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.