20 December 2019

Wider than the heavens, our bearing of the Light of the World: Homily for the Twenty-Sixth Sunday after Pentecost, Divine Liturgy of St John Chryostom, Ukrainian Cathollic Cathedral, London, 15th December 2019

In the six years since we have been celebrating the Divine Liturgy in English each month at the Ukrainian Cathedral, I do not think it has happened so far that we have encountered the Sunday chants of the Resurrection in the First Tone. So now here we are in the preparation for celebrating the Lord’s Advent in the flesh in 2019, and we encounter less familiar words to acclaim His rising from the dead.

But it is all of a piece. In the Troparion (see below), we see how the earth contains within it the body of the Lord, a stone laid to seal it in. At His resurrection the Lord gives life to the world of death, first arising within the Tomb before arising from it. It reminds us of how the Prophet Isaiah said (Isaiah 45.8), “Drop down, you heavens from above, and let the skies pour down righteousness. Let the earth come open, and bring forth a Saviour”. In the same way as the Spirit from the Father flooded the Tomb on the Third Day, that in the living of the Trinity the Son of Man and Son of God might rise from the dead, so the Holy Spirit pours down grace upon the Blessed Virgin Mary, filling her with that righteousness that will have been won in the future by her Son’s bloodshed on the Cross, and interring within her, like a plant in the earth, the Incarnate Word Whom she will bring forth as the Saviour. The Tomb, the Womb, a Saviour emerging from within the world and bringing out through it the Kingdom of heaven: it could come no other way. We could not reach it. Instead it has reached into us. Its burst upon our scene is so surprising that it is unrecognisable; but that is what is facing us. Thus we sing, “Glory to Your Kingdom; glory to Your saving plan”. The Lord tells us (Luke 17.22f): “The time is coming when you will long to see one of the days of the Son of Man, but you will not see it. People will tell you, ‘Look, there He is,’ or ‘Here He is.’ Do not go out or chase after them. For as the lightning flashes and lights up the sky from one end to the other, so will be the Son of Man in His day. But first He must suffer many things and be rejected.” In other words the Kingdom will come not in a spectacle, but within the life spent in human and divine love upon the Cross, from within a dead body laid in the earth; and that it all began to play out from within the womb of Virgin, just as it was all conceived when the Spirit of God brooded across the waters and the Creator spoke in His Word, saying, “Let there be Light” - the Word that would take flesh and dwell among us, the True Light who lights every man from within, even though the direction of that light from the very way He made it, caused it not to be recognised.

Both the Troparion and the Kontakion speak of the glory of this light, just as St Paul today exhorts us (Ephesians 5.9-19) to spurn the works of darkness and enjoy the fruit of light. But where is this light to be seen? How is it visible, seeing that we lack the bearings to see it and where it is coming from, even if we notice the shadows where it does not shine? He tells us that we can stand in the light by being awake to the wisdom and will of God in the present moment, not putting things off because we think the Kingdom of God, with the demands and opportunities of our new way of living eternally, can be dealt with all in good time. He tells us not to be fooled by the “business as usual” of the world we are in. He says the days are evil. In our current parlance, we could reply, “Yes, but let’s be realistic. Let’s do a reality check. Let’s deal with the world as it is, not as it’s not. Let’s meet people where they are, not blame them for being where we think they shouldn’t be. As for ourselves, you can only do so much. I am what I am. Take me as you find me. We can cross that bridge when we come to it. We have to live in the real world. We’ll think about heaven when we need to. There’s too much to do here and now. Life is not a rehearsal. Life’s for living, not for dying.” The parlance in the Lord’s time was “Relax and enjoy. Eat, drink and be merry” (Luke 12.16-21); and “Eat and drink today. Die tomorrow” (Isaiah 22.13; I Corinthians 15.32). And to that, the Lord Who said, “Call no man a fool” (Matthew 5.22), says, “Fool – your soul is required of you tonight!”

It is interesting that St Paul’s antidote to living in this world, without paying attention to the direction from which the Kingdom is entering, is to sing hymns and spiritual songs. I have been singing hymns all my life. One can remember so much of them by heart. The way our brains work is that, often, we cannot remember the words so easily on their own, but when the music is recalled it unlocks the words. It is all to do with where the memory of music and thus lyrics is laid down in our heads. This is why so much of our Divine Liturgy’s prayer is sung, whereas in the Latin Church more of it is spoken. We not only remember it better. It sinks in; and we can call it forth from spirits when we sing. So I urge you to learn and sing our hymns and spiritual songs, not only in our Byzantine Liturgy, but also in our rich Christian culture in England. Try not to rely on texts and orders of services, but, as St Paul says, “sing and make melody to the Lord with your heart”. For this is the direction from which comes the light that we call radiant, and that others just cannot see, or that they dismiss as religious fervour. So, if you find it difficult to pray, or to concentrate on devotions – sing. Even if you are embarrassed to sing out loud, recall a tune in your head that unlocks the words of praise and devotion to Christ, and let your heart make joyful noise with it. Or gently hum. Or softly whistle. But hold the words with the melody, and St Paul says that in that very act the Spirit will fill you. This will be just as He filled the womb of the Blessed and spotless Virgin with the Divine Son, and just as He filled the body in the earth’s stone tomb when it arose from the dead.

It will be the same as the Angel Gabriel saying to the Virgin, “Rejoice”. In that instant she became Mother of God as the Lord took her flesh for His own. And in the same moment that we rejoice or lament with the Lord in our hearts, as today’s Theotokion tells us, we shall “become wider than the heavens carrying our Creator”. Imagine what it would be like if the words addressed to the Mother of God in the Theotokion were turned upon us. Then we should see where the complete surprise of the Light is coming from as we, even we, are told, “Glory to Him Who dwelt in you. Glory to Him Who comes forth from you.” We will be amazed, and just like the Mother of God, we would ask Saint Gabriel, “How can this be?” Yet it is. One of the great English hymns puts this profound dogmatic insight into how the Light comes into the World:

How silently, how silently
The wondrous gift is given;
So God imparts to human hearts
The blessings of His heaven.
No ear may hear His coming,
But in this world of sin
Where meek souls will receive him still
The dear Christ enters in.

O holy Child of Bethlehem,
Descend to us, we pray.
Cast out our sin and enter in,
Be born in us today.
We hear the Christmas angels
The great glad tidings tell.
O come to us, abide with us,
Our Lord Emmanuel.

For Emmanuel, God is with us. If you cannot see His light, come to confession that with a purified heart you may sing. For as the Light dawned from the Womb of the Mother of God, and then from out of the Tomb, so the direction remains the same. The Light shines upon His world from within the light in the lives of the People of His Church.

Note: Hymns for Sunday in the First Tone

Troparion of the Resurrection
Though the stone was sealed by the Judæans* and soldiers guarded Your most pure body,* You arose, O Saviour, on the third day,* and gave life to the world.* And so the heavenly powers cried out to You, O Giver of life:* "Glory to Your resurrection, O Christ!* Glory to Your kingdom!* Glory to Your saving plan,* O only Lover of Mankind."

Kontakion of the Resurrection
You arose in glory from the tomb* and with Yourself You raised the world.* All humanity acclaims You as God,* and death has vanished.* Adam exults, O Master,* and Eve, redeemed from bondage now, cries out for joy:* “You are the One, O Christ, Who offer resurrection to all.”

When Gabriel uttered to you, O Virgin, his ‘Rejoice!’ * – at that sound the Master of all became flesh in you, the Holy Ark.* As the just David said,* you have become wider than the heavens carrying your Creator.* Glory to Him Who dwelt in you!* Glory to Him Who came forth from you!* Glory to Him Who freed us through birth from you!

19 November 2019

What if I were holy? Homily for the Twenty-First Sunday after Pentecost, Sunday of the Sower, at the Divine Liturgy, Ukrainian Catholic Cathedral, London, 10th November 2019

St Paul tells the Galatians to look beyond the besetting temptation of religion to reduce it to a matter of things we do, rather than what we are. (Galatians 2.16-20)

It never ceases to amaze me how harsh some people are to comment on the transgressions of others. The anger ranges from mistakes and unsatisfactory habits in execution, to denunciation of people’s entire lives before God. Now, we are supposed to tolerate those who boss other people, those who are quick to show us up. After all, they may be right in what they say. But Christ says that we are not to return the favour. We are not to be the ones to bully people into conformity to our wills, or into cause the silent resignation of depression in the Church which is supposed to be the abode of joy. But then, with an answer for everything, we might say: “Love the sinner, hate the sin”. I have no time for this. It is not in the words of Christ. It is saying, “I love you in theory, but not in practice”. And it reveals something even uglier. It is boasting about your own virtue, how good you are at keeping commands - observing the rules, yet letting yourself off your own sin.

Everyone I know who is like this is deluded, a hypocrite covering up their own shortcomings. St Paul says he himself is so much rubbish (cf Philippians 3.8), the least of the apostles (I Corinthians 15.9), the greatest of sinners (I Timothy 1.15). I find this rings true. Some people are very holy. Some people are very good at being sinners. Most of us are rubbish at being both. We can’t even sin successfully. This is why in our Liturgy, we constantly say, “Lord have mercy” – not because we are craven and despairing about our trap in sin, but because we know God is merciful, “helps, saves” and bears with us. The last words of our Liturgy are all we need to know: “He is good and He loves mankind. Amen.” So St Paul says to those who are wrapped up in regulation, bossing people on what to do and bolstering up the image of their perfection that hides their true weakness, that it is not about deeds and acts and laws – or, we might say, my conduct, morality, behaviour or attitude. It is about me who have Christ living in me in place of myself, you that have Christ living in you in place of you. He tells the Corinthians, Christ does not want the things that you offer, the things you do, the things you have. He wants the thing that is you (II Corinthians 12.14).

So, he can say, “It is no longer I who live, but Christ who lives within me.” This is not some pale imitation of Christ. Consider this question. “What would I do if I were Jesus Christ?” Then ask this one instead: “What would Christ do if He were me? Who would Christ be if He were me?” “What would holiness look like if it were shaped like me?” No wonder we say, “Lord have mercy,” at the prospect. “Depart from me, for I am a sinful man,” says St Peter (Luke 5.8) after he has seen the Lord bring about the miraculous draught of fishes. But that is the point: He will never depart from a sinful person. Christ’s is no love in theory, but not in practice. He remains, for the purpose of seeing through the work of forgiveness, going back to square one every time, repairing with patience and not with a word of condemnation, sowing the seed again and again, until there is redemption, by way of sacrifice in one world, to bring a new one through resurrection.

