Saturday, April 30, 2011

The Character of Eternity

Well, my heartiest congratulations to the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge on the occasion of their marriage. May they have many, many long and happy years together.

As it happened, I was singing Evensong at Westminster Abbey with the College Chamber Choir at the beginning of April. I think the Dean and Chapter were just beginning to plant the conkers that bloomed into those trees which many of us saw in the Nave during yesterday's ceremony.

Of course I saw the Royal Wedding as an outsider. Being outside the Church of England has several consequences, one of which is that I am now removed from the Established Church. It does afford me the opportunity to ask two questions (two questions that I got moaned at for asking - rather unfairly in my opinion).

1) If Common Worship is supposed to be Normative, Approved, and Appropriate in the Church of England, why were the Duke and Duchess still married using (mostly) the 1662 BCP? Why not use the modern vernacular?

2) If this is the Anniversary year of the Authorised Version, why wasn't that used for the Scripture reading yesterday?

These little observations (and, I suppose, in the grand scheme of things they are little) seem to suggest that the Established Church is now very subtly contradicting itself.

If we use BCP language for the wedding of two highly important members of the Royal family on the grounds that it is the English Language at its most regal, then why are we not using the same language for our Mass when the King of Kings is present? Again we have the old argument of "Jesus meets us where we are. He doesn't mind how we approach him." However, if Jesus really is our King (i.e. we submit to His Rule) then shouldn't we be treating Him like a King and scrubbing ourselves up appropriately? We may stand boldly before the throne of Grace, but surely we don't stand shabbily or nonchalantly or still reading the Beano before Him.

If we are using BCP language because it is our National Heritage, then what does it say about the language of the Modern Vernacular. Of course, we don't use expletives or slang during our worship (unless the Priest is having a very bad day in the pulpit) but it seems that our desire to use BCP language in important occasions is because it possesses something that our Modern Language does not.

It seems that the Old Language has the Character of Eternity - it possesses a deeper sense and meaning that stretches across the centuries to reach even people of today. All Christian worship has to have that character because we have to be looking backwards to the Revelation of Christ just as those who lived before Him had to look forward to His coming.

From what I understand, the language chosen to translate the old Latin prayers and the Greek and Hebrew Scriptures was deliberately arranged so that it was as close as possible in meaning in translation. The word "prevent" is a case in point. We understand that word differently now, meaning "to stop" or "prohibit", but it takes just a moment's thought to see that "pre-" means before. If this is the case, one is naturally drawn to ask what the "-vent" means, with the words "convent" or "Advent" in mind perhaps. If you know what Advent means (i.e. arrival) then you realise that "-vent" has something to do with coming or going, and thus "prevent" originally meant "to go before". Of course "prevent" translates praevenire and you can see how scholars worked.

Of course, they didn't always get it right There are one or two glorious typos, but the idea of preserving the language was not always about preserving heritage, but rather preserving the meaning, keeping the Character of Eternity alive for those in later centuries to understand.

Of course it takes work to understand a language that is 500 years old. The wonderful thing is that one can still understand most of it. If we take the trouble to address the bits we don't understand, then we not only find the answer but the whole thing opens up into a greater understanding and appreciation of what's being said.

Can we honestly say this of the language of the Modern Vernacular which isn't really conducive to careful study?

Sunday, April 24, 2011

The Feast of the Resurrection 2011

At Paschaltide, we find ourselves faced with one of the apparent paradoxes of our Christian Faith. It isn't really a paradox, but the details take some working out in our little mortal heads and this is often too much for them - we are forced to sit in confused silence until there is some resolution. That resolution may not actually answer the question but we will know God in our stillness. The task is to be still, to put aside the little we know or think we know -perhaps just for a moment or perhaps for ever - and allow ourselves to be touched by the Divine Truth. Christ's resurrection can be for us an opportunity for transformation.

Nonetheless, we still experience paradox and this impacts greatly on the way we live our lives. We have to cope and learn to cope. We are faced with the Immortal God who dies, the transcendent God who walks among us, the unapprochable Creator who bids us not only approach but share an incredible (almost) intimacy with Him.

Perhaps this weird and painful little life that we live is precisely the resolution of the paradox of God in order for us to share a proper relationship with Him. Our present existence acts as a buffer between what we perceive to be contradictory positions. We have so many difficult concepts to grasp, of predestination, election and free-will, of God Transcendent and Immanent, of Christ both human and divine. All of these occur precisely because of our feebleness in this mode of existence.

In order to be truly free, we have to know the consequences of our freedom. In order to know God, we also have to know not-God. In order to know joy, we need to know pain. In order to know Eternity we have to know death. It is up to our own God who does not wish our destruction in any way to show us these things by His example of the alternatives. God does it so that we don't have to. And then He rises from the Dead in the greatest challenge to our thinking.

Of course, many may scoff at this - Jesus said they would. We, on the other hand as St Benedict says, should never despair of God's mercy. Our Christian Faith allows us to live certainly in the midst of paradox, crisis, horror and misery and still know that we are loved as far as our existence extends in Reality. We may seek understanding, but true and complete understanding will only come at the end.

