14 January 2019

The Sun of Righteousness: Homily at the Ukrainian Catholic Cathedral of the Holy Family, Sunday after the Nativity, 12/13th January 2019

In today’s Troparion of the Nativity (Tone 4), we sang that those who had once worshipped stars were now taught by a star to worship the Sun of Righteousness and to recognise the Dawn from on high.

It would be a mistake, however, to dismiss the Wise Men as ignorant or superstitious, because across the whole known world, from the Persian Magi to the priests in the Temple of Jerusalem who were trying to advise an unwise King Herod, the minds of those steeped in the greatest accumulation of knowledge and experience were studying the ordered movements of the heavenly bodies, to see where there might be a divine pattern in creation that could be applied to how we should live and act as humans in the world below. Any variation or unforeseen phenomena were scrutinise to try and understand whether there was evidence of a warning, or a sign of favour, or a command for a new direction, or an old prophecy coming to pass with immediate consequences for the course of the future. It is said that, as well as the offering of sacrifices, the Liturgy of the Temple in Jerusalem was meant to imitate the circular movement of the sun, the moon and the stars, with priests dressed in white and other coverings to symbolise the heavenly beings and the angels, not so as to worship them but to induce here in the world through God’s service among the clouds of incense, the will, the blessing and the living glory of the Lord in heaven. In our worship at the Divine Liturgy, we likewise circulate around the altar; our priests are vested for service amid the angels at the very throne on which Christ our God comes to rest in our midst, and where He reveals Himself vested in the Body and the Blood of the Eucharist so that we acclaim Him as He gives Himself to us, saying “God has appeared to us”.

We have seen his star in the east,” said the Magi likewise to Herod, “and have come to worship Him.” It seems increasingly to astronomers that the alignment of stars, or a comet or a planet, and the movement of the earth at some time in the period following the Lord’s birth indeed supports St Matthew’s account that the path of a heavenly body appeared to move and so it was matched step by step in the earthly tread of the Wise Men, from their roads out of the east and down to Jerusalem, then on to Bethlehem. For a very short time, I was a student in Jerusalem, where one of the professors took us to Bethlehem not just to see the sacred cave of the Nativity but to attest to the archaeology of an ancient well nearby. “This proves it,” he said.  “This was how the Wise Men were satisfied that the heavenly firmament which appeared alive with momentum to them had now come to standstill. They looked down into the water and saw the star was fixed, by its reflection.” Whatever weight we may give to these conjectures, we gain an insight into the ancient system of reading the universe to discern the Divine Plan that wisdom was not some static body of knowledge, but a dynamic mechanism by which God guides the world by His laws for our good, and projects our way by His light towards His glory.

Thus the star is not an exhibition of glory way up in the heavens, but the sign that shows that the Glory has come to shine in our world. It rests over Bethlehem, not so that we may look up, beyond and away, but so that we may focus our vision with heaven’s upon the world it intends to save - and behold the Dawn of God within the humanity that He has come to obtain from us, and by sharing it to give it a new direction and set it in a new light - one that dazzles and amazes us because it shines not from an external source but has been kindled to a blaze from within.

St Paul in today’s Epistle (Galatian 1.11-19) bears this out with his own story of beholding Christ not following an outside explanation, but by revelation within. He tells of how he, too, went off to follow the discovery of Christ that he was astonished to find was shining out through his life, by a journey into the east, then a return to Damascus and in the end to Jerusalem to confer with the holy Apostles Peter and James. He follows the steps of the fourth of the Wise Men. Paul will have told them of his life-changing encounter with Christ on the road to Damascus; Peter will have borne witness to his experience with James and John on the mount of Transfiguration, when divine light was seen changing the very appearance of humanity within the incarnate Christ; James will have recounted the family’s testimony to the events at his divine Brother’s nativity, and the cave that many said was almost too light to be approachable, yet where God came in proximity to His people and enabled them to enter in and behold Him in the Child. And all will have recognised in each other’s story the same brilliance of Emmanuel, God with us, the Christ Himself.

But, as St John reminds among the first words of his Gospel, “The light shines in darkness.” The Wise Men having seen the Light rely on the cover of the darkness to steal away from impending danger. The Holy Family must conceal the Light from the premature threat of death before the true import of its majesty can be revealed in a new cave of resurrection once its glory has been understood upon the Cross of Life. Instead, the Herodian soldiers emerged out of the dark dream-world of the Magi and St Joseph to visit the nightmare of slaughter upon the Holy Innocent children (today’s Gospel, Matthew 2.13-23).