The most alarming aside in the parable of the Sower, today’s Gospel (Luke 8.5-15), is where the seed fell among thorns and grew up with it. We know this is what we Christian disciples have to contend with, and what Christ has to deal with. How can it be that we who sin, who fall short in so many ways, are also none other than the same people who look like Christ. Who would Christ be if He were me? Well, if St Paul is right that it is no longer I that live, but Christ who lives in me, then the answer is that Christ intends to look like me. And if it is true that I, even I, am to be holy – what would that holiness look like? It is not a sufficient response to that momentous question to say, “Depart from me for I am a sinner”. We have to see this one through, because Christ is seeing it through.

Will Christ take one look at us and say to Himself, “That person is stony ground; no seed will grow there?” Will He say, “That one is so choked up with sin that there will be no good fruit coming off that tree; write it off”? Does He say, “But some of those look good – I will concentrate my efforts on them”? No, He will not.

Each one of us at the moment is a mix of the Word of God growing from the good seed, with the thorns and weeds that thrive in us just as much. Often we cannot tell the difference. But think of it like this. In one way, the Icons are wood, cloth, egg, pigment, art. But image and spirit are never apart from incarnation and created physical form. We venerate, touch and kiss not a representation of an idea or a memory; we touch the Mystery itself. And it is not the saints who live, but Christ who lives in them. In the same way, at our Liturgy we will take bread and wine. And, during the course of our action, we will see it is the Lord, making Himself known in the Breaking of the Bread. Not a remembrance or a symbol, but God with Us Who has promised to be with us to the end of time. And because He is seen in the Bread and the Cup, He comes to be seen in those Who share them. Thus it is not we who live any more, but Christ Who lives within us.

Take a look at yourself and each other. Quickly you will see a character with personality, talents, flaws, irritating habits, kind gifts, heroic virtues, hidden badness. Do not judge them for this, for this is what they judge about you too. Instead, see the life of faith which hopes that all this, even the good, will be surpassed. See Christ growing from His seed, not the weeds and thorns. Imagine the other person as an icon painted with paint on wood, but brought to life by a Mystery operating within. Imagine the other and yourself as the living Presence of Christ, Who has come into each one by the Eucharist - here to change you not from being you, but into what Christ looks like when He is in you. Imagine you and one another – whatever the appearance – as already being made holy, not as a way of justifying your bad hits and misses, but to reveal the virtue of Christ being moulded into you as your own.

God does not want us to be pale imitations of Christ, who hand over their personalities to an imaginary ideal, or who hide themselves behind a religious façade, whose only sharp edge is to judge other people. He wants the person He created, not something else, to be a new presentation of Christ in the world, the forgiving Redeemer, to recreate it.

It is clear that St Paul is a character full of personality – difficult to some, an inspiration to others, a thorn in people’s side, a rival vying for his leadership and teaching to prevail, a spiritual man who was a sinner. Galatia and Corinth would not have been formed as Christian Churches without him, as someone in whom Christ was now living in full force. So let us live as he did, sinners who even fail at that, who keep God’s commandments but patiently, with a good deal of self-criticism and wise humility rather than condemnation of others or ourselves, and a belief that, despite all appearances to the contrary, Christ wants me to be me - not the person I should be in theory, since only the real me will become the object of His love in practice. He wants me to be me, so that in me He may be Christ Who is all in all.

17 October 2019

Eyes speak to eyes and heart to heart: Homily for the Seventeenth Sunday after Pentecost, St Gregory, St Edward & St John Henry, at the Ukrainian Catholic Cathedral of the Holy Family, 13th October 2019

It is the outsider that the Lord encounters today. First, St Paul tells us to separate ourselves out from those in whose midst we live: “Go out from them, and you shall be My sons and daughters”. (II Corinthians 6.16-7.1) He says that this purification is the way God brings about the completion of our holiness. Then, in the gospel (Matthew 15.21-28), a Canaanite woman implores Him to relieve her daughter from terrible spiritual affliction – it has depressed her mind and her body. At first the Lord says that salvation comes according to a certain plan, all in due course: first, those who had lost their place in the house of Israel, ahead of anyone else. But the insistence of her faith crying out, which has driven the disciples beyond toleration, tells the story that no one is ultimately outside the scope of salvation.

There is St Paul saying, “go outside from among them”; and here is an outsider forcing her way in. St Paul points out the way for getting rid of the stains and pollution in our personalities, our attitudes, our hearts and our habits, so that it is clear for the Lord to come all the way along it, to fill us with His life and love and presence. This is another way of saying that His holiness becomes our character, difficult and outlandish as that may sound. And then the Gospel tells us that the purification we need does not come from our efforts, or turning our back on what is wrong with life, but by turning toward faith in the One who has come flooding into our midst. You get the impression that the Canaanite woman was not planning this. She just heard that Jesus had arrived, and it is her instinct to believe in Christ and no other that surprises the disciples. As we often find in the Christian life, faith precedes our confession of belief, and grace from God precedes our response to turn to Him.

Notice that when she appeals to Him, He answers not a word. It is the same as in the manger. It is the same as when He is baptised and transfigured. It is the same when He stands before Pilate. It is the same when He is risen from the dead. It is not wording that is being strung together, but the extent of faith that is being tested and explored. Christ is the Word that need not be articulated, because it is His Person and His all-pervading Presence and His sheer significance that cause the cleansing out of what stands in the way of encountering Him - of bringing His holiness in us to completion, of bringing to flower the faith that has been seeded within us.

Look at what will happen in our midst in a few moments. Will Christ who will come among us take one look and say to Himself, “Be separate from them; go out from their midst; be separate from them”? Or will He, like He did at journey’s end on the road to Emmaus, without scarcely a word and by His presence and act, make Himself known to us in the Breaking of Bread? The Lord of hosts and the Man of Sorrows, despised and rejected, acquainted with grief, the outsider of all outsiders, becomes our insider.

This Sunday in London, for the Latin Church of Westminster among whom we live, it is the Feast of St Edward the Confessor, whose crown adorns our monarch, and whose remains lie close to the High Altar of Westminster Abbey, where only a few years ago they were venerated by Pope Benedict XVI. The great king of the Anglo-Saxons remains the patron of good government in our land, and the bulwark against misrule and injustice as he has been for 1000 years. Here in our Church, we remember Gregory, a refugee from pagan Armenia, who learned of Christ for himself when he was raised in Cappadocia, at the heart of Greek Eastern Christian spiritual life and theology, to became the “Illuminator” of his people when he returned to organise his nation’s Church, so that the oldest Christian state in the world remains a proud Christian civilisation in the East and in diaspora across the world to this day.  And in Rome, John Henry Newman, England’s son and its greatest Christian teacher and theologian, will be included in the canon of the saints of the whole Catholic Church, on account of his life’s dedication to the binding nature of the Truth and the Lord whose salvation in the One Church of Christ he embraced.

One of Blessed John Henry’s phrases described his spiritual journey. It was not one of picking up or looking for hidden messages, but a path of realising the plain reality before his eyes. So he spoke of moving “out of shadows and illusions into truth.” He also said that this was because “heart speaks to heart.” If we are honest, we all know what these two sayings mean, since we have all encountered them, in our truer moments, in our souls.  The second phrase is adapted from something St Frances de Sales said in his Treatise on the Love of God (Bk VI):

Speaking to God and hearing God speak in the bottom of the heart … is … a silent conversing. Eyes speak to eyes, and heart to heart. And none understand what passes save the sacred lovers who speak.

The Canaanite woman knew the silent conversing when she cried. The apostles cried back and told her to stop. But the Lord said not a word. For heart speaks to heart. And when St Paul told us to clear the temple of God that we are of all the clutter of noise to other idolised obsessions and our illusory falsehood, it is to make way for the presence and worship of God. Thus in the purity of lovers in relationship He may see only us as we are, and we may see only Him as He is, for “eyes speak to eyes, and heart to heart, and none understand what passes save the sacred lovers who speak”. This is why, when we pray to God, we do not hear with our ears; it is how we have an inkling that prayer is not something that we do to God, but what God does to us. It is the path of falling and being in love.

St Edward, St Gregory and Blessed John Henry all in their way knew what we are learning too. There is other light. There is no other faith. There is no other Church, save to be in that one place where He gazes in His heart upon us and we upon Him, where we are not alone, but see ourselves to be in the company of all the rest who have gone their way and found that it leads purely nowhere else than to the Church wherein He makes Himself know in this breaking of Bread. As St Bernard put it:

Jesu, the very thought of Thee/ With sweetness fills my breast;

But sweeter far Thy face to see, And in Thy presence rest.

O Hope of every contrite heart, O Joy of all the meek,

To those who fall, how kind Thou art! How good to those who seek!

But what to those who find? Ah, this/ Nor tongue nor pen can show;

The love of Jesus, what it is/ None but His loved ones know.

And so, with St Paul, the Woman of Canaan and her daughter, with St Gregory, St Edward, St Bernard, and St John Henry Newman, we pray:

Jesus, our only Joy be Thou, As Thou our Prize wilt be;

Jesus, be Thou our Glory now, And through eternity.

18 September 2019

This Do Until He Comes: Homily at the Divine Liturgy for the Thirteenth Sunday after Pentecost, Ukrainian Catholic Cathedral of the Holy Family, 15th September 2019

When you go to visit Rome, it is usually for some work or business to dispatch; or you go from architectural splendour to artistic masterpiece, from church to church to marvel at the sights. Yes, there are masses, and rites and liturgies. But even the Christian pilgrims can look a little more like tourists and photographers than those who pour out prayer and veneration as they contemplate the mysteries of Christ and the martyred saints of the city who followed the Stranger that befriended them through life to untimely death.

