30 December 2020

Still we wait: Homily for the Nativity of Our Lord & Saviour Jesus Christ, Roman Catholic Church of Corpus Christi, Maiden Lane, London, Christmas Day 2020

For nearly all of us, the time of waiting that is Advent is over before it has begun. Usually, most of our celebrations of the feast have already taken place in the season of preparation: four weeks and it is over in two. This year it is different, as the national feelings have been subdued, and we are anxious about the mutations to the virus, the dangers coming closer, perhaps further lockdowns, and what the future holds for us in 2021.

But, while we are used to the mounting pitch of celebration and its climax on Christmas Day, for the the Mother of God and St Joseph, this their day of glory is really when their waiting begins in earnest. So this year our experience is theirs, and their perspective is ours.

What lies ahead? First, we and they both, whose life at home has been disrupted, must remain distant from the life-assuring closeness of family and friends for months. While we face our own kind of uncertainty, St Joseph - the architect who builds houses - cannot settle his family in a safe dwelling place. Many of us are unable to reach the places we would normally visit; for them, the land of Judea makes them strangers and they seek refuge at a distance in Egypt. Innocents in Bethlehem lose their lives not to an indiscriminate plague, but to a targeted scourge from an amoral ruler; and Mary remembers what she was told: that her Child will be set for the rise and fall of many, and that a sword shall pierce her heart as his life unfolds before her. For our part, we look out not knowing, but looking forward. Reaching Christmas this year gives us joy, and light in the darkness, as we steel ourselves to encounter what a new year heralds, this time without fireworks.

So, this year, are particularly close to the Holy Family of God the Son, as it faces both the Light Who has come into the world, and looks out on the dark that gathers to shroud around Him. We have to wait while our lives are restricted for weeks and months to come; while we are gradually vaccinated not knowing if our future health requires that we will need to be vaccinated again; we are held back from the normal human joy of seeing our family and friends, holding and hugging those we love, and being embraced by them in return.  Even to see those we do not like or get on with would be a welcome relief to get back to normality, and put the past behind us. We wait, to know how our lives will develop, whether work and living will ever be the same again. We wait, not entirely sure how the lives of those most at risk in our society, the infirm and vulnerable, the homeless, the powerless and the poor, will be sustained, as we proceed with some uncertain, flickering lamps rather than clear beams, and walk onto new, untrodden paths.

But we are not the first to face fears, or to walk paths that are not well lit. The Holy Family that fled to Egypt under the protection of St Joseph was following the path of Joseph the patriarch of the Old Testament, who from a new land brought corn to end a famine in his homeland in the Holy Land of Canaan. From Egypt’s land of waiting and exile, his descendants the Hebrews, led by Moses, set out to meet the Lord God in a desert filled with nothing, received His Word in the Law and the Commandments, just as we in this desert receive the Word made flesh, and from thence entered into the Promised Land, that flowed with milk and honey.  And just as Moses at the end of that journey saw across to the Land of Promise from a mountain, so Simeon the Prophet saw Jesus the Son brought up into His own high Temple and there acclaimed him the Light of the World. Now at last, he says, I have seen the salvation which You have prepared before all peoples – a Light to enlighten the nations and the glory of Your people Israel.

In the same way, we our conveyed along by the hope, too, that somehow the Lord’s loving hand is there to be with us and uphold us whatever happens - to bring goodness, mercy, kindness and blessings wherever and instead of where adversity has befallen us. In this vale of tears, the tears were His too. Whatever has torn us to the heart, with all that people have had to deal with in the strains on our patience, our material resources, our mental wellbeing, not to mention our hidden spiritual strength, or even to the loss of life itself, we each one of us have a story of another human being who has come to us with warmth, and love and selflessness, and made the difference, by the humanity that we Christians know as the love of God for man, in man, that peace and good will among people that is also glory to God in the highest, whose Name is called Jesus, the very Son of Man.

And we have seen this compassion all played out before. For the Little Donkey that we celebrate in songs, who carried Mary from Nazareth, and then the Mother of God and her Son to Egypt, had a cousin who carried the Lord into Jerusalem to face His Passion and the Cross for our sake. The bright and warm stable with the animals, where the Light of the World first shone, is a familiar surrounding, when you think another room not His own will be prepared for that last supper, when Judas will leave the Light and go out into the night. The shepherds’ fields where the angels sent by God the Father Himself sang “Glory” at the top of their voices, shift through a crack in time to reveal their eternal meaning: the night-time dark Garden of Gethsemane, where the Son will pour out His heart and blood in prayer and those who once sang “Hosanna” will cry with shouts to arrest Him and take Him to His trial and execution. The Three Wise Men who come with gifts, give place to a false King Herod, an unworthy time-serving High Priest Caiaphas, and a foreign power’s governor, Pilate. They will apply a Crown not of gold but of thorns. They will not offer the myrrh of salvation from death, but supply Him with vinegar. Nor can they offer the glory of incense, for the right to be acknowledge the true King comes not from the highest compliments of earthly importance, but from the complete self-giving of utter sacrifice, in absolute love without reserve for us, and unconditional forgiveness.