Yet “the darkness does not overwhelm the Light”. We may not look to the pattern of stars for our clues nowadays to understand the ways of God. But we do believe that God has charted a course for us and that it involves turning our humanity inside out, so that the evil, the harm and the deception that we would prefer to lie buried within us are brought out into the light of knowledge (cf. Troparion of the Nativity, Tone 4). We fear this revelation of who we really are, because we know we are sinful and ugly within. But Christ is a Sun of Righteousness to warm us, and to bleach our guilt in light. Because of this we can endure the shattering of our illusions about ourselves like St Paul did. Because of this, we can overcome the shame of our denial of the light of the world like St Peter beside the lesser fire of the guards who arrested Jesus.  Because of this, we know to be constant in life in pursuit of our own bright and strangely leading star, which is quite simply for us the way of the Cross. As our beloved friends in the Salvation Army and the Quakers say: no Cross, no Crown.

Within a few years, the God of heaven had gone from becoming the child of the house of David in Bethlehem, to be the new Moses bringing the Kingdom of God to the Promised Land once more from out of Egypt, and then to be a Nazarene who would take the trajectory of His life as God made Flesh from life, to sacrifice, to death and a new creation, by which all that is at fault is not ultimately rejected but ascended. By the same token for us, this same unclear path of adversity is also the only path there is. It is the path of hope, of finding your way if you lose it, and of knowing that ultimately the light from heaven that shines above you is never going to depart from you, but will always reveal that Christ is God with us, shining from within to make us holy and the living citizens of heaven on earth. Imagine what it is to look in the mirror and to see that what stands before us God has decided to make holy. Imagine what it would be like, looking round to each other today, if the people we can see, and the people seeing us, are beholding holy people. Imagine the people outside who have no conception of the Kingdom glimpsing it by just a glance at us coming down from Mount Tabor, or emerging from the cave at Bethlehem. This is out of proportion to realistic imagination, but it is no more than what Christ told us would become of us. For as we sang earlier on (Troparion of the Resurrection, Tone  8), “You came down from on high as the Merciful One, to free us from our sufferings – O Lord, our life, and now our resurrection, Glory be to You.”

This is why, because it was the will of the Father for His Son, we must always have the same optimistic and forgiving belief in the worth of humanity, and in the power of the Sun of Righteousness to warm and lighten it into the Kingdom.

God is With Us - Veneration of the Eucharist in the Divine Liturgy: Homily for the Sodality of the Blessed Sacrament, Corpus Christ Church & Shrine of the Blessed Sacrament, London, 10th January 2019

The Catholics who keep the Church’s year according to the old Julian calendar celebrated their December 25th, Christmas Day, on your January 7th, this last Monday. So tonight I have the opportunity to greet all here at Corpus Christi from the Ukrainian Greek Catholic Cathedral where I serve the English-speaking community with a blessing in the Name of our Lord and God and Saviour at His nativity in the flesh: Christ is born, glorify him.

The Ukrainian Catholic Church is the largest of the twenty-three Eastern Catholic Churches. It is Catholic, but not Roman. It is one of the Greek Catholic Churches, meaning that we worship according to the same liturgy and theology as the Greek and other Orthodox Churches, except to say that we do so in fullness of communion and sacramental unity with the Bishop of Rome as the supreme pastor of the Universal Church of Christ, and thus with all Latin Roman Catholics. I serve as a priest in both the Latin Roman Catholic Church and the Ukrainian Greek Catholic Church, since both are united in the same Catholic faith and life.

