13 May 2018

The City in a Mirror: Homily for the Sunday of the Man Born Blind, at the Liturgy of St John Chrysostom, Ukrainian Catholic Cathedral of the Holy Family, London, 13th May 2018

Cast your mind back to the Sunday of Zacchaeus earlier in the year. We all remember the story (Luke 19.1-10); but try to recall the icon of the feast. It showed Zacchaeus up in the sycamore, but with his arms outstretched on the branches for support. The Lord was addressing him from below. The irony was vivid. Here was an image of the Crucifixion in a mirror. It is not the disciple in the tree, but the Lord. He addresses forgiveness and a new life to the disciple not from the ground but from the Cross. The Lord on the Cross does not require the Tree to support Him: He holds it as His tool to support the world while He wins its redemption. He is not raised up on the Cross so much as He raises the world up to gaze on Him as He prepares by death to bring about Resurrection. Christ sees not just one sinner struggling with himself on the boughs; for, by nailing Himself to the Cross-beam of the Tree of life, He struggles with death itself, and in His sight throughout He holds before Him all sinners that would turn their hearts from the decay of sin to God, to living for eternity even here.

The account of St Peter in his chains (Acts 12.1-11) and the miracle for the Man Born Blind (John 9.1-38) are more of the Bible’s stories with mirrors. What has happened to whom, and who is really meant by the stories? Let us go through what we have just heard.
  • The angel shines light into Peter’s cell and tells him, “Get up quickly,” as the chains fall from his wrists. Instantly, Peter is back at that moment when he ran with St John to the Lord’s tomb (John 20.4) and sees where the bright angel has shone light on the abandoned grave-clothes. He sees now, as he saw then. So we know this story is about Peter’s own resurrection from fear, from living with an outlook towards death. “Get up quickly, Peter: Be arisen with the Lord.”
  • The angel tells him, “Fasten your belt and put on your sandals … Wrap your cloak.” To Peter it is a dream; and yet he will be recalling the Lord’s words to him and the other apostles – “Do not take anything for your journey” (Luke 9.3). No more clothes and supplies: no cloak, no sandals (Luke 22.35). Peter is being sent out with different instructions. Peter’s fresh approach is confirmed: Indeed the Kingdom is come now; and nature, creation and humanity make their journey in a new Light.
  • Then the angel says, “Follow me.” Peter begins to wake and is astounded. He is right by the sea of Galilee now, with his brother Andrew and their nets (Matthew 4.18). The first time he heard these words it was, “Leave your nets and follow me, and I will make you fishermen of people.” Then as the years go by, the tone becomes more grave: “If you want to follow me, you must deny yourself, and take up your cross and follow me. What have you won if you gain the world and lose your soul?” (Mark 8.34-36) Such a cross is the loss of captivity and gaining freedom; it is the city’s cold iron gate that opens up and leads within, our liberation beyond destruction into the city of the Kingdom of heaven - not Herod’s old Jerusalem, but the City of God set on a hill that cannot hide its light.