I do not point a finger at any one but myself here. I love to be in Rome and drink its glories and significance at all levels in. But there is always something particular that I love to do, and that is to retrace at least a few of the steps that I know they took of St Peter and St Paul. We know that the Apostles’ remains lie at the two great Basilicas that bear their names. But where did they go before; where had they been; and what was the path that took them to that moment of ultimate closeness to the Lord on His Cross, when they must have realised the meaning of the prayer from the night before He died, that St John preserved for his gospel: “Father, may they all be one, just as you and I, Father, are one. The glory You have given me, I have given to them. May they be with me where I am, to see my glory. Sanctify them in the truth”?

The glory of Christ is, of course, the revelation of what God truly looks like in the world: the Son of Man on His Cross. And if the Church looks like anything else, it does not display His glory. In the aftermath of the Crucifixion and the Resurrection, the Lord’s constant refrain was to show the astonished disciples that the whole weight and course of the Scriptures came down to the Cross – that the Lord must suffer, or else it is not true, not holy, not glory.

So I love to go to the Church of San Paolo alla Regola, “St Paul’s on the Strand”, a little church near the Ponte Sisto over the Tiber. It is a Baroque church now, but a great room to its south stands over the site of the house where St Paul stayed for two years under house arrest, awaiting his appeal to Caesar as a Roman citizen to be heard. Here he taught and wrote. Here he received the Christians of Rome. Here he handed on what he had received on the Road to Damascus, the ever present vision of the Risen Christ making Himself known in the taking and breaking of the Bread and the Cup. Here he contemplated the outcome of his impending trial, and the risk that the missionary journeys were almost at an end, when the condemnation in Palestine might at last be confirmed. Here was where he wrote from his heart about death and resurrection, putting on Christ, reaching the full stature of humanity, of Christ who died and rose again now filling the universe, of Christ the life within us now. Here is where he felt his own sufferings and his growing intimacy with Christ: “no longer I that live, but Christ who lives within me”. (Galatians 2.20) Here he approached his own death and the coming resurrection, as he had told the Roman Church all along: “It may be sown a physical body, but it will be raised a spiritual body.” (I Corinthians 15.44) And as he also told the Corinthians: “In a moment, in the twinkling of an eye, at the last trump, the trumpet shall sound and the dead shall be raised incorruptible and we shall be changed.” (I Corinthians 15.52) Yes, here is St Paul’s own Garden of Gethsemane. Here is a place of profoundest prayer with the Lord, Who asked the Father to glorify Him in the only true and holy way.

Sometimes, on the slopes of the Aventine, I like to go and visit the serene, small church of St Prisca, on the very site of the house she shared with her husband Aquila, mentioned in today’s epistle (I Corinthians 16.13-24). Paul visited them, and taught and inspired their home, along with the little group of disciples that they cautiously brought together. Here too he will have celebrated and revealed the mystery of the Eucharist of the Risen Lord through the prism of the night before He died, when He prayed that the humanity would see God’ glory, truth and holiness nowhere other than on the Cross.

Sometimes I like to go to the Abbey of Tre Fontane outside the city, where, amid the pines that still grow there, the Apostle was beheaded. Three springs of water still flow where his head rolled down to where the local Christians, doubtless including Prisca and Aquila, retrieved his remains to inter them as nobly as they could beside the Via Appia down by the Tiber, where they lie to this day.

On other visits, I like to go to the beautiful little city of Tivoli in the hills above Rome to find the ancient Church of San Pietro off the beaten track. It is believed to be on the site of another Roman family’s house, where St Peter was first sheltered before they could risk taking him down to the city. A number of other little towns and villages in the hills also have a Church of St Peter, rarely the cathedral or the most impressive, probably on the site of a house of secret local Christians, who took turns at hiding Peter for no more than a few days, and who never lost the memory of giving a safe haven to the Rock on which the Church was built by Christ.

I also like to go to the Catacomb of Priscilla on the via Salaria, at the site of another Roman family house where for centuries the famous Chair of St Peter was preserved – the seat he first sat on when he came down onto the plain and toward the city, where the Christians of Rome itself first met him, where they heard at first hand his living memory of Jesus, and received from the one who had denied Him and yet loved Him the food of which the first disciples had said, “Lord give us this bread always” (John 6.34), and which the Lord had called the “daily bread”, the bread of eternal existence.

Another time, I will go up behind the Victor Emmanuel Monument, to the all but hidden church of St Joseph. Its unadorned crypt is a second Church, of San Pietro in Carcere, St Peter in Prison. This is the Tullian Prison, the Mamertine Jail, of ancient Rome. Still further below is the pit in which high profile prisons were held with no chance of escape. Here is the single cell where it is long believed St Peter was kept in chains ahead of his execution across on the other side of the city and the river on the upward slope of the Vatican Hill, close to where his remains keep the Pope as bishop of Rome - and Peter’s successor - never to go too far away.

In the Gospel today (Matthew 21.33-42), the Lord speaks of a master who planted a vineyard that was overrun by the tenants to whom it had been entrusted. They stole all the good that came from it and wasted its fruit on themselves, leaving the master’s winepress unused, fruitless. The master sent his son, and, as the Lord said as He cried over Jerusalem facing its destruction in turn, they did not recognise the moment of God’s coming to them (Luke 19.44). The servants killed the son, and the master lost the descendant who would inherit, and take the labour of the vineyard to grow forward into the future. Except that now, at last, there was fruit that the tenants did not want. This fruit is not the wine of grapes, but the blood shed by the Son. The winepress’s moment has come. It pours out incessantly the new wine of the Kingdom: “This is my Blood shed for you, the Blood of the new covenant, for the forgiveness of sins.” Thus it is that at each celebration of the eucharist, we see not only the presence of the Lord in His Body and His Blood, but also the sacrifice that brings peace to the world and reconciliation of humanity to its Father and Lord. This is what is made known to us in the breaking of bread – that God in human form looks like a man on a cross, and the path to Him is always the way of the Cross, or it is no path to glory, no reliable journey to the truth, no approach that will ever lead to holiness. Thus it is “this we do”, like Paul and Peter before us, “in memory of Him until He comes”.

08 September 2019

Scripture Interpretation & Inspiration: Reflection at the Fellowship of St Alban & St Sergius Annual Conference, August 26 2019

In my first term at Durham in October 1977, there were regular power cuts; and in the first week we students had gathered hopeful that the Old Testament lecture would be cancelled. On the dot of 4.15 pm a noted Scout, the Revd Dr John Rogerson, entered with a vast hurricane lamp and proceeded to initiate us into the mysteries of the Documentary Hypothesis. His first words were unforgettable: “I intend to teach the Old Testament as Christian, Trinitarian scriptures”.

When we turn to the Sermon on The Mount in chapter 5 of St Matthew’s Gospel (Matthew 5.17-20), we see what he means.
Do not think that I have come to abolish the Law or the Prophets; I have not come to abolish them but to fulfil them. For truly, I say to you, until heaven and earth pass away, not an iota, not a dot, will pass from the Law until all is accomplished. Therefore whoever relaxes one of the least of these commandments and teaches others to do the same will be called least in the Kingdom of heaven; but whoever does them and teaches them will be called great in the Kingdom of heaven. For I tell you, unless your righteousness exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will never enter the Kingdom of heaven.
This Law, these Prophets, and the seeing and doing of what they teach are nothing other than the voice, the righteousness and the Person of Christ. His Word is Law. The Lord’s are the words that are spirit and life. The source of our righteousness, then, is more than the pursuit of words, but our conformity to the life, pattern and Person of the Lord who spoke them. For He is the Word that took flesh; and He is the Word that revealed in His Body the divine Kingship of God that is His. But more than that: the humanity that inhabits His Kingship with Him, sweeps us into the Kingdom, on earth as it is in heaven, too.

It makes no sense to look at the Scriptures outside of the context within which they are most often used: not just the study, but the Liturgy of the Church. So, to approach that passage of the Sermon on the Mount, let us think for a moment about the worship of the Temple, also set on a mount. In the Temple rite there was once an autumn fertility and water festival, in which the original High Priest, the King himself, would undergo bathing and purification rites, before entering the Holy of Holies alone, there to be glimpsed in a blaze of golden magnificence on the throne. Soon he would emerge as that human figure par excellence, a Son of Man, on whom God’s favour and presence rested. Thus we might know that “God is with us” (Isaiah 7.14 & 8.8; Matthew 1.23), conveyed, so to speak, in the person of the Priest-King. Now he would bestow divine blessing on the people, the land and its produce, and speak as the bearer of the Divine Voice, articulating the Divine Wisdom among the people. “Let those who have ears to hear, let them hear what the Spirit is saying,” writes St John in the Revelation (2.29), which perhaps shows to us something of this rite, with its double effect of renewed life and judgment to live by, to stand or fall by (cf. Ephesians 6.13).

Such might be the account of the Methodist Biblical scholar, Dr Margaret Barker. Whether the persuasive conjecture is conclusive is for further research and discussion. But look at the Sermon of the Mount and its description of a similar pattern of events. St John Baptist calls the people to repentance and purification. The Son of Man submits to it and is baptised in the Jordan. As in the wanderings in the wilderness and the Temple in Jerusalem, the presence of the Lord is covered by the Spirit in the form of heavenly phenomena, whether it be clouds accumulating and parting, or a “cloud and fiery pillar”, or a dove. And a voice is heard saying to those who are apt for hearing it, “This is my beloved Son with whom I am well pleased”. The Lord emerges and, like the scapegoat rather than the Lamb that St John has attested Him to be, He is led by the same Spirit into the wilderness, where Satan first offers Him a false throne. After this hiatus, the Lord gathers the disciples and attracts the people from over the entire land and now at last rises up from among them. In the sight and hearing of the people, at last He sits on the throne of His choosing; and, like the priest-King of old, including his forefather David, He is seen with astonishment as He proceeds to tell the disciples about the nature of the Lord’s kingship, the true purpose of the Law, and the characteristics of life in the Kingdom. These are:
  • forgiveness
  • love
  • service to those who need
  • how to pray
  • how to treasure life in the world so that it is already life in the next
  • how to found your life on Christ the Rock
  • how to bear good fruit
  • what judgment to expect and on what grounds
But, above all, everything He says proceeds from the first thing he rose up to pronounce:
  • the Divine Blessing that will never be taken back.
For the Sermon on the Mount begins with the Beatitudes: Blessed are the poor in Spirit, those who mourn, those who are meek, those who thirst for righteousness, those who are merciful, those who are pure in heart, those who make peace, those who suffer in the cause of righteousness, those who seek above all the Kingdom of God on earth as it is in heaven.

