11 March 2019

Marked for Repair: A Homily for Repentance Sunday, Ukrainian Catholic Cathedral, London, 10th March 2019

During the week I was watching American news, and there on CNN was a journalist conducting an interview with a prominent, dark cross of ashes on his forehead. Last Wednesday began Lent in the Latin Church, and it is marked with the imposition of ashes made out of the previous year’s Palm Sunday branches. Our own Lenten fast begins on Monday after today’s observance of Forgiveness Sunday; but we too have the Cross imposed upon us at other times – not with ash but still indelibly on our hearts, minds and souls when we were baptised, when we are anointed with oil at the great Feasts, and most of all when we make the sign of the Cross during our prayers and at the Liturgy.

The CNN interview concerned American politics. Here in the United Kingdom such a bold public profession of personal religion or feelings on a hard-hitting current affairs programme would be discouraged, or the motives doubted as some kind of an act. There would certainly have been complaints. But in the American interview there was no reference at all to the visual demonstration of Catholic faith as in any way out of the normal, as the interviewee confronted with the Cross of Christ on a public Catholic just got on with asking secular questions and explaining some explosive proceedings in the Congress. It struck me that the CNN journalist was, first, being honest about his faith and not covering it up for the cameras lest anyone be offended; and, secondly, he defied anyone to make an issue for their own reasons about something that is normal for Latin Catholics.

Indeed, he was professing his faith in his work and his role as a hard-hitting public commentator. No one turned a hair; and the interview, like his appearance, was entirely matter of fact. But such a declaration of Catholic belief is more than positioning of faith over and against the world. The sign of the Cross is a sign of contradiction not only to the world. Christians bearing or making the sign of the Cross are marked by a contradiction to ourselves, our false image of ourselves that we carry in our heads and that we project to the world. It arrests any hypocrisy. Just like a defective machine that goes back to the shop and is labelled for return to the factory and repair, the Cross is the mark on us to show where the faulty parts of the apparatus are that will be replaced with grace and fortified goodness. It disabuses us of our fantasy that we are good and moral, and perfectly adequate without Christ. And yet it shows the world not that Christ humiliates humanity, but that He judges us worth not leaving on the ground but raising up (cf. Romans 14.4, from today’s Epistle)

This is what seizes our heart with dejection at our sin, our flaws and our failings. This is what leaves us feeling that regret is useless and eats away at us because of dwelling on what might have been. This is what convinces of desire for repentance, which is more than the intense sorrow that our sins provoke in us and in others as well as in God, for in the word used by Our Lord repentance is the whole change of mind, outlook and direction that leads from what was wrong, by putting it right, to the place of relief and remaking. Here we find joy in an honest memory about what was done in the past; on the way here we discover forgiveness by means of the truth about ourselves face to face with God, and we arrive in gladness for acceptance because His love is inexhaustible and cannot be deflected from its purpose.

The Cross with which we make signs of faith, of penitence, of desperation and of hope is realised by the Christians to be the true contour of the image of God in which we were made. Our image of ourselves may enable us to get by, but it is ultimately false. Only the image of God who shaped what human life as lived by God looks like is true. Being God, according to His plan He could resemble a King in no other way. And if this is how God incarnate appears as a human being upon the Cross, taking up the Cross likewise is how a human being must appear being made in His image. This is the objective of His being born. It is the means by which He brings about the Resurrection. It is the path to the glorification of the Old Creation by re-creating it from within as the New. It is the mountain path of Ascension, by which we move even now into His Kingdom as it comes on earth as in heaven.

While we make our way into our fast, and observe the season of Lent, of course we are penitent and, pained by the wrong we have done, we ask for mercy. Of course we deny ourselves with fasting. Of course we are moved to intensify our poor prayers.

But the sign of the Cross reminds us that, before we thought of any of those things, Christ was not waiting for us to show signs of promise. He was there first, giving us what it is that we desire to offer. Before His judgment comes His contradiction of our sinful state and its remedy. Before His sentence He charted the pattern of our rehabilitation. Before our repentance He established the means of His forgiveness. Before our self-reproach and self-abasement, He willed to take our flesh and restore its true dignity. Before our self-denial and fasting, He ordained that His generosity would be of absolutely everything that is His. For prior to his suffering was his endless patience, from that “love that endures all things” (I Corinthians 13.7); and prior to our redemption was His determination before all our ages to see through the work of redemption in each one of us right to the end.

