28 January 2018

Only say the Word: Homily for the Fourth Sunday after the Epiphany, Church of St Godric, Durham: 28 January 2018

Whenever we hear in the Scriptures talk of the Lord’s raising a man up, immediately we think of the Father Who raised up His Son from the grace of death, to the Resurrection that opens up to us the new and living Way. In today’s reading from the Old Testament (Deuteronomy 18.52-20), God raises up a prophet who will speak the very words of God Himself; and so we who are Christians, always reading the Hebrew Scriptures in the light of Christ, think not just of a prophet and his words from long ago but of the Word of God, the Lord God incarnate Himself, Emmanuel, God with us, the Word made flesh.

And when we hear in the Gospel (Mark 1.21-28) that Christ teaches with authority, we see Who the Word is, and what this Word means. This Word brings with it the power to enter right into our souls and, with one command, to free them from what constrains and binds us, all that keeps us sinning and inclined to our usual old ways, and everything that holds us back from God, holds us back from praising Him for all He has done for us and everything that He means to us, and holds us back from following Him where He leads us onto that new and living Way.

St Paul typically presents a stark contrast of extremes (I Corinthians 7.32-35), a rhetorical exaggeration to make this very point easy to grasp in the midst of our lives. He says that single people are free to devote themselves to Christ, and married people need constantly to be consumed with husbands, wives and families He could easily have said the same about our work and daily duties, our passions in life and our leisure activity, about our ideas and our politics, about sport or meeting up with others in our groups of those we know in the communities of life in which we are all bound up. St Paul’s point would be the same. Whatever we are caught up in, whatever involves us, even to the depths and heights of our natures, nothing must ultimately and completely get in the way of our fundamental devotion to Christ, and our love for Him as “our” Person, the One for us, out of which all other human loves and attachments flow.

In a few moments’ time, at the hands of our priest, no prophet of old but the Lord Himself shall be raised up; and we shall ask Him, “only say the word”. Thus we shall ask Him to tell the truth about us, to loosen us from what is holding us back, to heal our souls, and to fill us with His own life, God with us. When we see Him, he captures us in adoration. We who have sung from our hearts find our hearts are indeed lifted up and for a moment in this sacred place we are in heaven here in the world. All that St Paul is saying is, when you leave and go back to your home and your earthly affairs, don’t leave heaven behind but take it with you. Just as you have seen the Word made flesh raised up and speaking into your soul, so let the people to whom we are going to return see the same Lord in us and hear Him inciting them too to find His new and living Way. None will see His glory in the world unless they can see it in us and desire the same for themselves.

So let it be that we who have been taken up with His glory, and worshipped the One raised up on the Cross for our sake, the One raised up from the dead to open up for us our new and living Way, and the One raised up in the Host to speak the Word deep into our souls to heal and delight us - let it be that we, even we, may be the vision of Christ to the people of the world, and the ones to bring the world to desire to live and be as the very Kingdom of God.

14 January 2018

The Holly and The Tree of Life: Homily for the Forefeast of Theophany & the Circumcision of Christ: 14 January 2018, Ukrainian Greek Catholic Cathedral of the Holy Family, London

The holly bears a berry
As red as any blood
And Mary bore sweet Jesus Christ
To do poor sinners good.

The holly bears a prickle,
As sharp as any thorn,
And Mary bore sweet Jesus Christ
For Our Saviour Christmas morn.

The holly bears a bark,
As bitter as any gall,
And Mary bore sweet Jesus Christ
For to redeem us all.

So runs the Birmingham carol, The Holly and the Ivy. A like understanding  of the purpose of Christ’s Incarnation for our sake occurs throughout the hymns and carols sung in England to this day at Christmastime. In the American John Hopkins’ Epiphany carol, We three Kings of Orient are, Balthazar sings:

Myrrh is mine; its bitter perfume
Breathes a life of gathering gloom;
Sorrowing, sighing, bleeding, dying,
Sealed in a stone-cold tomb.

And in Charles Wesley’s great dogmatic hymn to the incarnation of the Divine Sun of Righteousness (Hark! The herald angels sing:  an eighteenth century text drawn direct from the Fathers of the third and fourth centuries) we hear:

Veiled in flesh the Godhead see:
Hail the incarnate Deity ….
Mild He lays His glory by,
Born that man no more may die.

In the Christian east, popular hymns, as well as those of the Liturgy, honour the self-emptying of God, his condescension (as the Circumcision of Christ is referred to in today’s Troparion) to be born into the world as the Word made flesh - our God united with humanity in person, revealed by light and love in Jesus Christ Himself. Even so, there is still a hint of where this will all lead to. One Ukrainian hymn of the eighteenth century begins with the Lord being born to die: “God born a mortal, who can claim to know Him?” Who indeed can have known what He was to be about and why? Another sings, “Mary gently holds Him, tenderly consoles Him”, but not only as her little one: as the One Who has come to work redemption for her, and for all: “Hush , my Child, my God, my Saviour” (Tidings of Great Wonder).

In parts of Christianity where European Christmas customs have been embraced, East and West alike, there is a rich imaginative tradition that identifies not only the Holly and the Ivy, but also the illuminated Christmas Tree with both the Tree of Life in the Garden of Eden and the Cross of Christ. Both signal the same Mystery: death and longing for life, shame and victory, light and dark. And at Bethlehem, the stable of our Lord’s Nativity is a cave in the rock, blazing with light from within, and foreshadowing the rock Tomb in Jerusalem out of which Resurrection will burst through Christ’s death to new life.