This pattern of the Lord entering among His people, of preparation to stand in the Lord’s presence, of entering the sanctuary, and of emerging with the revelation of the Divine Teaching in the writings of the prophets and apostles and the voice of the Lord Christ Himself in the Gospels, is a feature of nearly every Liturgy of East and West. Now, it is unwise to read our present practice back into the past. But it is of interest to consider how we have surrounded our practice. In this company, you scarcely need me to comment that the Beatitudes are often sung as the Third Antiphon before the Entrance in the Divine Liturgy. At this choral manifestation of Divine blessing, the deacon or priest who has brought the Gospels to the Holy Doors, declaims, “Wisdom, stand aright.” The same Wisdom is hailed, the expression of the Word incarnate, before the Prokeimenon, the Epistle, and the Gospel. It reminds us of the thoughts of St Paul in his first letter to the church at Corinth (1 Corinthians 1.30):

And from [or because of] Him you are in Christ Jesus, who became to us Wisdom from God, righteousness and sanctification and redemption.
In the Roman Liturgy we do not have preparatory antiphons, but the Gospel at the most solemn masses is brought into the sanctuary in a similar way at the Introit. There is no acclamation of Divine Wisdom, but it is the same procession of Emmanuel, God with Us, Wisdom from God, bringing into us, from Himself, His righteousness, His sanctification, His redemption, His royal progress, to which we are added, into His Kingdom.

Yet, in the Mass of the Roman Rite, while there is no acclamation of Divine Wisdom, at the end of each reading since the revisions of the 1960s, the reader says, “Verbum Domini”. For years our English translation said, “This is the Word of the Lord.” It was a mistaken translation, and I feel the Latin Catholic Church should apologise to friends in other Churches which have been influenced in doing the same, because to all intents and purposes it invites the inference that the “This” in “This is the Word of the Lord”, refers to the text that has been read, or even the rightly treasured, physical copy of the Bible printed on paper. The entire point, however, is missed that - out of the study, out of the bookshop and the library - when the Scriptures are read, it is the Incarnate Lord and Word Himself Who is speaking. St Paul told the Galatians, (2.20), “It is not I who live, but the Christ Who lives within me”. It is the same in the liturgical reading of the Scriptures. It is not our activity of reading, not words on a page, but the “lively oracles of God” Himself, the Word to us and in us (Acts 7.38; John 1.14; Colossians 3.16). Thus the Lord reminded the apostles, “It will not be you speaking, but the Spirit of your Father speaking through you” (Matthew 10.20) – a clear manifestation of the voice of the Body of Christ in His Church, animated by the Spirit Who proceeded from the Father – the Trinitarian dynamic of the Scriptures at work in the new Testament as in the Old, just as Dr Rogerson with his hurricane lamp showed us that autumn afternoon in 1977.

So we have corrected our translation. It now reads clearly and unambiguously, “The Word of the Lord”. But our correction is not complete. The Gospel in the celebration of Mass in the current Latin Rite ends with the same acclamation, “Verbum Domini”, as the Gospel Text, an open book (cf. Revelation 5.2), is itself lifted up, venerated, and kissed as with an icon. Unfortunately, in our present translation, we are obliged to say, not “The Word of the Lord”, but “The Gospel of the Lord.” It is unsurprising, then, that the faithful relate this acclamation to the book. Thus their words of praise, “Laus tibi, Domine”, are addressed seemingly to Christ in heaven, rather than present in His own voice, reading Himself out to us, dwelling in us and among us richly (John 1.14; Colossians 3.16). I hope that at some point we will be bold enough to conform our English translation of the Gospel’s acclamation to the Latin, so that the deacon or priest may hold up and reveal the Gospel Text to the faithful as “The Word of the Lord” – the incarnate Word in His own speaking.

That we do not is extraordinary, given the context in which this insertion of acclamations of the Divine Word arose. At the end of nearly every celebration of the Roman Mass prior to the reform in 1965 was read out the Prologue of St John’s Gospel (1.1-14):

In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was in the beginning with God. All things were made through him, and without him was not any thing made that was made. In him was life, and the life was the light of men … And the Word became flesh and dwelt among us, and we have seen his glory, glory as of the only Son from the Father, full of grace and truth.
This Prologue was anciently added to the Order of Mass as an exorcism to dispel and protect from the darkness of Satan the faithful who had just been prayed over with the Trinity’s blessing. The resonance with the introduction of the new acclamations would have been clear. Yet when they were added in 1969, the reading of St John’s prologue had been dropped for four years.

Thus the connection between the reading of the Scriptures, and the conclusion of the entire mass in which the hushed Words of Christ Himself bring about His own presence in the Body and the Blood of the Gifts transformed out of being bread and wine, was missed and thus lost.

Another mistake the Latin Church has made in its presentation of the action of the Eucharistic Mystery is to refer to the latter part as the Liturgy of the Eucharist, and the earlier part as the Liturgy of the Word. In the Byzantine Liturgy, as you well know, the acclamation of Wisdom is repeated in the prayers of the faithful ahead of the Great Entrance with the Eucharistic Oblations, for the entire Liturgy is the Liturgy of the Word; the entire Liturgy is the Liturgy of the Eucharist. Nothing different is asserted in the West, of course; but the connection of both is too little visible, as the first part of Mass is seen as a service of instruction from the Scriptures, before the gears change beyond word to sacrifice and sacrament. But it is all the one Christ, whose breath voiced into existence the creation, whose Spirit spoke through the prophets, Who shone through the life and wording of St Paul, and who – as St John put it – is the Word that is luminous in the world (John 1.9 &c.), the light in the lives of humans, and that reveals the purpose and direction of all the Scriptures, all worship, and all of our course through life to the Kingdom of heaven, no less on earth as it is in heaven.

But there remains a pearl of great price buried in the Latin canon of the Mass. The prayer is so ancient that it precedes the development of those also venerable anaphoras that include an epiclesis of the Holy Spirit for the consecration of the gifts to become the Body and Blood of Christ. The Latin theology is that the recitation of the very words of Christ – “This is my Body … this is My Blood” - effect the presence of the Word Incarnate in the matter of the Eucharist. But there is more. For the same action as we use in our other anaphoras for the invocation of the Holy Spirit upon the Gifts (i.e. the priest spreading his hands over them) is classically used in the Roman Canon which does not contain one. Instead, the act accompanies the words, “Bless, acknowledge and approve this offering in every respect; make it spiritual and acceptable so that it may become for us the Body and Blood of Your most beloved Son, our Lord Jesus Christ.” Then we repeat the words of the Lord Himself. Now, the word for spiritual in Latin here is “rationabilem”, which in Greek translation is logike/logikos – not only related to the realm of reason and the spiritual sphere, but to the Logos who became flesh and dwelt among us (John 1.14). This we take in the Latin Church to be the recognition of Wisdom in the secret places (Psalm 50.6). And so we are back with the Word who spoke over the waters (Genesis 1.3), the Spirit who brooded over them and the Father who identified the Son as the One on Whom his favour rests.

But as we have constantly seen from the Sermon of the Mount onwards, this action of the Trinity -whether at the Creation, or through the growth of the Scriptures across time and divine history as a living coral, or through the revealing miracle that was the incarnation, then the Cross and the Tomb and the Ascension and is now the Mass – this action of the Trinity never intends to remain self-contained. Unlike in the dramatic moment in the ancient Temple rite, the Lord does not simply appear with purification for us, healing in His wings, and His own self as His Word to inspire us, to judge us and correct us, and to infuse us in every corner with His blessing. For the Divine Kingship of the Word Incarnate is the voice teaching us so as to call us in, into where He has just come from. In our Liturgy we are not only blessed from the Holy of Holies but drawn into it. In His Body and Blood his Kingship is ours. Our righteousness is the filling of us with His grace. His words live in our own consciousness. His holiness is our sanctification to enter the Kingdom where He reigns. Thus, He declares it: “I go and prepare a place for you; I will come again and will take you to myself, that where I am you may be also” (John 14.3) and our prayer to go and be there even now: “Your Kingdom come, on earth as it is in heaven. Give us this day our daily bread” (Matthew 6.10-11). “Lord, give us this bread always.” (John 6.34) 

11 August 2019

Sunday of the Feeding of the Five Thousand, Homily at the Liturgy of St John Chrysostom, Cathedral of the Holy Family, London, 11 August, 2019

The Feeding of the Five Thousand is so very familiar that we can miss all that St Matthew is telling us (Matthew 14.14-22).

First, note that the disciples describe the place Jesus had retreated to as a desolate place. We are being reminded of the Lord’s Forty Days in the wilderness battling with the Deceiver, but also communing with the Father, before He begins his public ministry. But the readers and hearers of the story are also being pointed forward: to the forthcoming retreat of Jesus into the Garden of Gethsemane on the night before He died, truly desolate and alone, as the apostles fall asleep and there is no human force to prevent His divine intention to be betrayed into the hands of sinners and to go for our sakes to His Passion and His Cross that we may have life eternally, and not death.

Secondly, note that someone has worked out where Jesus in His boat has made for across the water; they have passed the message on, and the people follow him, walking round the lake or crossing in their own craft. We are being reminded of the Pillar of Cloud by Day and Fire by Night, which led the People of God out of captivity in Egypt across the Red Sea and into the wilderness, from there to reach the Promised Land across the river Jordan. For “a land flowing with milk and honey”, read loaves and fishes. In the same way, the Hebrews in the desert and the Jews in a desolate part of Galilee eat and are satisfied. St John tells us from memory of the sort of thing that Jesus would say to His disciples: “Your fathers ate the manna in the wilderness. They are dead. Whoever eats of this Bread shall live for ever.” (John 6.49, 51) Do not forget that before the Tent of the Holy of Holies that the Hebrews carried round with them in the wilderness, in which the Lord dwelt upon the Ark of the Covenant when He was not leading them in the Pillar of Cloud and Fire, there was a table on which were placed the twelve loaves of the Bread of the Presence, fresh every Sabbath as a memorial of the twelve tribes of the people, as an offering to the Lord, and as a consecrated meal by which the priests commune with God. This sacred rite was continued in the permanent Temple in Jerusalem. St Matthew had just referred to Bread of the Presence of the Lord a little earlier in his Gospel, recalling how King David and his starving companions entered into the Holy Place of the Temple and took the loaves to eat, even though they were not priests. St Matthew’s message is not that the people with Jesus in Galilee are not breaking the divine Law in being given the Bread from Heaven by the Son of David, but that they are being invited into the Presence of the Lord God Himself, to the place of the priests before the Holy of Holies, as the barrier between earth and heaven, God and man, is dismantled, since the Holy of Holies is now where Christ is, and in Him all come into the Kingdom of God, “on earth as it is in heaven”.