With all these thoughts and words, Peter realised that the Angel liberating him from an earthly imprisonment was none other than Christ Himself, taking him out of darkness into God’s marvellous light (I Peter 2.9), as he himself put it, seeking out what is unclear in this darker realm, and transferring it into the Kingdom of His Son (Colossians 1.13). Here we can see what and who it truly is – our life and resurrection, and our hope. The mystery deepens in the gospel, not to obscure, but to draw us in.
  • The neighbours say to the Man Born Blind that now can see, “Is this not this the man who used to sit and beg?” And he replies, “I am the man.” Now, where have we heard this before? Recall when Jesus says, “I am the Bread of life come down from heaven.” Those who would not follow Him grumbled, “Is this not the man Who is Jesus, son of Joseph, Whose mother and father we know. How can He say this?” We have the same reversal as Zacchaeus in his tree, and Christ signalling the Cross that is to come. Here the Man Born Blind whose heart has been turned into that of a follower, stands in for Jesus. “Look at him,” Jesus says, “and you will see Me. Reject him, how he sees by faith now and not just sight (cf. II Corinthians 5.7), and you reject Me. Dismiss the truth he is telling you, and you will turn truth on its head when it comes to Me.”
  • "It is he,” say the neighbours. We are thrust forward into the hours before the Passion now. Jesus is betrayed and He asks the Temple guards, “Who are you seeking?” They call for Jesus of Nazareth and He replies, “I am He.” We look back and forth between the Man Born Blind and Jesus. What are we being told? The Man Born Blind keeps saying, “I am He.” And we realise all those times we have heard this before. Jesus says to us, “Yes – you are getting it. Keeping joining the pieces together. See Who I am in the pattern of your own humanity, and then you can see who you are in the pattern of my divinity: I am he. I am the Bread of Life and unless you eat Me, you shall have no life within you. I am the Door of the Sheep and, unless by way of Me, no one gets in. I am the Vine and if you branches get yourselves cut off, you are branches of Me no more. I am the way, the truth and the life; unless you come My way, you will not find the path to the Father. I am the resurrection and the life, and you will not find the life you are to live unless you trust and believe Me. I am the light of the world, and you will be walking about in darkness until you follow the light I shine.”
  • And then finally, says the man now seeing, “I am the man.” Christ says, “Look at this – listen! Have ears to hear and eyes to see. This is what is coming: in the pattern of your humanity, I am the pattern for your life in God.” (cf. Galatians 2.20) In the miracle the Man Born Blind says, “I am the man.” So, when the high priest asks  Jesus if He is the Son of the Blessed, He replies, “I am, and you will see the Son of Man sitting at the right hand of power” (Mark 14.62). And when He comes out spitefully crowned with thorns and mockingly robed in purple, Pilate says it too: “Behold the man. Ecce homo.” “Are you a king?” he demands. “Just as you say,” says the Lord, “I am.”

The Lord that the Man Born Blind sees before him, he sees in himself. The eyes that are opened see not just a miracle for one person, but the future for humanity entire. Christ asks him, “What do you see; what do you believe? Do you believe in the Son of Man who will be held up to ridicule by Pilate? Do you see the heavens opened, when even the high priest cannot? Do you see the Son of Man – a human being - sitting at the right hand of power and coming with heaven for you, another human being? Do you see that?” The Man Born Blind says, “What? Who is this Son of Man?” Jesus says, “You have seen Him already.” The face of the Man Born Blind is confused, as his eyes search for what on earth Jesus can mean. So Jesus plays back the recording of what the Blind Man said himself: “I am He.” The sight is fully revealed, and it is fully revealing. The Man looks at himself, recalls his words, and sees the pattern of heaven cut out in the shape of a human being. “Lord, I believe,” he says. “I trust You. I understand. I see.”

We, who look upon the holy icons and touch as far as Heaven when it kisses us back, understand that we see as we are seen, that the Mother of God and the saints look out upon us from the Kingdom and draw us close within. We see Christ on His Cross at Calvary imagining us into the future Kingdom. We see the Great Angel taking us from captivity into the heart of the freeing mystery of God’s own life. We see ourselves like Zacchaeus representing for a moment the life of the Cross that will save us. We see ourselves as Peter who will be “got up quickly” from the prospect of death to new life in the City of God. And we must see ourselves like the Man Born Blind, who recognised who Christ is, reflected in the pattern of his own humanity, and it dawned on him what he was now remade to be, on the pattern of Christ’s divine life itself. We do not live merely as pilgrims from this life to a better world. How great our joy, however hard our struggle, God sees us realising the pattern He designed for humanity, living and dying and living again such that it mirrors how “the Kingdom has come in the midst of you” (Luke 17.21) and a whole world’s citizenship is that of Heaven. (Philippians 3.20)

05 May 2018

Mother of The Church: Sermon at Mass at the Shrine of Our Lady of Willesden, Ecumenical Marian Pilgrimage, 5th May, 2018

In a few weeks’ time we shall be keeping for the first time the feast of Mary Mother of the Church. The history behind this new commemoration is significant for those desiring the Church’s unity.

Following Pope Pius XII’s definition of the Assumption as a teaching of the Church necessary for salvation - because it emphasised the sanctity of physical life in the hope of resurrection, in the light of Nazi and Stalinist evils - there was a powerful movement for a further declaration on the role that Mary plays in our redemption. When St John XXIII called the Second Vatican Council, numerous bishops promoted the dogmatic definition of Mary as Co-Redeemer and Mediatrix of All Graces. Now, it is true that without Mary’s assent, Christ our Redeemer could never have been born to her, and thus go on to effect our salvation on the Cross. And it is also true that none of us receives the fruits of that sacrifice without co-operating with the grace of God and, as St Paul puts it, working out our own salvation with fear and trembling. So, in that sense, we are all co-redeemers, co-operators with the grace of redemption, bringing about the power of Christ to save us by turning to his love and mercy in repentance, and by seeking the gift of faith to grow ever closer to Him in love and holiness.