To Mary at this moment, all this lies ahead; but she awaits its coming with a steady eye. She prepares for the high joys and the collapse of hopes, and a sword to pierce her heart, all alike. Unusually on this most joyful of days, this year we find ourselves waiting with her, looking ahead not only suffering and the Cross, but what they will bring about. For just as the birth of the Word made flesh will lead to the crucifixion of that flesh on Good Friday, so the death on the Cross will lead as day follows night to resurrection. Because the life to which Mary the Mother of God gave birth cannot be held back in the dark earth but must break forth and take our lives and hers with it, bound for a new Promised Land, the Kingdom come on earth as it is in heaven.

Our beloved Cardinal Hume taught us that when we set out on such a journey and see light at the end of the tunnel – that is hope. When  we see no light yet still proceed on into and through the tunnel – that is trust. Today with Mary, her hopes and fears, with the Light of the World before us, we still contemplate the dark around us. As we go, we wait for what will come, for there is little else, while we are in this desert; and we persevere not with dismay, but with trust. We go on with our faith, our love, and our belief in peace and good will, and glory around and through and beyond it all.

May God fill you with this faith to see you through. May the road taken by His Son for Your sake lead to new life, new hope and new joy, and may you know it for yourself. May the love of a Mother’s worry shield and protect you. And may “the hopes and fears of [these two] years” be met in Jesus Christ who is the heart of our own heart, “the joy of the whole world”, its healing and its promise from God that will never be broken.  Peace, good will to us all, and glory to God in highest heaven.

06 August 2020

Putting out into the deep: The Five Thousand and Elijah - Homily for the Eighth Sunday after Pentecost and the Feast of Elijah the Prophet, for the Divine Liturgy of St John Chrysostom at the Cathedral of the Holy Family, London, W1

The story of the Feeding of the Five Thousand we have lived with all our lives. What is the Lord showing us? Well, first of all, this story (Matthew 14.14-22) looks back to one series of events in the Gospels, and at the same time looks forward to another. And then there is a twist in the tale.

First, the story looks back to the first time Jesus that, as a grown Son of Man, walks by the sea of Galilee. First, He calls Andrew and Simon-Peter. One morning He saw the fishing boats finishing up after a night with no catch, and told Peter to “Put out into the deep” and let down the nets one last time. After a surprise haul, Jesus takes Simon-Peter to draw the conclusion: “If you follow Me, I will make you fishermen of people.” Like his brother Andrew, he forsakes everything and immediately follows the Lord. Now one evening later on, we are beside the lake again. There are five loaves, as there were five disciples, who first took up the call from Christ, and now there are five thousand men, not to mention the thousands more of women and children. The disciples became fishermen of people indeed: and far more than those two little fish.

Jesus speaks of the leaven in the bread that will make it expand and rise. He speaks of Himself as the Bread coming down from heaven, telling us to pray daily for this Bread with a nature, a new “Life for the World”, from beyond the world. He also tells us daily to take up our Cross and follow Him. Simon-Peter and Andrew become the first after Jesus Himself to be the ministers of the Bread of Life at its Breaking, just as they will be broken upon a cross of their own - St Andrew tortured by being crucified diagonally, St Peter by being suspended by the nails upside down.

The second direction of the story is to look forward. We are shown a hint of the particular way in which Jesus always blesses Bread, in what He will reveal on the night before He died as the Eucharist, the mystical banquet that is our Divine Liturgy. But we are also pointed even further beyond that. St Matthew tells us that it is evening. It reminds us that on the first Easter Sunday, two disciples, one of whom is Cleopas, whose wife had been standing with the Mother of God at the foot of the Cross. They are on the road to Emmaus, when a stranger encounters them as they discuss the incredible events of earlier that morning, and makes them credible. He reveals how the Scriptures show that the Messiah must suffer, and must enter into glory – and neither suffering nor glory could happen without the other. And what happens next? Once again, it is evening. Once again, they sit. Once again, the Lord takes bread, blesses, breaks and gives it to the disciples. So it makes sense that, beside the sea of Galilee, when fishing people are preparing to set out on the water for a night of hard work, Jesus points ahead, beyond His Crucifixion, to His resurrection from the dead, and to how we will always know that He is with us. When the archangel announced to the Virgin Mary that Jesus had taken flesh in her womb, he said, “He will be called Emmanuel, which means ‘God with us’.” And now see Him, laying the foundation of trust for his promise that, indeed, He will be with us to the end of time. Yet how can this be? Well, let us look at the story again. Immediately He feeds the five thousand and more, immediately He disappears. He dismisses the crowd, and He dismisses the disciples on their boat. It is the same in that village between Jerusalem and Emmaus. Clopas and his fellow disciple receive the Bread of Life – but Christ disappears. They recognise Him in the particular way He takes the Bread, blesses and breaks it – in just the same way as we shall do in a few moments. And then He is gone? So much for being with them, to the end of time. Where is He? Well, the answer is here: when they have received the Bread of Life, why would He be there before their eyes, when He is now inside their lives, bodies and souls? As once He dismissed the crowd, He dismisses the disciples that first night since the Resurrection. And then at once, even though it is dark, they hurry back to Jerusalem and declare that, first, they have seen the Lord and, second, they saw Him no longer - because He is now for ever with them to be seen in the Breaking of the Bread.