Third, note that it is evening. We are being reminded of at least four events in the future, and the allusion explains them, and they in turn interpret the miracle. It was an evening when the Lord gathered the disciples in the Upper Room and took the bread, said the blessing and told them the secret of the Kingdom – “This is My Body; this is My Blood.” The day was also far spent and the evening almost come, when darkness covered the land, the Lord yielded up His spirit, and the veil of the Temple was rent in two. So here at by Galilee we have the enactment of broken loaves that become His broken Body, not because of a catastrophe but through His deliberate blessing. And it was another evening, St Luke tells us, that a Stranger walked with two disciples on the road to Emmaus. At the end of the day it was the way He took bread, said a blessing and broke it, that He made Himself known to them, and they knew it was the Lord that had been crucified after telling them how to recognise the secret of the Kingdom. Then, again, it was an evening, the evening of the first Sunday that the disciples had locked themselves in a room in Jerusalem, only to find Jesus among them, giving them the peace of resurrection, the blessing of the Holy Spirit breathed upon them, and the power of forgiveness that comes from saying, “This is My Blood of the new covenant poured out for you.”

So, in a mere nine verses, St Matthew has told us the entire path of salvation from the captivity of the people of God in Egypt, to the foundation of the priesthood in the wilderness, to the coming of God to dwell in humanity in the Person of the Lord, to HIs Passion and the Cross and the Resurrection, and then to the arrival of forgiveness and the blessing of the Holy Spirit. It is all made known in the Breaking of the Living Bread, at which the old veil in the Temple was broken in two, so that the priests may bring the Lord into the souls of the people who are filled and satisfied by Him, and thus bring the people into the presence of the Lord. Thus they may live the life that is always directed upwards by Christ’s Ascension, to God and His Kingdom. As St Paul puts it in today’s Epistle (Romans 6.18-23), “You were slaves to sin … but now that you have been set free from sin, and becomes slaves of God, the fruit you get leads to sanctification and its end – eternal life.”

It is no accident that our Divine Liturgy follows the same pattern as in that lonely place not far from the sea of Galilee. We follow the Lord out of the ordinary world into His presence in the next, which is this world as it more truly is, beyond sin and shortcomings, and our own dead end. We see the bread that has been set out in His presence about to be brought in to Him for blessing. We listen out for the words of the secret mystery revealed, that indeed it is His Body and His Blood, as the Holy Spirit that he breathed out for the forgiveness of sins rebounds upon the gifts to translate the whole Church and the whole creation, even without it noticing, into the dimensions of heaven, not just those of the world. In a scarcely visible act, the Bread is lifted up and broken, and the priests share it as in the Temple - except that in the Christian dispensation the veils and doors of the Holy of Holies are opened up, and the Bread is brought out and shared with the all the people who are in that moment brought into the Kingdom.

The Feeding of the Five Thousand provides us with the Living Bread that comes down from heaven and indeed we eat our spiritual fill and are satisfied. But more than this, we are drawn into living life according to the sequence and pattern of Christ’s life, from new birth, to suffering and bearing through our sin, taking up our Cross and being raised from the dead. This Cross we take up daily to follow Him. But, like His Body, it is our body that is broken to be remade, from the impurity and “natural limitations” that St Paul speaks of today, into His likeness. “The Bread which we break – is it not a participation in the body of Christ?”, says St Paul (I Corinthians 10.16). Indeed; and it costs us not less than everything if the old human is to go, and the new is to be made by the amalgam of what is redeemed from loss and what is given in grace.

But you and I know that, when we come down from this mountain of the Divine Liturgy, and we leave the Lord to be, in His solitary Majesty in that “desolate place” of the Trinity’s communion once near Galilee, or another time in Gethsemane, or Golgotha, or the cold Tomb, or today when we leave this Church, that we will think to ourselves that we have to return to reality, resigned to thinking of the heaven of which we have had an inkling but which is not yet. It is as though we are hypocrites, living one life in Church and another in the world. The Lord tells us about this, and his prayer is all about keeping earth and heaven together in the constant communion of forgiveness and our daily reliance on the Living Bread. But, back to those “natural limitations” and the world is quick to accuse of our double standard. We rebuke ourselves that our open Christianity, our worship with hearts lifted up, and our belief in following Christ are all, despite our efforts, constantly rumbled as putting on act. But have a better hope. The truth is that, not our worship and our discipleship, but our sin, our shortcomings, our impurity, our spite and our unkindness that is really the unnatural act we are putting on. Our life in the Liturgy, following God round the lake to hang on his word, to be filled and satisfied, to be blessed and changed by forgiveness: that is our true self. That is why we are here and that is why we constantly come to face the Lord and, in His Presence, give up the act of being what we should not be. And when we leave here, we do not return to “limitation” for our in our mind and our heart we are still turning round to face the Altar and the Iconostasis from which our Lord and His Mother look out into us, insisting we say over and over again until it becomes second nature, and then our first, “Hallowed be Thy Name, Thy Kingdom come, Thy will be done, on earth as it is in heaven. Give us this day our daily bread and forgive …”

14 July 2019

Sunday of All Saints of Rus'-Ukraine at the Cathedral of the Holy Family, London, 14 July 2019

For today’s Feast of All Saints of Rus’-Ukraine St Paul exalts the eternal purpose of God (Romans 1.12-18) to identify those whom He will call, those he will make righteous as he conforms them to the image of His Son, and thus those He will fill with glory as all things work together for good by the power of His love. Who shall separate us from this our destiny, asks St Paul?

These few verses are luminous in the spirituality of what we Christians mean by sanctification, God’s holiness coming on us to make us His saints. We look to the officially canonised saints, and especially the Mother of God, as the evidence that human beings can become saints. This is not because they have become super-humans, but because we see in them that it is possible for mortals to be what the Lord had intended at the time of Creation, before we turn to the ways of deliberate imperfection and our preferred habit of falling short of the glory of God, something that we know as sin. We counteract this, as we pray for forgiveness and the restoration of our lost state, with a million, “Lord have mercy”s in our lifetime. Yet the popular expression in response to human self-indulgence or fallibility is, “You are only human”. But there is nothing “only” about being human. For it was his plan from the outset to clothe himself with the humanity He first given to us, and to take it for himself, so that, God becoming human by means of the indissoluble union that we worship in Christ the Son of God born of Mary, humanity may participate in the very life of God.

“Who shall separate us from the love of God which is in Christ Jesus?” demands St Paul. It does not in the end make a difference to the divine plan to take our flesh - and be united with us so that we could be united to Him - that we disobey his fatherly law and erred from His love. As we know from the parable of the Prodigal Son, it intensified His resolve never to part Himself from us, however much we exerted our wills to part ourselves from Him. As in Francis Thompson’s poem The Hound of Heaven, we know that it is the nature of God to pursue those who have fled Him. Thus a famously consoling English hymn sings, “O Love that will not let me go, I give Thee back the life I owe.” And in Psalm 138 it is the same:
O Lord, You have searched me out and known me … You hem me in behind and before, and lay Your hand upon me. Where shall I then from Your Spirit, or where shall I flee from Your presence? If I ascend to heaven, You are there; if I make my bed in Sheol, You are there. If I take the wings of the morning, and dwell in the uttermost parts of the sea, even there shall Your hand lead me, and Your right hand shall hold me.”
This was always the plan, and the fact of our sin does not change the intention of God to unite us to Him, since what is added is our forgiveness, our redemption, our forgiveness and our restoration to place us back on our original track of reconciliation.

It cost the Lord not less than everything, of course; and we recognise the superabundance of his core self-giving, which is the very nature of the Persons of the Trinity, not only in miracles and blessings but in His blood shed and His life poured out upon the Cross. God’s justification for doing this is not only to free us from the power of guilt and sin, but because he was always going to do this - to live like us that we might live like him, letting nothing ever ultimately stand in His way. Thus the Cross is the road to the empty Tomb. Thus the thorough rout into the depths of Death and back is the road to ascending humanity into the glory that God always intended for it. Thus the resurrection into which we were baptised makes the Cross - contrary to worldly appearance - glorious and life-giving. Thus the kingdom of heaven long ago became the nature that abhorred such a vacuum left by the removal of the bars and gates that kept us pent up in death.

When I went to a Methodist service one day, I remember the expectant moment after the first hymn has gathered all together in dedication to the Lord, and the minister addressed the people with the dramatic words of the Apostles from the Letter to the Hebrews: (12.22-23):

You have come to Mount Zion, to the city of the living God, the heavenly Jerusalem. You have come to myriads of angels in joyful assembly to the congregation of the firstborn enrolled in heaven, You have come to the Judge of all, to the spirits of righteous people made perfect.”
Who does he mean? He means us! Think of it: here in our Divine Liturgy, as we move around the altar and come in and out before the presence of the Lord, we are surrounded by the saints at worship in perpetual love; and we see that people no different from ourselves have been made righteous, not through any merit of their own but by the sheer outpouring of goodness that is infinite to overcome our failings and our preference for something else. There is nothing “only” about being human, destined to be filled to overflowing with this grace. And then, as St Paul says to us, “Those He destined to be changed to conform to the image of Christ from the beginning” - that’s you and me – “He next called. Then after He had made them righteous” – not by our merits but from His own reasons to make us no different from His Son – “He made them perfectly the same. He glorified them.”