The journalist on CNN last Wednesday, like millions of other Catholics, directed the attention of the world to this principle of the Cross constantly at work in God’s re-constitution of His creation. When I put on this Gold Cross that was given to me to wear by Bishop Hlib, I first kiss it and remember the Lord’s words, “He who would be my disciple, let him deny himself, take up his cross, and follow me” (Matthew 16.24); and I pray with St Paul, “God forbid that I should glory save in the Cross of our Lord Jesus Christ” (Galatians 6.14). In the same way, whenever you make the sign of the Cross, you say as I do, “God be merciful to me, a sinner” (Luke 8.13).

With Christ, then, we are drawn into His endless dynamic of giving and forgiving generosity. Our fasting is possible because He has already supplied us with the means of self-offering that on our own we run out of. Our prayer avails not because we are redoubling our spiritual efforts, but because He focuses our fasting and praying so closely on His own. He told His disciples, when they could not cast out devils and eradicate human wickedness, that it could only be done with prayer and fasting. So His gift to us is to bind us to the power of His own determination and will to “cast out our sin and enter in” (from the Christmas hymn, O Little Town of Bethlehem). The Cross imposed upon us, whether visibly in a ceremony in the Latin Church or our prostrations and making the sign of the Cross in the East, or inwardly in our souls and spirits, shows that here is the person who is to be worked upon and by what Wooden Tool.

It marks not only our forgiveness and redemption from sin, but the complete loss and self-sacrifice that Christ has offered, by which we are raised back to the level of being fit for the creation that we marred. He changes the Creation from one glory into a greater glory (II Corinthians 3.18), so that there may be a new reign of Christ, with a new people transformed in our mind, our will and our heart (cf. Romans 12.2), His for ever as He is ours.

St Chad, His Well and His College: for St Chad's College, Durham at Durham Cathedral, 2nd March 2019

Next time you step off the train at Kings Cross, you might take a 10 minute detour east along the Pentonville Road. Go past the Scala night club, take the right fork into the King’s Cross Road; and after the Greek barber and a coffee shop, you could almost miss a tiny passage way on the right. Take it, and in a dozen steps you will turn back into a pavement between the backs of the surrounding buildings. This is St Chad’s Place. Go fifty feet more, and the path is taking you over the Thameslink railway. You have reached your destination. This is the site of St Chad’s Well. Ever since the coming of the railway, it has fed unseen into the now subterranean River Fleet; but for many hundreds of years before that people had come to its mineral waters for healing and health. We do not know that St Chad visited, or preached, or baptised at this spot, which was a crossroads for the Angles and Saxons coming and going from London, no less than it is today. Perhaps the monk with such a breathtaking reputation across all the English kingdoms crossed the bridge over the river here, on his journey down from York to Canterbury seeking ordination as a bishop. There is no record. Yet such was his fame that, when the well was constructed to pool the refreshing waters, there was no one in England that it was going to be named after but our patron.

We have heard of St Chad’s zeal in teaching and learning, and his dedication to serving people in remote places that others had long not got round to. We have heard of his complete lack of interest in putting himself to the fore, and his determination to put Christ first and the bringing of His Kingdom to people so that they could love and be inspired by it: not because they were told they must, but because it had captured their hearts and their wills. The founders of our College more than a century ago chose him as patron because of these very virtues. In a time in both Church and society when students from poorer backgrounds had no opportunity to go to the schools where Latin and Greek were taught, and so could not dream of even entering University to study and train for ordained ministry, our founders identified not just an educational barrier to individuals, but a barrier to the Kingdom of God itself for whole communities, since none of their number could learn to be their pastors and spiritual leaders. Yet St Paul envisages that all of us may be able to present our lives as a “sacrifice acceptable to God” in body, spirit and reason (Romans 12). “Do not be conformed to the world,” he says. That would be to the miss the point and to settle for far less than God desires for humanity. If you want to know the will of God, what is good and perfect, how to love, how to identify what is evil and reject it, how to build the human race, its nations and societies, in mutual honour and self-sacrifice, how suffering is turned into hope, and how evil is made to run out of power because the blessings of peace and forgiveness are inexhaustible, there is one way, says St Paul: “Be transformed by the renewing of your minds.”