So, what of the twist in the tale? Just at the end of the Gospel today, St Matthew tells that, after giving the Bread He has blessed, He acts “immediately”, and departs from the sight of both the crowd and the disciples. It is the same as when Simon-Peter and Andrew see Jesus walking up to them beside Galilee. St Mark, St Matthew and St Luke all say that “immediately” they forsake their nets and follow Him. Now, what happens on the road to Emmaus? Jesus breaks the Bread and gifts it to the disciples; they recognise Him and, as soon as He does so, immediately, He disappears from sight. In other words, our Gospel tells us that our following of Jesus Christ is not a long term intention that we can get round to one day when we have time, after we have first dealt with worldly concerns. Instead, the moment is always here and now, just as it was “here and now” when Simon-Peter and Andrew were “caught up with” by the arrival of the King in His Kingdom. It is an early morning when the fish were caught. it is an evening when the people were fed with manna from heaven like their ancestors. And, most of all, it is whenever the Lord comes to us, person to person, now, immediately, saying, “I am with you. Follow me.” We take Him into us, now, immediately, and His presence becomes something that follows us, in us: now, immediately.

Yet there is even more. After the events of today’s Gospel, the disappeared Jesus goes up a mount to pray by Himself. He goes up into God His Father. It is the same as when Moses went up the mount to commune with God and receive His Law. It is the same as when Elijah, whose feast is today, went up to the top of the same mountain to hear the Lord’s “still, small voice” (I Kings 19). It is the same as when the Lord appears to Moses and Elijah, transfigured on another mountain to show that His human nature will suffer but His divine nature will shine through in the same Person on the Cross and then out of the grave. It is the same as when the Lord goes up the mountain of mountains to be crucified on mount Calvary. Elijah is famed as the first of all the hermits and contemplatives who wait for the Lord, while their spiritual lives take them ever further up the mountain closer to union with God. It is the same as when the Lord tells the disciples, if they would be fishers of people, to “put out into the deep”. The higher we seek to rise to God, the deeper we must let him reach down into us.

The multiplication of the five loaves and the two fish speaks to us of the growth of the Church into the whole world. The fish were probably dried, to be soaked in water and expanded. It reminds us of what is still happening to us as a consequence from our own baptism in water. The twelve baskets of bread and fish – Eucharist and Baptism – present the full reconciliation of all the estranged twelve tribes of the Jewish people brought back together to form the core of Christ’s new People of God. Beyond them, they tell of even more baskets, with even more peoples, more fish to fish. But it all starts in this way: a Person meets a Person, just as Jesus met Andrew and Simon-Peter, just as He met Clopas on the road to Damascus, just as He immersed us in the waters of His Baptism, and just as He meets us at this Eucharist. Jesus and His Kingdom is not for later, it is now. He is with us, not only in the future, but always and immediately. Like Elijah, like Peter and Andrew, like all the others, immediately we follow Him, up His mountain, out into the deep water, listening for the still, small voice, to the end of time.

23 February 2020

His Nature and His Name is Love: Homily for the Seventh Sunday of the Year, Roman Catholic Church of Corpus Christi, Maiden Lane, Covent Garden, 23 February 2020

With Lent beginning in a few days’ time, today’s readings could not be more apt. We are going to focus a lot on our sins and shortcomings. But here today we are told that the concept of sin that we have is the wrong way round, if it concentrates on ourselves. The Lord came to say something loud and clear to us: “I do not want you to be guilty. I do not want you to be afraid of Me. I do not want you to doubt yourselves. I do not want you to be defeated. I do not want you to hold yourselves back from me. I want you to come into the Kingdom, and live in joy under the reign of God. I want you to live in that Kingdom on earth just as it is in heaven.”