And Mary has been called Mediatrix for two reasons. First, not because she is the gate-keeper, but because she is the Gate, who willingly opened for Him to come to us and we to Him. Secondly she is called Mediatrix, because Christ is the sole mediator of our salvation - he alone died and rose again for our sake - and all Mary’s graces come from Him. Thus Mary is mediator of all graces not because she makes or supplies them, but because she is the foremost to pray for them - just as she prayed her Son to give the new wine of the Kingdom at the wedding at Cana in Galilee, and just as she stood at the foot of the Cross to the very end, praying silently before her Son as He worked for the forgiveness and restoration of the whole of humanity. Christ the sole mediator of our salvation; Mary the foremost in the mediation of interceding for us.

Devotion to Our Lady as Co-Redemptrix and Mediatrix has deep roots in the Scriptures, in the Fathers, in our spirituality in the western Catholic Church and in our liturgy. For instance, in our Mass every day, we offer the gifts bestowed by God as oblations to the Father in Christ’s communion with the Blessed Virgin and the apostles, martyrs and saints. There is even an optional feast of Our Lady under these titles on May 31st. But to insist on this one particular way of looking at our approach to God - or rather His approach to us – as a teaching of the Church necessary for salvation?

Yet at the Second Vatican Council, the urge to proclaim it gained momentum. But so did a richer way of describing the mystery of the Church as not only the Body of Christ, but also as the faithful People of God established by communion in Christ through the Holy Spirit. Our Lady’s significance came to be understood as the foremost intercessor among the faithful, as the prime example of those who have been redeemed by Christ, as the one who is full of grace from the Spirit of God so that we in turn thanks to her prayers may receive grace upon grace. Therefore, it was decided that there would be no separate declaration about Mary’s role in our salvation at the Council. Instead she is placed within the dogmatic constitution on the Church, Lumen Gentium, as its crowning section about the Church’s meaning for and about all humanity.

But how to describe her? A declaration of Mary as Co-Redemptrix and Mediatrix seemed out of context. The terms were mentioned, but it was clear that the thinking behind them was alien to Protestants, who were respected observers at the Council, and for whom they would cause more questions than explain if used as the main titles, as some had hoped. The Council’s advisers dug into the Church’s tradition and asked, “What about Mary as Type of the Church - she who is typical of the Church and everyone in it?” This too is mentioned, but it was felt to be too technical to be the declared title. Nowadays we might have suggested “Icon of the Church”, but this was not as imaginable in those days as it is today.

Eventually, thoughts turned to the words of Christ to His Mother from the Cross, “Behold your Son”, and to St John, “Behold your mother”. The experts and bishops asked, “What, if we were to describe Mary as Mother - of the Church as one Body of Christ in the household of faith?” The notion won assent, but there were new objections.

[Catholic critics pointed out that the Church already had the Virgin as Patron: Our Lady of Victory. But this description dates from the moment in 1571 when the naval power of the Muslim Ottoman Empire, which had overthrown the Greek Orthodox Eastern Roman Empire, was defeated at Lepanto. The victory prevented the invasion of Italy, the Islamic capture of Rome, and the extension of Islam further into Europe and the Atlantic. Pope Pius V attributed the prevention of western Christendom from suffering the same calamity as the East to the intercession of Our Lady and the Rosary. We still keep the feast of Our Lady of the Rosary, or of Our Lady of Victory, for this reason in October 5th. But it did not fit what the Fathers of Vatican II were trying to express concerning the life of the Church as heaven on Earth, and how Mary serves in God’s scheme of all humanity’s salvation. Moreover, it was couched in terms of past history and strife between religions, states and individual persons. Could there not be a more positive account of the Church? Besides, Our Lady as Patron, whether of Victory or the Rosary, is a masculine term. The Council was seeking after a Matron instead: the Mother for our Mother the Church.