And the same story is set before us on today’s feast of the Circumcision (Luke 2.20-21, 40-52), to prepare us for what the Incarnation, the Nativity and the Theophany ultimately mean and lead to. Here are the shepherds returning from the cave of Christ’s birth giving glory to God for what they had witnessed, like the angels who told the apostles, “Why seek the living among the dead – He is not here, He is risen”. This is an echo of what Christ Himself says to His Mother and Saint Joseph when they come looking for Him in the Temple: “Why were you looking for me? Did you not know that I must be in my Father’s house?” – not just the Temple, but the very dimension of existence that He calls both the Kingdom of Heaven and Eternal Life, and which was yet to be revealed to us at His Resurrection. Thus we gather around the new-born Lord again on the Eighth Day, the day each week when the cycle of creation and resurrection is repeated as we still repeat it, and as the apostles instinctively turned to the week after the first Easter, when St Thomas acclaimed the Risen Jesus, “My Lord and my God.” We find ourselves witness to His Circumcision - not only the ancient Hebrew act of faith and covenant that bonds God to His people and each person to God, but also the first letting of the Blood that would inexorably be shed upon the Cross. We hear Him named Jesus - Yeshua, He Who saves - just as He will be acclaimed the Son of David coming to save God’s people, with Hosanna: Hoshana, Blessed One Who comes in the Name of the Lord. We see Him enter Jerusalem with Mary and Joseph for the Passover, just as He will in future go up with the Disciples to begin the week that ends in His Passion. We seem Him filled with Divine Wisdom in the Temple of His Father, teaching the teachers, just as He will one day return to overturn its tables and the corruption of its very purpose,  when He restores the Presence of the King, “God Who is With Us”, the Wisdom at the heart of all Creation and revealed in all its glory shining out of the Holy of Holies.

But there is more to this revelation than a restoration of true balance to the account of God’s engagement with His people. There is more than the hints of the blood, the passion and the acceptable sacrifice that are set to come and which we can detect even in the Gospel story of His early years.  After Jesus has grown into a man approaches His great apotheosis before all the world at the waters of Baptism, the Father identifies Him as His Son from heaven; but it takes St John the Baptist to realise that to us in the world He is the sacrificial Lamb – and that this is what is God looks  like, what at the heart of everything God is about - in His Temple throne, in the Brilliant Cave of the Star, the Angels, the Magi and the Shepherds, and by the Waters of Jordan when they were made to echo the Voice of Thunder.  So, the Wisdom of God looks first to us like a failure, an air of death about it, a drowning out as much as a washing clean, a weakening loss of blood: rejection, humiliation, disposal. God’s Wisdom is looking like madness to men, says St Paul; yet it is wiser than any human wisdom. For the throne of God in glory is none other than the Cross. The King  we have been given, hailed as God by His own Father in heaven, is none other than a life as cheap as a symbolic animal whose life we can afford to throw away. The Wisdom of God is a Lamb that does not open its mouth on the way to its slaughter.

In a moving prayer from the middle of Lent, the Anglican tradition prays: “Almighty God, Whose most dear Son went not up to joy but first He suffered pain, and entered not into glory before He was crucified: Mercifully grant that we, walking in the way of the Cross, may find it none other than the way of life and peace.”

This is the pattern and sequence of life that St Paul proposes we make our own as Christians. He looks back at Christ’s pre-sacrificial Circumcision, and sees that God has clothed Himself with mortality, so that humanity can be robed in immortality. Christ sowed His physical body, Paul said, and rose up with a spiritual body – what was perishable on the Cross is turned immortal in the Tomb. So, he tells us to think past the physical Circumcision, beyond the Passion and the Cross, and to behold the Resurrection. He had emptied Himself, or submitted as today’s Kontakion has it. But this is how He “cuts off the failing of mortals” in favour of the only alternative left: salvation.

Or to look at it another way, the fullness of God came to dwell in Christ’s Body, and the fullness of Christ has come to dwell in us, says St Paul in today’s Epistle (Colossians 2.8-12). So where does the fullness that is in us go to in turn? Paul tells us: it was buried in baptism, so you could slip off your mortal confines: You go not up to joy but first you suffer pain; you enter not into glory before you too are crucified by walking the Way of the Cross and finding it none other than the way of life and peace. Thus we see where we go in life, and why. The meaning of the holly, is the meaning of the Tree of Life and the Cross of Christ, and it is ours:

The holly bears a bark,
As bitter as any gall,
And Mary bore sweet Jesus Christ
For to redeem us all.

Troparion of the Feast, Tone 1. You are seated on high on a fiery throne, * with Your Father Who is without beginning and Your divine Spirit. * Yet You willed, O Jesus, to be born of a virgin maiden, Your Mother, * and as man, You were circumcised on the eighth day, * Glory to Your all-gracious will, * Glory to Your providence, * glory to Your condescension, O You who alone love mankind.

Kontakion of the Feast, Tone 3. The Lord of all submits to circumcision * and in His love cuts off the failings of mortals; * today He gives the world salvation, * while in the highest there rejoices * Basil the hierarch of the Creator and bearer of light, * and the divine initiate of Christ.