Where sin - and our sorrow for it - comes in is when, as St Paul puts it, “all have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God” (Romans 3.23). He tells us today that, whatever we think we are, however we think we matter, however virtuous, valuable, or wise, “there is nothing to boast about in anything human”. When we realise this, that is when our conscience kicks in, and we take a good look at ourselves. Here we are, built to be The Temple for God that God intends to live inside me in (I Corinthians 3.16-23) - and we close it down, so that He can’t. St Paul tells us – “You keep tearing it down, but you are only tearing yourselves down. It is a sacred building that you are, but if God is denied access, you are no Temple at all. Without God, it is destroying you.” No wonder, when the Lord died upon the Cross, the veil of the Temple was torn in two. This was not to destroy the Temple, but so that the Lord’s spirit when He breathed it out could enter into the Holy of Holies. It is the same with us. The Lord, with the same power at work as on the Cross, tears down the veil we have wrapped around our souls and our hearts, so that the Spirit of God may enter into the Temple of our soul and be the very life within us.

So what does the Lord prescribe? He does not give us tasks to fulfil, or challenges to earn His favour. He tells us, “Be holy, as I, the Lord your God, am holy” (Leviticus 19.1-2, 17-18). How on earth – even on earth as it is in heaven – can we be as holy as God? Does it mean, “be more religious”? Does it mean “be more spiritual”? Does it mean “say more prayers and devotions”? Does it mean “keep the Commandments, and the precepts of the Church?” Does it mean, “Follow the tried and tested rules that have been found to be wise since the days of the Disciples?” Well, yes, it means all of those things; and in every example of them, and among the many spiritualities and pathways for following in the footsteps that Christ has trodden ahead of us, so that we can trace the way and follow Him into His Kingdom, there is one that is suited for you. Do not persist with someone else’s way, if it makes you angry, or unhappy, bitter or resentful, or self-righteous, and judgemental of others. Do not think that you can proceed toward the Kingdom if you feel it is a miserable slog, or it weighs you down with a crushing sense of joyless duty. Yes, there will be difficulties, as we all know. There will be heartbreak and adversity. Yes, we may have to make great sacrifices. And yes, we will get things massively wrong and, in embarrassment, feel we wasted our opportunity with God and proved our efforts were futile. But the Lord asks us to trust Him, and follow Him on NO path that He has not walked before us.

I always think that the most dramatic moment in the Gospels is when the Lord is in Galilee, after He has chosen the Twelve Apostles, fed the Five Thousand, and been transfigured on the Mountain, and He sets His face to Jerusalem. After revealing Himself as the Lord God the Son to Peter and John and James, He comes down, casts out an unclean spirit from another father’s son, by the sheer force of the presence of God’s majesty; then He tells the disciples that the glory of God that they have seen means that as Son of Man He must be killed. St Luke tells us (Luke 9.51) that He then sets His face to go to Jerusalem, for the days are close for Him to be taken up - in other words, arrested to appear before Herod and Pilate, lifted up onto the Cross, and raised by His Father in the Tomb. The approach of Lent for us is the same as the Lord’s approach to Jerusalem. He tells us to take up our Cross daily to follow Him; but this is not with a face grim at the prospect of death and defeat, but reflecting the glory of God’s presence seen on the holy Mountain, and the utter majesty of setting a believer free of whatever oppresses the life and stands in the way of coming into God’s Kingdom. When you and I set our face to Jerusalem, we know there will be suffering and shame ahead, as we take up the Cross in the same way as He did, to fulfil our purpose as He fulfilled His. We know that it will be impossible, and we will be blamed for being hypocrites. “In this day and age”, as in many before it, we know that we will be mocked for being Catholics. We know that we will stumble and fail as disciples, and that our hopes of making ever better progress will be brought up short by our failures. But, seeing that He stumbled and fell on His way carrying the Cross, we persevere. For what drives us is not a sense of duty and being trapped in the cycle of sin that we are trying to get out of - It is the vision of Christ’s beauty on the Mountain. It is the prize of the Kingdom to which we are making our way with Him. It is the light in the Temple that flashes no longer in a single Temple in Jerusalem of old, but in the hearts, the joy, and the faithfulness of all those who are doing this out of love.