This is all very well, but what if no one you know has grounds for imagining that such a transformation as this can be theirs? St Chad’s College changed all that. The founders imagined St Chad in his monastery, taking in the young people with promise and a spark inside them, and starting from the beginning, even with reading and writing, passing on to them everything he knew, advising where their course in life as well as in study was going wrong, and showing them where they would find the right ways. Likewise our founders captured the aspirations and imaginations of those that the world at the time provided little space for. They helped our first generations of students to be ready for study at a university, and they embedded within their College a vivid sense that, here of all places, study, learning and achievement are not just about personal self-fulfilment but always aimed at the service of others. For the renewal of minds is not intellectual, it is spirit and life too. Those students were often going back to the areas that they had come from: to serve and support them, to bring honour and pride to their families, to give leadership on behalf of those without a voice for good, to relieve misery and injustice; but above all to extend the power of love, and faith and hope.

Think of St Paul offering the same prospects to his favourite but most concerning students: the people of the Church at Corinth. His two letters to them are a ferment of rebukes, guidance, inspiration, encouragement, and pointed exhortations and rebukes all over again. He tells them he is coming for a third visit. But he knows that some will be complaining their generous hospitality is always repaid with a robust dressing down. So he tells them “I do not want what you have, but you yourselves” (II Corinthians 12.14). He says that his aim, then, is to build them up so that they should find and do the will of God, and thus the way to peace. And we know that doing the will of God to St Paul is the transformation of minds renewed into whatever is good, and what serves the establishment in human hearts of the Kingdom of God.

The College ceased to be a training college for Anglican clergy after 1974, and by the time I arrived in 1977 we were a rich mix of 170 Anglicans, Catholics, Free Church people, Hindus, Muslims, Jews, and people who had no belief in particular. We were very fond, too, of our own resident revolutionary Marxist. Nowadays it is a College for women and men, all people equally; and it is three times larger. But when I returned last year as Chair, one of my contemporaries from the 1970s was already a governor too, and we both agreed: “It’s completely different, but exactly the same”. We are still not a very large village, and in the past we have been through some harrowing episodes and transitions, but there is something in that phrase of St Paul’s that is our motto – “Not what you have, but you yourselves”. It seems to seep into the very being of those who dwell here for any length of time; and it changes the very way that most people who pass through its portals look at the world, our attitude towards other people, to our common home and its sustainable survival, our approach to what work is truly for, and our beliefs that public life, the economy and business, and society all serve a greater good for the sake of humanity fulfilling the highest purposes for which it was created.

St Chad remains the apt patron for the vision of our founders in a College which draws people from all over the world, but is also passionate that the most disadvantaged in our community and region can realistically aspire to come here and be part of the contribution we seek to make through the renewing of our minds. But it is not just because St Chad was a role model, an inspirational teacher, or a hero whose self-sacrificing conduct was spoke volumes to those in authority in Church and state who lorded it over the rest in order to put themselves forward. His young monks told the story of when during violent storms they were terrified, but he without any sense of disturbance would resolutely sing the psalms. It was as though his calmness brought about the calming of the elements. To his monks he demonstrated not just the greatest human qualities, but also to embody life in heaven at the same time. The renewing of our minds was seen in St Chad to open up another dimension, taking the intellectual to the spiritual level of virtue, and mutual good and unstinting service. He embodied something of God’s holiness and yet he was a man. This captures our imagination today as much as in 1904 or in the 7th century. This is what we mean when we pray, ‘thy will be done, thy Kingdom come, on earth as it is in heaven” – not just then, not just afterwards, but now, in us.

In the rule for monks familiar to St Chad and his early English students, there is a warning against wandering monks, who have never put down deep roots let alone grown from them, people who make many demands and leave contributing nothing. This is impossible for anyone who belongs to St Chad’s College. In the same way, the Saxons who dug the well near Kings Cross to build a destination of health, healing and renewed living had the same instinct as we have: to find beneath St Chad’s patronage not just a home that is perfectly true of our identity and our hopes, not just a home that nurtured our intellectual development, but truly our spiritual home.

And no matter how far you go, it will never leave you. You will always carry in minds renewed your spiritual home. You will always take with you a glimpse of that holiness that transformed St Chad and still takes up our hearts and changes us, for the sake of changing the world into the Kingdom of peace, of justice, of truth and of ever giving and forgiving love.