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)