What is it to be holy like the Lord? Moses understood the first thing the Lord said about it – to have no hatred for anyone. And the second thing he heard was not to regard yourself as more virtuous, or better than anyone else, or closer to God, than someone who is failing. For if you fail one minute; I will fail the next. So there must be no self-righteousness about our virtues and another’s faults. There must be no vengeance for another person’s wrongdoing, and no grudges, however hurt we feel – only love for the neighbour as we love ourselves. For, as God was explaining to Moses, “That is what I am like, and I am the Lord”. When this same Lord came to us and took our flesh from the Virgin Mary to be born as one of us, He did not come to exact revenge, or to show us up. He came to attract us. The Gospel today (Matthew 5.38-48) shows us that Jesus’ mission was to break the endless churn of hatred and recrimination, vengeance and retaliation. He tells us to be people who give even if advantage is taken of us, to be more generous than people expect, and less inclined to be mistrustful when people seek our support. For this, the beauty and glory of God that the apostles saw on the mountain of Transfiguration was disfigured on the hill of Calvary. But it had to be borne, so that the only thing left would be forgiveness, and the only path still open was the way of all redeeming and all forgiving love to the Kingdom. “Love conquers all things”, the poet Virgil said, for it withstands and outlasts all that evil and sin can do. St Paul tells us, “Love always hopes, always perseveres, never fails.” When the power of wickedness has exhausted itself, Jesus observes, even the pagans are bonded by mutual love. This is what He tells us it is to be perfect – to forgive as we are forgiven, to love as we are loved, to persevere as the Lord has persevered with us for our sake, to be Temples not covered in veils so that His Light cannot pierce the gloom of guilt and self-pity, but so that each one of us is the new Temple, brilliant with his glory, reflecting a sighting of the Kingdom – yes even you and me. Each one of us is to become a Temple where the works of wickedness are cast out, where the world may know that here they may find healing and goodness to give hope and inspiration – yes, even in you and me - where the majesty of God is unmistakable, because there it is in love, mercy and joy.

When you turn to the Lord in sorrow and penitence this Lent, do not be downcast because you have failed to be perfect as the Father in heaven is perfect. Rejoice, because He is taking pains, His own pains on the Cross, to make you holy as He is holy: not by accusation and inflicting the shame He bore away from us, but by the love that is His nature and His very Name.

19 January 2020

Here I am: Homily for the Second Sunday after Epiphany, Corpus Christi Church, Maiden Lane, Covent Garden: 19 January 2020

“Here I am, Lord. I come to do Your will.” Between us, we have declared it six times a few minutes ago in response to the Gradual Psalm (from Psalm 39). I should think every single one of us who came here to Church today made a small act of personal re-dedication to follow Christ as his disciple, as we spoke. Taken together with the words from the Prophet Isaiah (Isaiah 49.3, 5-6), we may also have linked ourselves in our minds to Israel of old, both the individual and the nation that took his name. From the womb, Israel is God’s servant, chosen to shed such light in the dark that shows the world where lie the paths we need to be saved from because they lead to dead ends and destruction, while into view comes another Way by which our footsteps can trace the path that leads back to God.

Now, while this is all true, I want you to look at these words differently. Rethink them. They are not about ourselves, or prophecies of past events. They are Christ speaking about Himself and His purposes, and putting them into your mouth.

In the Hebrew Scriptures, the Lord is for ever seeking to take form in our human midst; the divine is repeatedly taking shape in humanity. In ancient Israel, it is believed that there was a great annual enthronement ceremony at the time of the autumn harvest, in which the king in the Temple would be immersed in a great bath, then be anointed in perfumed oils, and then don white robes, before entering as a purified and transformed man into the Holy of Holies. There he would commune with The Lord as fire flashed within and incense arose outside. He would make atonement for sin and win forgiveness for himself and the people; and then at last in union with God, he took his seat upon the Ark of the Covenant. He would emerge through the Veil of the Temple, seen as a Man who had been taken up by God as His son. He would appear not just as the nation’s king but the Lord’s anointed King, a son of God’s own, the greatest of the priests, someone now bringing God in person from the Holy of Holies out to bless the people, and bless the land with abundance. Cleansing and renewing water was strewn liberally, as if to irrigate a once barren desert; and the psalms we still sing today would proclaim that The Lord is King, that He has come to His people into their midst, and somehow before them in this moment was standing God with Us, Emmanuel. If you are thinking that what I have just described resembles in some way what happens at our Mass, it is no coincidence. For at the coming of Jesus, the people who had held for centuries onto the hope of a true Son of God to be the King again did not recognise Him as a mere human ruler, or just a prophet, but the Son of David the King coming into His power. This is why He was called the Christ, the Messiah, the Anointed One. This is why He was known by the title Son of Man – not simply a human figure but the divine Son of the Father Who has taken human form. This is why at His baptism the apostles heard the Father’s voice from heaven declare Jesus to be the Son in Whom His favour dwells. This is why He was called Emmanuel, God with us. This is why at His trial, He was mocked as a King by both the priests and Pontius Pilate, and thorns were used to crown Him. This is why we regard the Cross not as an instrument of torture, but the Altar of Sacrifice by which alone new life can come. This is why the Veil of the Temple was torn in two – not as a symbol of catastrophe, but so that, in the dark moment of Jesus’s death, out from the place of God’s dwelling could burst through to us grace and holiness in abundance – the new reign of God. This is why Jesus is called not only “Sir”, and “Master”, and “Rabboni”, and “Teacher”, but pre-eminently “The Lord”, the very Name of God Himself. What do the apostles say when they recognise the Jesus Who has risen out of death and the Tomb? “It is the Lord” (John 21.7). And what do they do when the Risen Christ has celebrated the Eucharist with them, and they consumed It and He disappears from their sight? They recognise in the Breaking of the Bread that they shared and ate that The Lord – Who has come into them.

