the Leading of the Star is familiar across Catholic German lands, because there it is believed that at Cologne Cathedral the Three Wise Men are enshrined close to the High Altar having spent their lives wandering far and wide and bearing witness to the Light they had seen, once the Star had led them to Bethlehem.

One of the differences between the Latin Roman Catholic tradition and that of the great Byzantine Church, of which our Ukrainian Greek Catholic Church and the Orthodox Churches are part, is that we do not have a separate celebration of Epiphany and the Magi from Christmas.  We commemorate the Nativity of Our Lord and God and Saviour according to the Flesh, with the singing of the angels, the adoration of the shepherds, the ox and the ass, and the discovery, gifts and veneration of the Three Wise Men, all together on the same day. For us, the Epiphany Feast is not about the revealing of the King of the Jews to visitors from outside, but the moment at Christ’s Baptism in the Jordan River - on the boundary that conjoins the Promised Land with the rest of creation and all humanity - when the Father intervenes from heaven to reveal Jesus as Son of God one earth. This is why we call Epiphany not just the revelation of Christ, but “Theophany”, the appearance of God Himself.

When we get to 6th January in our Julian Calendar (which will be on 19th January in the Gregorian calendar), we will commemorate this remarkable moment with a dramatic re-enactment of the moment when the Holy Trinity articulated itself to human sight and hearing, leaving an indelible impression on those who would then follow the Lord and become His own household of faith, the Church. In our own day, therefore, we will see our Bishop Hlib and the priests interact with the waters three times.

First, they will bless the water by making the sign of the Cross in it with a lighted candle and their hand, indicating the Father Who has sent His Son from heaven, the Light of Light, to accomplish His purposes in the world yet never leaves His side, even knowing that it will involve His Son’s death on the Cross. Secondly, they will breathing over the water as the Holy Spirit once swept over the foundations of the Creation, bringing it to birth; this recalls the Holy Spirit Who came to rest on Christ at His Baptism, noticed by the disciples looking like a dove, like the dove who found firm and fertile new ground after Noah’s flood; but also the spirit with which Jesus would breathe His last at the moment when our redemption reached its climactic completion, and the Spirit Who raised Him from the dead and that He would then send to lead us into all truth and be our constant life, advocate, and very Strength. Third, Bishop Hlib and the priests will bless the water with the Cross, which in his hands will descend into its depths only to surge upwards again in a great act of bursting forth, recalling Christ going down into the river and coming up again, He Who descended into the end of life, cleared out the realms of death and rose to stand on the firm and fertile new ground of resurrection, the Kingdom for which we pray to come on earth as it is in heaven. Here we see Father, Son and Holy Spirit, indivisible in action and intent, bringing Christ to appearance before us as God, born as one of us and in our midst, One Who has led the whole world to follow and stand in His light, One Who will reveal the entire meaning of God when the Lord is lifted on the Cross, One in Whom the entire action and sovereignty of God re-works its way through the physical creation, to make it new and abounding in blessing and the living now of God’s own eternity. If you come on the 19th January, or to Compline the evening before, you will see the people themselves crowding forward to be blessed by Bishop Hlib with the new waters of life.

By an accident of history, and also the providence of God in permitting to the Church two calendars, we in our part of the Byzantine Church find ourselves celebrating Christmas on the weekend after the Latin Church has commemorated the Visit of the Magi and during the one on which it celebrates the Baptism of Christ. To add to the richness of the coincidence of so many themes and feasts, in our Gospel today (Matthew 2. 13-23), we pick up the story of Christ’s Nativity when it is not a star in the created universe this time, but a direct messenger from the Father’s side. It has come, first, to warn the Magi to escape imminent danger by taking a different road home and, secondly, to impress upon Saint Joseph the urgent need to flee to Egypt (like Joseph son of Jacob before him), in the hope of one day restoring to God’s people a time of plenty and liberty in the Promised Land. This Sunday each year we hear of the first to shed their blood for the sake of Christ, the Holy Innocents. We not only recall the vocation and service of Saint Joseph, but also the Apostle St James, who would likewise offer the whole of his life in loyalty to his Brother in the Flesh, and David the King, whose psalms foretelling the Lord’s work of salvation we have sung, the ancestor of the Joseph and thus the founder of the House to which Our Lord, belonged, the Holy Family to which this Temple is dedicated.