For his anger endureth but a moment; in his favour is life: weeping may endure for a night, but joy cometh in the morning.

Wishing you all the very best this Paschaltide.

Saturday, April 23, 2011

The Fourteenth Station: Jesus is laid in the Sepulchre.

The Sabbath is a day of rest, because God rested on the Sabbath day. This is just one of many ways in which the events of the past few days fold Time and Space in on themselves. Is this what the writer of Genesis meant when he spoke of the seventh day upon which God rested?

And while God rests, the world just carries on as normal.

"There is no God."

"We don't need God in order to be moral people."

"God is a despicable being, a hateful, jealous, petty, abusive monster."

"Where was God when...?"

Has the world actually been paying attention?

God has nothing to prove.

We have nothing to prove.

Let's just wait for tomorrow.

Tomorrow is a whole new day.

The Thirteenth Station: Jesus is taken down from the Cross

These hands lovingly fashioned the Universe in ways that we don't really comprehend save that we can make scientific measurements of His effects. Now they are torn with nails and lie limp and lifeless in the lap of His mother. The heart whose beat quickened at the sufferings of His children, when He cast out those blocking the way to God, when He wept at the tomb of Lazarus is still and broken by the point of a spear. There is no blood left to bleed. There is no breath left to breathe. There are no more tears, either of sadness or laughter. All is still. And cold.

Friday, April 22, 2011

The Twelfth Station: Jesus dies upon the Cross

Nullum dicere possum.

The Eleventh Station: Jesus is Nailed to the Cross

So why couldn't you just tie Him to the cross?

Simple pragmatics. He could be untied and escape. This way he can't escape so easily.

And He's in a position to escape?

He's got followers.

And the fact that He's exhausted before you even nail Him to the cross doesn't affect your decision?

No. It's standard practice.

Hasn't He suffered enough?

More than my job's worth not to do it. Just following orders, y'know.

Thursday, April 21, 2011

The Tenth Station: Jesus is stripped of his garments

Any dignity that Jesus has maintained is removed as the clothes are pulled from his bleeding body. Of course, we may try to preserve some of His dignity by portraying Him in a loincloth, but the fact is that He was stripped naked, His body completely exposed to the gaze of everyone, to the beating of the hot sun and the scavenging birds that would seek to peck at His corpse when the crowd has gone as they would do to all the crucified. Here is God, naked, vulnerable, exposed, shamed. How ridiculous Christians are! Is this their God, this naked bleeding little man? "Oh yes," we reply, "there is nothing more glorious, more splendid, more majestic and more generous than that."

The Ninth Station: Jesus falls the third time.

Jesus has not really recovered from His previous fall - how could things get better? He has been given no real respite. He is not being pulled along in a tumbrell or drawn behind a horse like those in later Centuries, though the reason for these modes of transport were largely to preserve the condemned for their revolting executions. His body gives out again, and He is powerless to stop it. But then we fall frequently. Are we so powerless to stop it? If we aren't, then what's the point of the sufferings of Christ?

Wednesday, April 20, 2011

The Eighth Station: Jesus meets the Women of Jerusalem

Not everyone is laughing and mocking Jesus. There is an undercurrent of weeping and wailing beneath the catcalls and hilarity. The Pharisees have not won over the people of Jerusalem entirely; there are some who refuse to be deceived based on the signs and wonders that Jesus performed but a few days before. These women make their protests and pleas more vocal; they dare to mourn the passing of Jesus openly. It is their weeping that will pass judgement on those perfidious folk who have instigated this whole travesty of justice. Just as thirty or so years previously the women of Bethlehem bewailed the loss of their children in the injustice of Herod, so these women weep for Christ, but are told to weep for themselves and their own Children. Jerusalem will fall as Jesus predicted. The mockery that rings around Him will be silenced and justice shall be delivered.

The Seventh Station: Jesus falls the second time

You could have seen it coming. A second fall was inevitable. The human body can only take so much and, despite the aid of St Simon of Cyrene, despite the aid of St Veronica, the crushing hatred of the crowd overwhelms Jesus and his dehydration and loss of blood force Him to the floor a second time. Here is evidence that the deeds of light can easily be overshadowed by darksome things. Hatred seems more powerful than love; Violence solves the problem quicker than peaceful dialogue; instant gratification eases the itch better than putting up with the irritation. However, these are fleeting. Things sometimes have to get darker before they get lighter.

Tuesday, April 19, 2011

The Sixth Station: St Veronica wipes the face of Jesus

Jesus' condition worsens and it is apparent to all that He cannot physically cope with the demands being placed upon Him. Sweat and blood pour down his face just as the previous night in the garden, during His Agony, His sweat had become so profuse as to fall like drops of blood from his forehead. Unlike last night, though, here is a moment of kindness, all too brief. St Veronica simply wipes the blood and sweat away so that they might not sting His eyes. The crowd may be shouting obscenities at Jesus, but there are people in the city who cannot remain unmoved by the Via Crucis. There are always compassionate people in the world. For their compassion to be of any more worth than superficial, they must dare to step out from the crowd at some point.