Now, imagine that the words of the Scriptures we have read today, and the words that have been on our lips, are not just us repeating the books and songs of the Bible from long ago, but the words of The Lord speaking Himself, using our breath to express Himself, all over again. When Isaiah recalls that the Lord God said, “You are my servant”, He speaks of a human Son formed in the womb of His mother, the divine Son in whom the Father shall be seen reflected in shining glory, and from Whom the light of heaven and salvation shall brighten every dark corner of the world. So, when you imagine that you are the servant who says, “Here I am, Lord. I come to do Your will” – you are speaking not just of service and being a good disciple. You are saying God is in my humanity once more, to be the very presence of the King, The Lord, the Son of Man, God, coming to His people, Emmanuel, with us and within us to bring blessing, light, restoration and salvation. For, as I said before, “throughout the Scriptures, the Lord is for ever seeking to take form in our human midst; the divine is repeatedly taking shape in humanity. We in the Church for twenty centuries have seen that God The Lord took human flesh in the Person of Jesus Christ. Our forebears in faith, the Jewish people, saw the inkling of it in the glory of the King entering the Temple and emerging with the closeness of the divine to us, with a blessing year on year for the people that the Lord had chosen for His own. St John Baptist saw it (in today’s Gospel, John 1.29-34), when the Son of Man looked to him like the Lamb of God, Who will show God in the only way that He could be seen that is true to His nature in this world: in the moment of complete self-giving and sacrifice for our sake on the Cross, that brings healing, forgiveness and unending life from His own Body and Blood.

When we say, “Here I am, Lord. I come to do Your will” we are not speaking, then, about ourselves alone. We are describing ourselves as the Body of Christ. The words of The Lord are those in our mouth. In this way, The Lord is forming us to be, once again - as in the Temple, as by the river Jordan at His baptism, and as on His Cross - the way by which he takes shape in human life. When we say, “Here I am”, we name ourselves with the Name of The Lord Himself, Who says, “I am the Bread of Life”, “I am the Resurrection”, “I am the Good Shepherd”, “I am the Way, the Truth and the Life.” When we say, “Here I am”, it is to accept the Spirit Who constantly rests upon Jesus in us, since, as St Paul tells us, Christ fills us (Ephesians 3.19) and it is no longer we who live but Christ who lives within us (Galatians 2.20). When we say, “Here I am”, it is to accept the Cross that, in us, He takes up daily still (St Luke 9.23). When we say, “Here I am. I come to do Your will. I am Your servant”, it is to be the presence of the King Himself, the Lord among His people, Emmanuel. It is not just for us to be lights of the world, but the great shining of the Light of the World Himself, so that His salvation may reach to the ends of the world, and restore all those Whom the Lord has chosen from falling into the those dark dead ends (Isaiah 49.6). In this Light we can recognise, in the Breaking and consuming of the Bread of Life Himself, the way to “taking their place among all the saints everywhere” with the the Lord Who is their Lord no less than ours (today’s Epistle, I Corinthians 1.1-3). Here, “I am” in the Breaking of Bread. Here, “I am” in the Body of Christ. Here “I am” in the people of God. Here “I am” in your Chosen Ones. Here I am, Lord. I come to do Your will.

12 January 2020

The King's Gifts: to be with Him to the end of time - Homily for the Sunday after the Nativity, Ukrainian Catholic Cathedral, London, 12th January 2020

When the Wise Men come to the land of the Son of David’s birth, it is to King Herod that they first pay their respects. When he realises that they look to a King of Israel who is not him, Herod fears not just for himself but for his dynasty. A spiritual warning to the Wise reveals that Herod’s and Archelaus’ realm is exactly the opposite kind of kingdom to what they have come in search of. Their gifts, as Bruce Blunt’s poem, Bethlehem Down, says, are “King’s gifts” – they come not on their own, but enhanced with another side. Their frankincense blows on the same wind that carries the shepherds’ and Angels’ songs to pay Christ love and honour; but its fire will be extinguished, when those who share His life turn cold in cruelty and betrayal. Gold to reflect the light from the Star portends a royal crown; but the crown He will wear is wooden. Spiny myrrh to five rare scent to the robes of a King, will not touch His skin again until it perfumes His gravesheets.