Our Ukrainian Greek Catholic numbers approximately six million people in Ukraine, as well as worldwide. That may seem small in comparison with the billion members of the Latin Roman Catholic Church; but when you think that this Church was liquidated by Stalin, its bishops in Ukraine martyred, while the priests and faithful were either forced underground or forced into the Russian Orthodox Church which was awarded their churches and monasteries for forty-five years, the story of its revival has been remarkable. Kept alive in exile, it re-emerged in Ukraine with very little apart from its priests and faithful who had maintained their belief in the Church’s unity and their fidelity to the successor of Peter as the guarantor of the communion of the whole of Christ’s Church regardless of rich and diverse Liturgies, histories, memories and tradition.  Like the English Catholic Church, for the sake of faithful witness to keeping intact the communion of the Universal Church likewise, the Ukrainian Church’s body bears the marks and memory of persecution and suffering; but this Body is none other than that of Christ risen from the dead. The new Cathedral of His Beatitude Sviatoslav Shevchuk, the father and head of the Church in Kyiv, Ukraine’s capital, is thus dedicated to Christ our Pascha – to the Lamb of sacrifice Who is risen from the dead so that we in Him pass over from death and oblivion to life and new hope. Twenty-five years ago, our Church had no visible existence in the land where it was the mother Church of the Churches in all the surrounding nations, including Russia. Now it is the home of the only Catholic university to exist within the former Soviet Union, a bastion of Catholic social teaching and for imparting the values of truth, honesty and integrity in public service, law, politics, media, commerce and business, as well as for placing the Christian view of humanity and the restored created order into its disciplines of the arts, humanities, sciences, technology and theology. A few years ago, I visited the new seminary of the Holy Spirit in Lviv, where over 100 young men from three only recently non-existent dioceses were training for the priesthood.

So, what has captured the hearts of the young Ukrainians seeking to dedicate their lives to Christ’s service and of the people who have emerged from decades of atheist oppression by the Communists and chosen also to reject the oppressive atheism of western commercialism and materialistic consumerism?

It is the beauty and glory of Christ Who is victorious over everything that is worldly, everything that offers no lasting gratification, or answer to our fundamental questions about life, let alone our needs and aspirations. Even though our Liturgy tends to be served wherever the faithful find themselves and a future for their families, we are rooted in the tradition that transformed the entire Roman Empire of the eastern Mediterranean, and brought about the evangelisation of most of Eastern Europe that remains potent to the present day.

Let me briefly describe the feel of our Church’s Eucharist. I hope you will see that its constant emphasis on the coming of Christ and his presence among His people is something that Catholics in the Latin Church also identify with strongly.

An obvious feature of our Churches is the iconostasis, the great stand of icons before the Altar and across the sanctuary, depicting Our Lord, the Mother of God, St John Baptist, the saints and the angels. This is not a barrier screening off the altar from the people. Quite the opposite, it stands to show the proximity of citizens of heaven to the people of God in the world – immediately close to the Altar, it is the window of heaven out of which the Lord and His saints press their faces, so that we may be drawn as close as possible to them in worship. Thus we are not left to worship on the earth at a distance from God, but situated physically close to the presence of God coming onto His throne in our midst. Here on this earth, then, a space is cleared that can contain all heaven, and we are enabled to step into it. The doors in the iconostasis are not to shield the altar from human view, but to reveal it. Just as in a Latin Church, the altar is the heart of the dedicated Temple. Human beings come in and out of the doors continually to keep company with the angels and saints, taking our hearts and souls in, and bringing out to the expectant faithful the blessing, peace and gift of God Himself.

At the very beginning, before the proclamation of the Word of God in the Gospel and before the gifts of the Eucharist are brought in, the Altar, the icons, the whole Church, the priests and the faithful are generously incensed – to consecrate the whole of the earthly and human environment and to show it as sacred and divine, the place of our reconciliation and restoration. You will see the deacon and the priest offering the numerous litanies and prayers, not with their backs to the people but facing the icon of Christ and the Altar at the head of the people, drawing us all into a movement out of this world at the very moment the living presence of the Kingdom enters in, surrounds us and draws us into its embrace. But you will also the priest coming out of the Holy of Holies to bring into the midst of the world first the book of the Gospels - which we hail as God’s Wisdom Himself - then the Bread and Drink to be taken to the Altar for consecration and sacrifice, along with repeated interventions from heaven of peace on earth, until ultimately there appears through the Holy Doors, the coming of God in His Body and Blood for the sake of the life of the world.