To think of all these things at the same time may feel at first confusing. But it all comes down to one thing: the single-mindedness of God in bringing about our world’s rescue, signified to us in the unerring, resolute and solid following of a rare but long calculated light in the night skies that took them to behold the Light coming into the world that no darkness could cover and no other light could show up better, or outshine.

Thus King David said, “I waited patiently for the Lord,” (Psalm 39.1) and “God is the Lord and has appeared to us in light.” (Psalm 117.27)

Thus the Magi pursued only the Star; they beheld the Light of Lights and saw its refraction when an Angel told them to go further on their way into life and the future Church’s story, as if to say, now “let your light so shine before people that they may see your good works and give the glory to God in heaven.” (Matthew 5.16)

Thus Joseph was enlightened by the Angel; he at once led his Family to safety and just as faithfully brought them back so that Jesus might prepare for the coming Kingdom.

Thus the Holy Innocents are not only the blameless and passive victims of a politician’s tyranny or paranoid control freakery, but also the loved and unfadingly luminous patrons of all the innocents that have suffered and ever thirsted after righteousness in a world made new. They are those whose unwilled sacrifice has been taken and transformed by God to serve the purposes of salvation in the hands of Christ His Son, the One Who would one day follow them into death, but remaining still the Undimmed Light that no dark can overwhelm.

Thus the Father, the Son and the Spirit, too, are seen pressing their way through into the creation. The Father presses in, to give His own voice to His Son, and to show His hand, as it were – never losing its clasp on the hand of Christ in all the miracles, all the overturning of tables, all the holding onto donkeys, all the breaking of Bread, all the endurance of nails, all the forcing aside of the sealed stone of the Tomb. It is the Father’s own light showing Christ to be none other than Son of God, Light from Light. The Spirit presses through, so that He may be seen resting on Christ, as once He brooded over the imminent creation and filled the Temple with the clouds of fire-and-light-glory that once led the People of the Hebrews through the desert and the dark. From within the Holy Trinity, the Son presses Himself into the water, so that the shape of the Cross - the sign of Who and What God’s Love Is - will indelibly mark the creation, such that immediately St John the Baptist recognises Him in the clear light of heaven’s day coming out of the waters as Lamb of God, come to take away the sin of the world.

And how about ourselves? How is it that we press on and through? What is to be our single-minded, unerring, and solid following of the Star that captured the minds, then the hearts, and then the souls of the Magi when they saw the Light come into the world?

Our baptism is the moment to which we all look back - even if we cannot remember it - as the moment when this single-minded, relentless Light from another Kingdom not only dawned on us, but lit us too. In the Troparion for today we sang:

Your Nativity, O Christ our God, made the Light of knowledge to dawn on the world. Through it those who worshipped the stars were taught by a star to worship You, the Sun of Righteousness, and to know you, the Dawn from on high.

The Dawning of the Light of knowledge on the world was not, however, a single event in the past, for it must rise up on everyone in each new generation. It does so, because the light is no longer one to intrigue people from portents coming through the outer cosmos, but in the purity and determination - the love to the end - of those who follow Christ, who believe his promise, and shine with the glory of heaven that their very souls reflect all round them. The rulers of this world, such as those in Belgium who want a Catholic care home to perform euthanasia or be closed down, or those benighted, crazed false-followers of religion, who think they can stamp out Christ by destroying His faithful followers, will always resent the Dawn from on high, or they will force themselves to be blind to the Sun of Righteousness. But for us, it is simply the Truth about everything that Jesus is Lord of all, that he has “destroyed death …opened Paradise to the thief, [even to me,] changed lamentation … to joy … offering great mercy to the world.”(Troparion of the Resurrection, Tone 7)  In which other direction would we go?

So I am left with the moving image of the glories of the Epiphany at Vienna, with the Cardinal Archbishop and all the people, excited, happy, lit with God, and full of hope  going out of the great Liturgy into the world, taking all of Christ’s heaven with them, following the Star.