Knowing this, the Wise do not reveal this King and His Kingdom to Herod. They return by another route. In other words, encountering the now Anointed One causes a change to their plans and their outlook - and a change of direction. They do not return to the royal court in Jerusalem. Herod’s throne is false, for it is not a Cross. They go a different way; not a round-about diversion, but an entirely new course. We call them the Three Kings, not because of the prestige of where they had come from and what they had been, but where they will go next and who they will become.

Famously in the West, their resting place is honoured in Cologne, where the vast Cathedral is the shrine of the relics of those to whom we have given the names Melchior, Caspar and Balthasar. These remains have been on a pilgrimage. The first Christian Emperor Constantine moved them in AD313 from the See of St Andrew at Byzantium to Milan. He thereby marked the newly legal status of Christianity in the centre of his authority in the West, invigorating the until recently persecuted Church with the Wise Men’s declaration in a new Bethlehem for the Church: “We saw His star in the east and have come to worship Him” (Matthew 2.2). A new direction, a new and unexpected course, a new journey to find the King, a new opening for His Kingdom. Eight centuries later in 1164, the Emperor Frederick Barbarossa, moved the remains again from Milan to the northern Saint Peter’s – not at Rome but at Cologne, the heart of the Church’s leadership within the power base of the Christian Holy Roman Empire that had shifted to this side of the Alps. Another turn in direction for the Kingdom of God in this world, another course for the People of God to follow the Three Kings and come to worship the King of Kings. Cologne is a city of great martyrs. There is a memory of thousands of Christians who lost their lives on the banks of the Rhine to pagan swords in the third and fourth centuries. Here the virgin St Ursula from Brittany was on a pilgrimage to this holy city of churches prior to her marriage, only to be shot dead by the pagan general leading the siege. Hers turned into an unforeseen journey to meet the King placing her at one with Him in His passion. In times more recent to us, Cologne was at the centre of Catholic Germany opposed to National Socialism and the rule of Hitler. In the Basilica honouring St Ursula and other virgins martyred in the city for refusing to deny Christ, there is also a shrine to those many Catholic priests, sisters and lay people who were taken by the Third Reich, never to return in this world, as well as to our beloved fellow children of Abraham in faith, the Jews of Cologne. Another case where finding God and holding to Him fast means a new path on different steps leads to a future in another world.

Reading today’s Gospel (Matthew 2.13-23), we see that, like the Three Wise Ones, St Ursula, and the Jews, the Christians and many others in the Holocaust who were gathered up and taken where they had not envisaged, the King also had to go on the move. Protected by St Joseph, the Child and His Mother flee to Egypt not so much as refugees but as bringers of the Kingdom of God to the region of Moses His forebear’s birth and exodus, inaugurating a new Passover to a Promised Land of a wholly new order, and implanting by the hills and plains, the rivers, the towns and the sea of Galilee - and on that mount where we first heard that sermon and were told, “Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the Kingdom of heaven” (Matthew 5.1).

At the moment of His Ascension to this Kingdom on another mountain, the Lord tells us, “Lo, I am with you always, even to the end of time” (Matthew 28.20). He does not promise that this will be a constant rendezvous at our location. It is not all about us: we are all about Him, and the journey into the eternal dimension that we know even now tinges our living. For it is for our sake that He became human that we might become divine. It is not to leave us “all divine” where we are, but to present us “de-blemished” in His presence in the Kingdom (Colossians 1.22). As He told us, “I am with you always”; yet not where you think. He says, “I am going away to prepare a place for you. I will come back and take you to myself, so that where I am you may be too” (John 14.3).

It would be a mistake to regard the Kingdom just as a location, or an institution. Nor is it a region above, or beyond. It is power “not as the world gives” (John 14.27), but authority. It is the rule of God, not in theory but in practice. And this practice is not regulations for rolling along our rut. This rule of God over and upon us is nothing other than “Christ … dwelling in our hearts through faith, that, being rooted and grounded in love, [we] may have power in concert with all the Lord’s holy people to know the breadth and length and height and depth … [of] the love of Christ … that [we] may be filled with all the fullness of God” (Ephesians 3.17-19). No wonder the Lord, facing His condemnation, said to Pilate, “My kingdom is not of this world” (John 18.36). For the authority on which His kind of rule rests is the power not to control but to forgive unconditionally; not to get even by exacting justice but to rebalance creation against sin and death by the absolute self-gift of sacrifice the God who is with always, Emmanuel. The gold of His crown is the stain of Blood on its thorns. The sumptuous robes of His palace are the gravesheets sanitised with herb and ointments in His Tomb. The powerful wind which fires spices and gums to venerate His empire is not the overpowering fragrancy of smoke, but Holy Spirit with which He rose from out of death.