Greater anxiety arose from an even more unexpected quarter]: the Eastern Catholics and the Orthodox observers at the Council. They said, “If you speak of Mary as Mother of the Church, you exalt her above the Church, as though she is outside it, as though it came out of her as if she gave birth to it, which is not true. Yet she is not above the Church, as she watches, prays and hopes for it. She is an essential part of it within it. She is nothing if she is not a disciple too - if she is not the first of those to hear the Word, if she is not first among those to be redeemed, if she is not the first to be united with God in Christ.” Furthermore, they explained, numerous times every day in the East in the services, Mary is referred to as Mother of God. The title is crucial is crucial and must stand pre-eminent. It became common currency at the Council of Ephesus in the third century, when it became essential to make it crystal clear that Mary’s human Son was none other than God Himself taking flesh. For if God does not become human, how can His salvation work inside of our human nature; and how can we become one with Him as He said we are to be? So, to the East, Mary’s being Mother refers primarily not to us, but to her Son’s work in our flesh for our sake. For a moment, then, it seemed that the Catholic Church’s relations with Orthodoxy might stand or fall on using this one phrase: Mother of the Church. If Catholics enshrined it at a Council, would it be teaching that the Orthodox and the Eastern Catholics could never express? Was it such a distorted of our shared faith as to be heresy?

Swiftly, however, the text was finalised to declare Mary as Mother of God "within the mystery of Christ and the Church". It shows that Mary is not interceding and standing as Mother above the Church, but within, praying and loving at its heart, for ever serving as a vessel for grace to flow to us from Christ - always the Mother that is the one who gave birth to Him who in turn bestowed her on us as our constant Mother at the foot of the cross that we daily take up in turn, never leaving our side as we follow Him, just as she never left Him.

If you look at the image of the Crucified, you will often see this mystery expressed by the Lord speaking to St John on the left and the Mother of God on the right, and thus founding the first household of faith within which she is Mother too. But Pope Francis has set the feast of her Motherhood in the Church not in Passiontide, but on the Monday in the old octave of Pentecost. If you look at Eastern Church icons, you may understand why. In icons of the coming of the Holy Spirit on the apostles, you will invariably see present the Mother of God, often holding forward the protective veil by which her intercession covers the people of God in their needs. You could also bear in mind the western mediƦval image of Our Lady of Mercy, in which the Virgin’s head-veil is capacious enough to extend around all the saints and faithful who shelter beneath it, turning to her for prayers for mercy from God - Who will freely grant then out of such pure exchanges of love for love. Look more closely at how each of these images is set out – Christ lifted on his Cross and the Virgin and St John at its foot either sides; the Mother to St John and the Apostles either side holding out a veil; Our Lady of Mercy extending her veil with her arms around God’s children - and you might see the form of The Dove, His wings outstretched to encompass all those whom He is making holy.

And this is why Pope Francis, I suspect, has chosen the day immediately following Pentecost: Not only because Mary was integral to the fellowship of the apostles when the Holy Spirit brought His power upon the infant Church, but because, overshadowing her from the moment of Christ’s incarnation at the message from archangel Gabriel rendering her full of grace, truly she is filled with Him. And, if she is Mother to the Church, Mother for the Church and Mother in the Church, it is only so because most truly it is from the Holy Spirit that her Motherhood to, for and within the Church has come.

The approaching feast of Our Lady Mother of the Church comes from an idea 50 years ago that unexpectedly caused ecumenical commotion. It drew on reflections by previous popes and even going back to St Ambrose, but always seeing the Mother within the Church, "co-operating with the birth and growth of divine life in the souls of the redeemed" as the first among their number, as Blessed Paul VI confirmed when he declared her Mother of the Church in his Credo of the People of God a few years after the Lumen Gentium in 1968. Thus, there was to be no proclamation of a dogma that could divide us further, but there was a steep learning curve that taught the Catholic Church to be precise about how it teaches about our redemption in Christ, what we mean by our faith in the sacrifice of the Eucharist, the mediation of Christ and the intense intercession of the Virgin for Christ’s people in union with her Son. But it also enabled a profound realisation that everything that we love about Mary - and turn to her for - comes from none other than Christ as the gift of the Holy Spirit – the Spirit Who would fill us as He filled her, Who leads us into all truth as she in turn leads us to do Whatever He tells us to, the Spirit Who is placed within every prophet of God, just as she is placed in the Household of Faith as its Mother. 

And when our unity in that Household comes, because it is the only one that Christ ever founded for us, it will be at the intercession of its Mother filled with same Holy Spirit Who alone was with Christ in the night of His agony, when He prayed, “Father, may they all be one as you and I are one.”

Mary, Our Lady of Mercy, Mother of God and Mother of the Church, pray that we may all be one as the Father and the Son are one, in the Holy Spirit – “that the world may believe.”