John Wesley, the founder of the Methodist spiritual tradition, was inspired by the Eastern fathers of the Church. So in his preaching and the classic Wesleyan hymns he stresses not so much the problem of our sin but the magnificence of Christ’s sinlessness, and his full forgiveness by the power of the Cross to free us from ourselves and the evil that we do. To Wesley, since we are forgiven and free, what holds us back from becoming united with God in Christ even now? And if we can truly find this unity with the Lord, no wonder we can say with St Paul that we have come to Mount Zion, to the city of the living God, the heavenly Jerusalem, to the joyful assembly of the congregation of those enrolled in heaven. So Wesley follows St Paul to the great conclusion: If Christ by His power as God makes has impressed His own image into us and we are the very coinage of His Love, His buy-out conquerors in His competition with death and sin, what is there next but for Him to perfect what He has begun and make us perfectly holy, even starting here and now. So He works into us His holiness as He works out of us all that is amiss, making us His saints glorious as He is glorious. Saying none of this is to boast. As St Paul reminds us, “God forbid that I should boast save in the Cross of our Lord Jesus Christ by Whom the world has been crucified to me and I to the world.” (Galatians 6.14) For to hope for glory and holiness in the midst of this life is to tell the truth of our sins and our need for God’s redemption and restoration.

In our Eastern Church we rely on those who have gone before us on this very same road. We know that they followed their Lord, passing through adversity and disrepute, scorn and unbelievability. Yet we see the saints as glorified, just as St Paul told the Romans. Their images on the icons show them not in earthly portraits but in their glorified state. These all knew their sin, yet hoped in the holiness that was to come. And at the forefront of them all, the Mother of God, most pure, immaculate and sinless, was made righteous throughout her existence by the pre-ordained purpose of the Lord to come to her above all others, for the taking of our flesh from her so that in the same instant we might be one with Him. So we touch her icon, as she touched the foot of the Cross. So we touch the icons of St Olga, St Vladimir, the monks of the Caves of Kyiv, St Josaphat, Blessed Klement Sheptytsky the Martyr, and so many others, because their hold on life here was the same as Christ’s, and because the prayers of them all are heaven’s hold on us.

At the end of our Divine Liturgy after Communion we shall give glory to Christ for being our sanctification. So we understand that what is true of the saints in the icons must become true of us - and it has already begun. We are to be the new icons, the new reliability of prayer for those who are to come after us. We are the spirits of righteous people made perfect. We are the congregation to which new people in Christ will come in joyful assembly, and say, “We have come to Mount Zion, to the City of Living God.” There is nothing “only” about being human. All is for His glory, and all His glory is for us to be holy, to be his saints defined by the very quality of the “nothing” that ever can separate us from the love of God in Christ, the Love that will not let us go.

Christ among us: Homily for the Sixteenth Sunday of the Year, Roman Catholic Church of the Most Precious Blood, The Borough of Southwark, 21st July 2019

The great mystery, hidden for ages, but now delivered to us is: Christ among us, so that we, His creation, can be brought to completion and made perfect.

In St Luke’s Gospel today (Luke 10.38-42), we vividly see Christ among us, and the effect on Mary and Martha. Their altercation is renowned. You can sense Mary losing track of time, spellbound by Jesus’ parables of the Kingdom of heaven – the mustard seed, the sower, the Good Samaritan, the e Prodigal Son – while Martha is no less absorbed in the pressured preparation of the feast. Both are intent upon Him, but in different ways. Many see this Gospel passage as a contrast between a practical Christian discipleship and a contemplative, spiritual one. After all, does not Our Lord say that Martha, the listening one, has chosen the better part than her active sister?

But there is a spiritual side to the practical activity. Even in hardship, our activity can proceed on a different plane when graces opens it up to our spiritual dimension. Otherwise something is missing; we are not being “holistic”. Thus Mary sits unmoved in the presence of the mystery, but she is being prepared for her form of service. The Lord says to her sister, “It shall not be taken away from her”; and to Martha it is indeed a mystery. But as St Paul explains, it is the “mystery hidden for generations … and now revealed to His saints” (Colossians 1.24-48) - “Christ among you”, Emmanuel (Matthew 1.23). Thus Martha understands, that her active preparation and serving come to the same point: to find purpose and meaning when she comes to a stop in His presence. As St Paul puts it, “This is the wisdom in which we thoroughly train everyone … to make them all perfect in Christ.” (Colossians 1.28)

The call to come and be trained for moving into the practice of being disciples, because of the impression made on us by Christ in Person, may not be something we feel, or even remember. But it is what is familiar to us in every encounter we have with God in worship. We say that a sacrament is “an outward and visible sign of an inward and spiritual grace”. The spiritual within has outward form – and our outward life is formed by the spiritual reality of Christ’s grace among and within us, to “train everyone … and make them all perfect” in Him. We understand this as our sacramental life, where sacraments are not objects, or events that happen to us. Instead they form the shape and dimension of our existence. It is not that we were baptised and confirmed in the past, but that we are perpetually the baptised and the confirmed: existing in the new life of Christ, not some old one. We are not so much breathing in the Holy Spirit, as if He were “top-ups” from outside, but, like Christ on His Cross, breathing Him out from where He dwells within us (II Timothy 1.14); and, like Christ raised in His Tomb, breathing Him as He gives our mortality the over-riding quality of Resurrection (Romans 8.11). Furthermore, it is not that we just come week by week for the infusion of strengthening grace from His Body and Blood. It is far more than that. We become the Communion we receive. St Paul says, “His Body, you are. Each one of you is part of it.” (I Corinthians 12.27) And he goes on to say, “It is not I who live but Christ Who lives within me.” (Galatians 2.20).

In other words, we are not just people who come to Church, or listen to Christ’s words. We do not merely attend upon Him here, or seek His blessings, or follow Him in our hearts and our conduct. As Christ our God became human, so we are humans who are become divine. We live the life of His Body. We think the thinking of His mind (Philippians 2.5). It is not an earthly life we live now, but that of the Son with His Father. The old life is gone. St Paul tells us how it is: “You have been raised… Set your minds on things above, not on the earth. Now your life is hidden with Christ in God.” (Colossians 3.1-4)

“Hidden with Christ in God” is what St Gregory of Nazianzus called the rotation around one another of God, Father, Son and Holy Spirit. It is where we, who are made in the image of God, find that Christ is among us. He is not just among us here; He has also transferred us to be among us where He lives (cf. John 14.3 & I Peter 2.9) in the divine life of the Trinity. He is training us to be joined in as part of it, and He is bringing us to our completion, in living God’s life as He has lived ours.

This is what Abraham was confronted with at the Oak of Mamre (Genesis 18.1-10). He saw the three, but beheld one. We are often told that the Trinity is difficult to understand, that it is a mystery. Of course it is, if we are approaching it as a theory to grasp, or an idea to try and envisage. But it is none other than how life is in Christ. For in His Church, God has come near to us, surrounded us and entered into us, that we might come near to Him and enter into Him. What Abraham saw beneath the oak, is what was at play at the Lord’s incarnation. The Holy Spirit overshadowed the Virgin Mary as He once covered the firmament in the moment of creation; the Angel was sent with the Word of the Father; and the Word took flesh in the womb of the Mother of God. And at the Lord’s baptism, once again: three Persons, one God. The voice of the Father was heard; the Holy Spirit descended over the Lord like a dove; and Christ was unveiled as God the Son of God the Father. When He was transfigured, the Father’s voice was heard; and the Holy Spirit shines the glory of the Lord through Christ’s form, to reveal that Christ must suffer to fulfil the Law and the Prophets before His resurrection and ascension.

At the Lord’s Crucifixion, we heard the thunder just as the witnesses heard at His Baptism, assuming it was the voice of the Father. Christ breathed out with the Spirit; and, in the moment of His death, tore the veil of the Temple that He might mystically enter the Holy of Holies from the Cross and complete the atonement for our sins, then to emerge not only with forgiveness and healing salvation, but resurrection and eternal life. Three Persons, One God. Once again, at the Ascension and Pentecost, the Holy Spirit covers the mountain top. This time the glory of the Lord takes the form of the cloud, which we remember from the Passover of the Hebrews out of slavery to the Promised Land, as the Son ascends to the Father. Then the Son sends into His own People, His Body in the world, the Spirit from the Father, to ensure His abiding presence, the “Christ among us”. “Baptise in the Name of the Father, Son and Holy Spirit,” He has told us. For thus, “I am with you always, to the end of time.” (Matthew 28.19-20)

How can we know this? When the Lord disappeared from view at His Ascension, where was He to be found? In us, who have been incorporated into Him by consuming the Eucharist. At every Mass, we see all these mysteries of “Christ among us” played out again and again. Christ offers Himself to the Father in sacrifice; His words are spoken; and in the priest’s hands the Holy Spirit covers the Lord’s gift of Himself and He makes Himself known to us in the breaking of Bread. We receive Him; and in the same moment in heaven He receives us. We are joined up into the rotation of Father, Son and Holy Spirit around one another, where Christ is among us, training us to perfection.

This is why we may not sin. This is why self-righteousness, or special pleading, or self-justification, self-advancement, or shortcomings or excuses, or deferring our attention upon God until later, have no place. They may all have a reason here; but there they make no sense. Our confession of sin is not an apology to a judge. Instead, it is a perpetual turning of the heart and mind towards God, away from all else and into His life and the joining in of us all with the Persons in Trinity.

It is also why we must waste no opportunity for coming into the presence of “Christ among us” while we are also here in the world. Mary came to rest in silence as she listened to Jesus and absorbed His words about the Kingdom. She does not avoid work and service; she is prepared. She goes on to anoint the Lord’s feet and wipe them with her hair, preparing Him in turn for death and burial (John 12.8). Martha, too, prepares a house, but also herself, to receive Jesus. She works and waits on Him. Seemingly she receives nothing, until she in turn comes to be still before Him and recollects the mystery that stands among them. It happens in a different order, but it is the same rotation of the Persons of the Trinity. It is the same surrounding of one another that we are being joined into, for the day of our ultimate completion, “hidden with Christ in God”.

Every time we come to Church, then, it is no occasion for us to be talking to each other socially. It is a rare moment in this world for us to be in Absolute Quiet, to be in the presence of “Christ among us”, with all our attention turned on Him and nothing else - just as all His attention is turned on is. In numerous French churches, where just as with us there is much talking before the service, while some people try to make their devotions, there is a notice which reads, “Si vous parlez ici, où priez-vous?” – “If you talk here, where do you pray?” If Christians do not pray, or practise now being in the presence of God for eternity, why should anyone believe us, or follow the path we are on? What is the point; how is it different?