To desire this Kingdom is not to fail to enter it now. If we insist on its principles to apply in our world as it ought to be, then it is to insist that the rule of God starts with me. It requires more of me than obedience and support. It requires even more of me than to believe in and follow Christ. It requires me to be the foremost example of how the world to come is realised in a human being, just as it was shown from the birth of Christ to His death. I am not just to be healed, but to be the healing. I am not just to be the forgiven sinner, but the source of inexhaustible patience and compassion as if I was God Himself on His Cross, saying “Father, forgive” and “Today you shall be with me in Paradise”. I am not just to be the ever-grateful recipient of grace and mercy, but from the depth of my body and soul the blessing of Christ in person, present with us as He promised through every succeeding one of us to the end of time. It will mean that we who have come to worship Him now face a change to our outlook, and a different course to how we live and where we go with our life. We who have found Christ like the Wise Men will make our journey onwards not by a life-long series of diversions, but in treading onto the new openings where the rule of Christ lights up the way, to liberate us from returning to lurk in our darkness, and to show where the Kingdom of God is leading to new exoduses from the thrall of evil and to new promise. So we follow the Mother and Child, St Joseph, the Wise Men, the Star, St Ursula, the path that leads to the manger in the Cave, to the Cross, and on to the Cave of the resurrection of God Whom nothing could contain, up onto the mount of Ascension by way of the Font, the place of confession, and the altar, to be with the King and accompany Him wherever He and His rule are going, the Lord Who is with us to the end of time.

03 January 2020

An Office Hymn for Easter Eve

Over the Christmas break, I have been going through old books, to discard some and re-read others. In several, I have found folded notes of attempts at hymns that I had forgotten for decades. Here is a hymn to be sung at Vespers of Good Friday and on Holy Saturday.

I must have worked on this when I was at Mirfield (1982-84), where the Community of the Resurrection relied on the seminarian students of the College to sing the offices and liturgies of Holy Week and Easter while many of the Fathers were absent preaching in parishes. Following the custom in the Divine Office of the Liturgy of the Hours (though not in the classic Roman office, or the monastic office that Mirfield drew on to supplement the daily office of the Book of Common Prayer), there was an office hymn for Holy Saturday. It appears to be a version of the hymn used in The Divine Office, provided by Stanbrook Abbey ((c) 1974) - His cross stands empty in a world grown silent. An inclusive language version ((c) 1995) is included in Hymns for Prayer and Praise (Canterbury Press for the Panel of Monastic Musicians, Norwich 1996) at number 155. The Stanbrook hymn's metre is While Stanbrook has its own Mode 3 melody for it, there appear to be few other reasonably known tunes (if there are any at all) that the unfamiliar form of verse may be sung to. I wonder, therefore, if the slip of photocopied typed text of a similar text, As earth is still, the empty Cross, was Mirfield's attempt at a version that could be sung to a Long Metre tune ( with little practice. The tune given is a mode 1 melody from the Antiphonale Romanum in the English Hymnal at number 237.

I have kept that slip since my student days, when, in 1984, I was responsible as Precentor for music in the College chapel, the execution of the Gregorian chant at offices by the students, and especially at Holy Week and Easter. I chose the hymns, but not the Office Hymns, which were as set in the Community of the Resurrection's Daily Office. So I am pretty certain that As earth is still is not my own adaptation. I don't know where else it may have come from. If any one can shed any light, I should be interested to know.

Here is the 1984 Mirfield text, which I am supposing to be a compression of the Stanbrook Abbey hymn:
As earth is still, the empty Cross
Accounts the gain redeeming loss
Through hours of anguish, fear and dread,
While Christ descends to wake the dead.

He summons Adam and his seed;
His own, long captive held, are freed.
He claims the dead for to life regained,
Brings light where night eternal reigned.

Confessing Christ Who bore the cost
Who losing life so found the lost,
We praise You, Holy Trinity,
Restoring in eternity. Amen.
Evidently, I thought this unsatisfactory and reworked it, adding a further verse. From the many attempts at revised lines, here is the result:
In silence stands the empty Cross
And tells of gain redeeming loss:
Now earth in anguish waits in dread
While Christ descends to wake the dead.

First light, O Christ, to pierce the gloom,
Your dawning rise shall burst the Tomb;
First fruit of those that lay asleep,
A harvest in the morning reap.

You summon Adam and his seed;
Your own, long captive held, are freed.
You claim the dead to life regained,
Bring light where night eternal reigned.

Confessing You that bore the cost,
and losing life restored the lost:
with Father and the Spirit, Three,
One God, we praise eternally. Amen.
I gladly acknowledge the copyright and protection of the original by the Nuns of Stanbrook Abbey. I would like to acknowledge the possible editors at Mirfield. Hoping and assuming that I have their permission to share this old exercise of mine, I suppose I had better say that the adaptations and additions I have made are copyright to me (c) 1984 and 2020.