This is not horizontal worship, a religious activity only among humans; yet it draws the faithful together in a common moment of presence before the living God who has come into our midst, for God is with us. This is not vertical worship, only an offering of humans below up to God above, for it exalts humans into the heavenly places to dwell among the saints in light, at the same time as it transfigures and glorifies this world of ours, and we who belong to Christ on earth are shown to be the living manifestations of the resurrection of Christ, passed already from dead-end life to immortal existence through the Cross, beyond the Tomb, into the Ascended reality that we can never evade, since it is not only our final destiny but the way we are to live our live at this moment and every moment we know. This is the meaning of the greatest prayer of the Eucharist to ask for our daily Bread: may “Thy Kingdom on come on earth as it is in heaven” – not in some after life, but daily.

In our Eucharist, which we call the Divine Liturgy – our public service of love and honour to God – the gifts of Bread and Wine are prepared beforehand in a special short service. We use leavened bread, and each loaf is cut into pieces to commemorate the Lamb of God, the Mother of God, the saints and martyrs to be venerated, the Pope, patriarchs, bishops, priests, deacons, religious and faithful, the nations and governments, those in special need of prayer, and the departed. These pieces are set aside, covered and dedicated with incense. Even though they are not consecrated yet, whenever the altar, the icons, the Church and the faithful are incensed, knowing the purpose that they will fulfil, we incense the gifts too. When the time comes for them to be taken to the Altar, the deacons and priests take them, declaring again those for whom they are offered, out through the Church in the sight of the people, before taking them through the doors of the iconostasis to the Altar. They are incensed again. The veil that has covered them is lifted off and waved over them as we recite our belief in the Creed. Some see this is a clearing away of the clouds of our earthly offering of incense so that the Lord in His own unseen light may enter and dwell in them. Others see a symbol of the coming of the Holy Spirit, Who once brooded over the firmament before the moment of creation, and Who once overshadowed the Virgin Mary as she became the Mother of God.
After the gifts are consecrated by the Words of Christ and the invocation of the Holy Spirit, the priests at the altar bow profoundly. And because this is a moment when the Incarnate Lord once again dwells among us in real presence, we recall the Motherhood of God by Mary and again offer incense. After the Lord’s Prayer, the Confession and the Communion of the clergy, the Bread of Life is mixed in the Chalice with the Blood of Christ (we administer Holy Communion in both kinds together with a spoon), the deacon takes the Chalice and comes out through the Holy Doors of the sanctuary and shows the Lord to the people, saying, “Approach with fear of God, and with faith”. The people reply, “Blessed is He who comes in the Name of the Lord. God has appeared to us”.
At the end of communion, the priest holds up the Chalice to the faithful for veneration. In the Eastern Church there is no service of adoration and benediction, nor is the Blessed Sacrament exposed. But here for a moment East and West pause in a similar way with adoration and hoping for the touch of Christ’s blessing. As he holds up the Blessed Sacrament to the love and adoration of the people, the priest says, “Save Your people, O God, and bless Your inheritance”. At the same moment he makes the sign of the Cross with the Sacrament over the faithful. The people respond, “We have seen the true Light, we have received the Heavenly Spirit, we have found the true faith. We worship the undivided Trinity for having saved us.” Then he takes the Chalice to the altar and incenses it. Next he takes the Chalice away from the Altar to the table at the side of the sanctuary from which it was first brought, but on his way, once again, he shows the Lord to His people, saying, “Blessed be our God, always now and for ever and ever.”

The tradition, the customs, the actions in the Liturgy may be very different from those familiar to many of us in the Liturgy of the Latin Church, but it is the same faith, the same love, the same Person. For, while this is unmistakably the worship of God, it is no escape from the world into a religious cocoon, or a refusal to live in an imperfect world. Instead, it is the resolute turning of human attention to the One Who has come into the world not condemn the world but to own it, to love it into becoming the very Kingdom of Heaven come on earth as it will in the world to come, to die for it as well as to live for it, to make us holy, and to restore our world’s direction, correct its purpose, and bring it along its true path as a new creation.

Why did the Ukrainian people turn from the empty promise of atheism and the meaningless gratification of state socialism and western consumerism alike? Because of the beauty and glory of Christ, Who is not only the best of what humanity can become, but, by His grace and forgiveness the image of everything we already are, because with Him even now we are risen, ascended and glorified. In this sacrament that we share, we have seen the true light of God and of “lightening every man” that has come into the world; we have been embraced by true faith and drawn up into the very living of the undivided Trinity, Who has saved us - not just from ourselves, but for the eternal glory that is His reign in our hearts.