But the difference that has been made to us is that we desire, with all we love, to be at the heart of the mystery, Christ among us. So we fall to silence in His presence, to absorb all His speaking to our hearts and our consciences. We anoint his feet with the tears of returning to our long-lost Friend. And we enable Him to train us, to perfect us, to put into effect our service as His disciples all our days, unready as we are, until we are brought to our completion, joined in for ever with the Father, Son and Holy Spirit.

08 July 2019

The Rule of Peace: Homily for the Fourteenth Sunday after Pentecost, Corpus Christ, Maiden Lane

Peace feels like a gentle word. Peace in English and Friede in German, can mean stillness, the banishment of disturbance, the relief at the end of hostility. Yet we talk of winning the war but losing the peace; and so we have an inkling that peace can be uneasy and unsatisfactory, lacking resolution and perpetuating the injustice that caused the strife in the first place. We are still living with the consequences of short-sighted fixes from the First World War onwards. The massacred Armenians of Turkey and the Mediterranean were never given their homeland. The Christian Assyrians, inheritors of a 2,500 year-old civilisation, are still at the oppressive mercy of Islamic Kurds, Arabs and Persians alike. The Greeks and Turks dispossessed of their ancient foothold in each other’s lands seem perpetually irreconcilable. The price of peace in Eastern Europe, the Middle East, India and Africa has been modern boundaries to states that do not unite people but force some into dispossession and migration, or oppression and persecution under the yoke of others. Without naming them, all are the results of poor peace-deals that have led to unending conflict.  So forgive me if I place a question mark against our instinctive definition of peace.

If, however, you turn to Latin you will see that the idea of peace is not necessarily so gentle, but comes with force and impact. Indeed, impact comes from the Latin word pax. You can tell that this word is hard-hitting – pax in Latin, pace in Italian, paz in Spanish, paix in French, and our own English words derived from Latin – pact, impact, compact,  impinge, punch, pacify. They all come from the idea of fastening things tight together, and thus making a binding agreement you could never wriggle out of. At the time Our Lord Jesus was born, St Luke tells us that the Emperor was Augustus and he had brought the whole world to peace. This “Pax Romana” was a peace imposed by authority and force of arms, after decades of exhausting and ruinous civil war for control of Rome and the riches of its expanding empire. St Luke evidently thinks such a condition in the world was a herald for the coming of the Prince of Peace. To St Luke it was a force for good, but a force none the less. When he records the song of the angels that at Christ’s birth there is not only glory to God in the highest but peace on earth, he means no mere gentle sentiment or merely the absence of war, or even its abolition. He means a new driving force, to be constantly at work in the world leaving nothing unchanged.

Each of today’s readings refers to peace in exactly this way. Let us see if we may understand their meaning by using a different word for peace that still comes from the Latin word pax.

  • The prophet Isaiah (66.10-14) says, “Rejoice Jerusalem. For thus says the Lord, Now towards her I send flowing with impact like a river, and like a stream in spate, the glory of the nations.
  • The Lord says to his 72 disciples, “Whatever house you go into, let your first words be ‘Impact upon this house’. And if a man lives there who has already experienced this impact, your own impact will go and rest on him; if not it will come back to you. Cure those who are sick and say, the Kingdom is upon you.” (Luke 10.1-12, 17-20) He goes on to discuss with the disciples the impact that the very mention of His name had had on the devils who had fled from them.
  • Lastly, St Paul tells the church at Galatia, a group much like our own this evening looking to Christ for the answers to life, that peace comes to all who follow the rule that the true cause of transformation in the world is the Cross (Galatians 6.14-18). For once we have been struck by the Cross and the Lord Who was crucified on it, we are now a new creature. We new creatures have marks all over us: not of what or who we were, but the same as those on Christ. Peace to St Paul is therefore the most massive impact on our souls and bodies. It changes how we think. It changes our vision of the world. It alters the way we speak. It turns the way we behave inside out. Peace is not the disappearance of difficulty; it is the beginning of an impact taking its lifelong effect. Its mark we can never erase. It is the mark of the Cross on our forehead at baptism. It is the wound that became a scar that everyone ought to be able to recognise as soon as they catch sight of us.

But there is more. In the Hebrew, Aramaic and Semitic world in which Christ and the apostles lived, “peace” is a normal, everyday greeting. We know it as Shalom in Hebrew, Salaam in Arabic, and Sliem in Maltese. It can mean tranquillity and wellbeing, wholeness and completion, concord and harmony, just as peace does in English. But it can also mean something pacified, something atoned for, something submitted to and accepted. There is a clue in the word Islam, which speaks of achieving peace only when you have submitted to the one God. For the followers of Jesus Christ, who is that One God, he reconciles everything in harmony, resolving all things that were at odds, abolishing our evil that is hostile to God’s good, bringing wholeness to the world of people, and achieving completion to His work of creation by one means alone: He makes peace by His Blood shed on the Cross (Colossians 1.20-22). The greatest peace of all, then, is that river in full spate of which Isaiah spoke. It is the impact of the Blood of Christ which no other force can withstand. It is the arrival of the new creation which is the Kingdom of God, coming with all its force and impact, whenever the Christian utters the name of Christ and announces the effect of the Cross.

“Peace, be still,” cries Christ above the storm and it is still. How often do we call out with His Name as a curse of casual indignation or the bare-teeth howl of attack. It is not always easy to be a man of peace, or a woman of peace, even with that Name on your lips.

But in our quieter and most clear-sighted moments, the Name of Jesus Christ is not only the tranquillity and wholeness for which we long. It is the lifelong and sustained effect which transforms us, and the whole world of people among whom we belong, into the Kingdom. We believe in Christ because of His impact on our every thought, word and act - whether they have originated from His Kingdom, or whether they are what needs immediate correction so that we are set back on the course that is true. We believe in Christ, not just because it is our culture, or a personal belief. We believe in Christ because this is how the entire created universe has been constructed. It is there we can see that Christ is its universal King ruling everything, especially everything hostile that disobeys Him. It is there we can see how everything fits together to make His Kingdom, which we pray will come on earth as it is in heaven.

When we pray for someone who has died, we say, “May they rest in peace.” But this peace is no escape from the world or a departure from its struggles. It is to witness by Christ’s light the impact of His Kingdom taking its effect in every soul one by one, as they are won for Christ in this world and the next. Thus in a few moments’ time we will worship the Lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world to grant us peace. “Peace,” says the Lord, “not as the world gives,” but the peace that is to see the Father in Christ, and to know the Holy Spirit whom the Father will send, so that we may always dwell in Christ. Do not be afraid of this, he says, because these words are part of the last conversation Jesus has, before He is betrayed and condemned to shed His Blood for us on the Cross. It is no wonder, then, that the Lord told us that if we would be His disciples we must take up our cross daily too. “Peace to all who follow this rule.”

14 May 2019

Sunday of the Myrrh-Bearers: Homily at the Liturgy of St John Chrysostom, Ukrainian Catholic Cathedral of the Holy Family, London, 12th May 2019

Why are we looking at the visit of the myrrh-bearing women to the Empty Tomb today, a fortnight after events? Their role was noteworthy on Good Friday, when we knew that there was a matter of hours between Jesus’ death and the beginning of the Sabbath for Joseph of Arimathea to procure the Holy Body, wrap it in linen and fragrant spices, and lay it in the Tomb. There is not enough time for the women to anoint him, but, like Joseph who lived in expectation of the Kingdom to come, they follow faithfully beyond the end, witnessing the place where He is laid. On the Sabbath morning when nothing can be done, in the midst of death, all they can do is to cry out, “O Christ as You foretold, show us Your resurrection.”

It is twenty-four hours before they can come to anoint the buried Lord properly. Thirty-three years earlier, three wise men had come with gold for a king, frankincense for a God, and myrrh for anointing the one who is to suffer and save us. Likewise on the first Pascha, Mary Magdalen, Salome and Mary the mother of James come as Wise Women to replay the scene in the cave of the Nativity in the cave of the Burial and see it borne out, honouring the one whom they recognise as The Lord, the Divine Son, and the Servant who must suffer. But although they have been told of the Resurrection like the other disciples, and desire with Joseph to see it , they do not expect it when it comes.

This is why we have waited for two weeks to hear the account of what confronted them, for it to dawn on us as it needed to dawn on them.

The Gospel we have heard today is from the close of St Mark’s Gospel, widely recognised to be the earliest of the Gospel texts to have been written down. Famously, there are several versions of how it ends. In our Church, we have the long ending, which summarises The Lord’s appearance to Mary Magdalen who then goes on to announce the resurrection to the mourning apostles (which is told in fuller detail in St John’s Gospel) , then His appearance to the two disciples on the road to Emmaus (which we know from St Luke’s Gospel), and finally to Peter and the other Ten remaining apostles exhorting them to baptise the whole of creation and bring those who believe into the Kingdom of heaven (which we hear in St Matthew’s Gospel). What we have in St Mark’s Gospel is the presentation in the hours and days immediately after the astonishment of the resurrection, a vivid moment in which The Lord is both drawn up into heaven and remains working with the apostles to confirm their words by new miracles - in other words by the Holy Spirit that He sends and gives in power. But only a few verses before, are the words describing the first reaction of the myrrh-bearing women, the last words of St Mark’s Gospel on which all authorities and Churches are agreed:

They went out and ran away from the Tomb, trembling with amazement. They said nothing to anyone, for they were afraid.

Why should the gospel end there – which of the endings is original – have we lost the true ending? Well, that is not how to look at it. The entire thrust of St Mark’s Gospel, which relies so heavily on the direct witness testimony of St Peter himself, is how those who are drawn to follow Jesus genuinely believe Him and everything He says about the Kingdom of God (some of it very difficult to hear); and, while they accept that it must all be true, because of the casting out of evil forces and the miracles that confirm His words at every significant turn, but that they barely have faith in Him until after the resurrection. Until that confronts them, they fail to grasp what He means about the coming of the end that will lead to the coming of God. It has not sunk in about the God Who will endure through and beyond it all (Mark 13.31), Who will be seized and made to suffer because His prayer in the Temple alone is valid as that of the Divine Son of Man, Whose appearance as the true Messiah is made clear not because He curses a fruitless fig tree, but because the attachment of His body will bless the Cross that will kill Him, yet be the source of inexhaustible forgiveness and salvation. They cannot absorb His principle that only through entering into this dark reality can one age end and another achieve its inauguration. Indeed the disciples believe His words and love His talk of the reign of God, His Kingdom come on earth as it is in heaven; but it is not the faith by which their lives are shaped - until they have been through what is to come and come out the other side.

So James and John the sons of Zebedee asked Him (Mark 10) if they could sit on either side of Him in the glory He kept talking about in the Kingdom; and He replied that they would have to be baptised with His baptism, and drink the cup that He must drink, and become a slave bound to the service of all - a ransom for the release of all the rest, and not His own, if He would truly be set free. To drive home the point, The Lord straight away goes on to heal a blind man, who has cried out, “I want my sight back”. The message could not be louder: the disciples are sunk in complete mystification; despite everything they have heard, they are dazzled by a fantasy. Instead, it takes someone who is physically blind to perceive that here is a simple question of faith. Can The Lord endure, can He be trusted to save, can He be relied on to turn the impossible inside out? The blind man has foreseen the Cross, because He trusts that Jesus’ mercy can cause His fruitless vision to wither, like the fig tree did, into the clear sight of Christ in His true light. The disciples had seen this on the mount of Transfiguration; they worshipped, but in that moment they only saw the light, without realising where the light was to come from and how it would shine in our side of the firmament of creation. For the One Who is all Glorious Light in Heaven must in this world inevitably take the form of a human body beaten on the head with dead wooden sticks and disfigured on the beams of a tree.

Those with faith like the blind man, those who had been along the same path of sorrow yet knew to trust and endure, had an instinct that the light of Transfiguration, the darkness of destruction in one age, and the beginning of the new, were all part of one piece; a seamless robe, so to speak.

Mary Magdalen, Salome, and Mary the mother of James had been through it all with Jesus, to the Cross, to the Tomb with Joseph, and now came back to be first witnesses that the Tomb was empty of burial and death. Their belief and trust was transformed by the Cross and the resurrection into the life of faith. It is too great to absorb, so they run away and say nothing out of sheer fright and shock. But they do go to Peter and tell him of the new beginning, back in Galilee where it had all started out. Thus Peter, who denied the Christ he followed, becomes a man of faith in the Risen Lord Who endured the shame to give His life as a ransom for the release of all. Thus the wise women who kept seeing and recognising The Lord anoint not the buried Christ, for he has been raised. Instead, their anointing is realised in the outpouring of the Holy Spirit for the new age that is the Church, producing for ever more not just believers and followers, but people who have embraced the whole of Christ as He has embraced the whole of them, people of faith whose entire life and mind and soul has turned on this point, that The Lord who was dead is risen.

It took the three women hours to deal with this realisation. It took the other disciples and apostles days. It took St Thomas a whole week. We have been given two weeks to absorb that the Son of Man risen from the dead dies no more and what that means. This changes everything about how we view the creation, the purpose of our belief, other people in it who do not follow in this belief, the nature of religion, our relationship with the Person of God the Son, and the entire dimension and trajectory of human nature. Our faith is not some department of our personality, an add-on belief system. Since Christ is not dead but raised in our own flesh, our faith is simply how life is. As the man who wanted his sight back realised, Christ has turned the impossible inside out and the resurrection is now in our nature.

22 April 2019

Supposing Him to be the Gardener: Homily for Easter Morning, Catholic Parish Church of the Most Precious Blood, Southwark, April 21, 2019

Every so often I go to a beautiful garden. Over the years, I have got to know the gardeners, the students, the staff and the other supporters there as friends. Some of them are real characters; and not a few of them have pushed through terrible adversity to find in this place an outlet onto their true path in life. They are all incredibly gifted, honing their skills year upon year about every conceivable plant and variety; in what soil it will grow in shade or in sun; the sometimes hidden way it can be propagated; when its seed or bulb or as young plant it needs to be planted months before it grows up and blooms at exactly the right time; what it can grow next to produce colour and form in harmony and contrast. These gardeners are genius. In the seven months that the garden is open each year, they produce six waves of new flowerings in succession, as all the careful work in the preceding autumn, winter and spring results in new compositions of leaf and flower coming through in new colour as others die back, only to yield in turn as they are succeeded by later new flowerings.

Whenever I go to this garden, I am in awe. It is never the same from one year or season to the next. These people know exactly what they are doing to produce this constant cycle of bursts of glory and beauty amid the cycle of dying back and planting into the hidden covering of the earth.

It is no accident in design that the Tomb which this morning we find empty of Christ’s body but emanating from within it the angels, who indicate the activity within us and our world of heaven itself, is in a garden. The latest burial in the earth, this planting in succession to so many others before it, has been prepared from the ages before. Just as Christ was born of Mary at the fullness of time, so His death on the Cross, His burial and resurrection in the Tomb occur at the very moment which is the turning point in history upon which all that comes after hinges. From that instant there can never be un-resurrection from the dead. What Christ worked into our nature by being born, and dying in a body like ours, is the nature of God in his grace and glory revealed in the way that is for us. As St Paul says, we once saw it through a glass darkly, this grace and glory: through miracles and healings, through luminous, unforgettable parables that it takes a lifetime to comprehend, and then in the confrontations around the Temple, the agony in the garden three nights ago, the arrest of someone supposed to be the very Son of Man, the trials, the crucifixion and then the bearing away of the unbroken body to be lain down into death. This is what the workings of God look like in human form as He empties Himself of all but the inexhaustible supply of forgiveness and unconditional love come what may: thus “in the garden secretly and on the Cross on high... God’s presence and His very Self and Essence all Divine.” (From Praise to the Holiest in the height, in The Dream of Gerontius, John Henry Newman)

So, according to this carefully laid plan from before time, after Nazareth, after Bethlehem, then after the baptism in Jordan when we heard whose Son coming to us He was, then in Galilee, then on mount Tabor when we say Him shining out of our human body with the light of His undying ondoing of death and His new life in the Kingdom, then in Jerusalem with the palms and overturning the old tables, then the Thursday in the garden, then the night on trial, then Friday’s rejection by His people, then the way to Calvary, then the Cross, then the death and then the burial within the ground of our planet all in the end within those swift alarming twenty-four hours – comes another day like an eternity passes. At last on the third He rises; and the glory and beauty we see where in the place where it all began: in a garden cultivated from when it was first set out for this very moment of all moments, when the latest flower in succession shoots up, comes into leaf, then buds and opens up never to close again.

Now why was all this? So that after the resurrection there could be no de-resurrection. After dying there could only be undying. After rising again there could be no dying back. For just as he worked the life and nature and grace of His being God into humanity, through his life in our nature from his conception to his death, so what happens to Him now as God in human flesh raised from the dead happens to humanity in all its entirety too. St Paul points us to the garden to show this. He says, “It was sown a physical body; it was raised a spiritual body”. (I Corinthians 15.44) As with Christ, so with you. You live no longer for yourselves, but Godwards, toward God (Romans 14.8; II Corinthians 5.15), to the life of the Kingdom whose quality of living is not towards death but eternity, in the dimension of undying always and which is even now raised from the dead and open to the new life, never to be closed up again.

And how was all this? There is every answer possible to bring you to the foot of the Cross in tears, or to the lintel of the Tomb beside the once closed stone, rolled along its edge to its own opening never to shut itself up in darkness again; or to bring you to silence before the amazing message-bearers from heaven; or to face the obvious signs you can barely understand of some cloths left lying on the rock surface, as if nothing extraordinary has happened here.

Some say it is so that Christ could be victorious over death, and cheat the devouring beast of its prey by devouring it back in overwhelming heaven’s eternal life. Some say it is so that an innocent victim may outweigh the sin, its guilt within us and its power over us, as the Lamb of God takes them away. Some say it is because the outpouring of love is so endless that not even death can exhaust it, or human sin try its patience beyond the limit of God’s compassion, forbearance with us, and forgiveness, for there is no limit. The great poet and hymn writer, Charles Wesley, put it like this:
He left His Father’s throne above,
So free, so infinite His grace;
Emptied Himself of all but love,
And bled for Adam’s helpless race:
’Tis mercy all, immense and free;
For, O my God, it found out me. (From And can it be that I should gain)
I was reminded of what this means when I went to the garden I told you about once. Once when I tried to buy some items in the shop from my friends there, they said, “Your money’s no good here.” I had to accept the gift without payment in the garden in the same way that the woman who came to the Tomb to anoint Jesus could not do Him this last duty, for all was already achieved, and the marvel of our redemption and resurrection into His own new life bought and paid for. As we sing of this:
There was no other good enough,
To pay the price of sin;
He only could unlock the gate,
Of heaven and let us in. (From There is a green hill far away, Mrs C. F. Alexander)
 All we can do is to add ourselves, our souls and bodies, to the endless succession of planting and spring: sown a physical body, raised a spiritual body. St Paul calls this living sacrifice “the true spirit of worship” (Romans 12.1 [logike latreia: reasonable service (in the sense of deeply reasoned and pondered; spiritual service]): it is never our loss to death, but our release from lives imprisoned to the abundance of life in heaven lived in all its abundance, of necessity, here and now. (John 10.10). In the words of Isaac Watts:
Were the whole realm of Nature mine
That were an offering far too small.
Love so amazing, so divine
Demands my soul, my life, my all! (From When I survey the wondrous Cross)
When Mary Magdalen sees Jesus and supposes Him to be the gardener, it is no mere case of mistaken identity. The Lord showed Himself to her exactly as He intended: the One who created our life in His Paradise at the beginning and, with sin and everything else having taken its toll and its turn, the One who has shown the Cross to be the key to unlock the Tomb that leads back into the Garden from which we have been rootless, planted nowhere, flowering poorly. No wonder that He said to the thief who died beside Him, “Today you shall be with me in Paradise”. And here we are, face to face with the Gardener of Eden, holding on no longer to what has passed (John 2.17), but now established where we were always meant to be.