The Fifth Station: Simon of Cyrene carries the Cross

At last, a moment of respite! It is obvious that Jesus is beginning to flag; His strength is leaving Him rapidly. The Authorities are concerned that, with the Sabbath coming, with the Passover still in full swing, and whether they can continue to control a crowd who initially welcomed Jesus into the city as He rode on a colt, this crucifixion must take place forthwith. It is not out of compassion for Jesus that they force Simon of Cyrene to carry the cross, but rather for expediency and their own convenience, lest their own dark motives be made manifest. For the innocent St Simon, he plays a part in the Salvation of Mankind. We all get to play a part in the Salvation of Mankind if we are willing to shoulder the burden.

The Fourth Station: Jesus meets His Blessed Mother

On His way out of Jerusalem, burdened by His cross, Jesus sees His mother, the Blessed Virgin. What can this woman do but watch her son stagger bleeding and weakened while the crowd laugh and point? What emotions pierce her heart? She feels no shame but her maternal instincts to protect and tend to her wounded son are thwarted. She can only watch helplessly as the ghastly procession passes by. And Jesus too, unable to reach out for His mother's hand, is denied the comfort of one who loves Him. He is not allowed to be loved now, only to be hated.

Monday, April 18, 2011

The Third Station: Jesus falls the first time

Having just received His cross, Jesus exhibits the cost of His treatment. Initially, He simply cannot stand under the weight of the wood. This is a Jesus who is not yet perfect: this path is the route of His perfection. Yet, despite this, His captors still insist that He carry the cross. His weakness is no excuse for Him to deprive the people of their warped pleasure to watch and jeer at Him on the way out of Jerusalem to Golgotha. You can't deprive the people of their entertainment - the show must go on!

The Second Station: Jesus receives the Cross

Jesus is already weakened by an ordeal that has seen him flogged, crowned with thorns and mocked. His back is bleeding from the scourge; His face is black and blue from the hands of the pharisees; His forehead is scratched and bleeding. Now, He receives this dead weight of wood to carry - He does not run away from it but accepts all the suffering imposed upon Him with meekness, trusting in His heavenly Father throughout the very tribulation that He prayed He would not receive in the Garden of Gethsemane a few hours ago. He accepts His Father's will.

The First Station: Jesus is condemned to death

Before the Via Crucis really begins, Jesus has already been deprived of His friends who have all deserted him; He has already been beaten up by the Scribes and Pharisees. Now he stands before a governor who despite boasting the pomp and glory of Rome is powerless to do anything other than capitulate to the demands of the leaders of the people who are baying for Jesus' blood. An irony that the most powerful is incapable of administering justice. The Law can only convict, it has no power to save.

Sunday, April 17, 2011

Labels and Tables

"Yea, the darkness is no darkness with thee, but the night is as clear as the day : the darkness and light to thee are both alike."

Perhaps I've been looking at things in the wrong way. When you leave a room, just before you close the door, you put the light out. There is a moment of darkness as the door clicks shut.

In the past week, I have been privileged to spend some time with the Anglican Catholics in Canterbury and in Dartford. I have, for the first time since February, received the Sacrament and had good fellowship with some interesting, kind and three-dimensional Christians.

What struck me most is that there is no naivety with them. They are operating with their eyes wide open. Their numbers are small. The Mission in Dartford is held in an upstairs room with a table as an altar pressed ad orientem against a wall. They know about their reputation which is often called into question by people who do not understand, or being damaged by the ravings of the over-educated and unauthorised few. They know how they are being labelled by those on the outside. Perhaps I too, in my own way, have not done them as much justice as I should when I have mentioned them before. Yet they still press on.

It's amazing that when a Mass is celebrated with sincerity and with care and consideration to the old, old words and what the old, old words mean, that an upstairs room bears a resemblence to Pugin's work and a former nonconformist chapel suddenly gains the dimensions of the grandest cathedrals.

If the Anglican Catholics could be summed up with a label (and they most assuredly cannot!!!) it would have to be Cuprinol. They do exactly what they say on the tin. What does this mean for me? I am still listening for God's call. I also have some very good friends who are all distant from me in Brighton, France, and across the Pond, and I have never felt closer to them. Indeed, I have been closer in koinonia to them than the members of the jurisdiction I have just left. If I am privileged enough to be walking with God, then it isn't surprising that the darkness is not all that dark.

Wednesday, April 13, 2011

Purity in Passiontide

1Then Jesus six days before the passover came to Bethany, where Lazarus was which had been dead , whom he raised from the dead. 2 There they made him a supper; and Martha served : but Lazarus was one of them that sat at the table with him. 3 Then took Mary a pound of ointment of spikenard , very costly, and anointed the feet of Jesus, and wiped his feet with her hair: and the house was filled with the odour of the ointment. 4 Then saith one of his disciples, Judas Iscariot, Simon's son, which should betray him, 5 Why was not this ointment sold for three hundred pence, and given to the poor? 6 This he said , not that he cared for the poor; but because he was a thief, and had the bag, and bare what was put therein . 7 Then said Jesus, Let her alone : against the day of my burying hath she kept this. 8 For the poor always ye have with you; but me ye have not always. 9 Much people of the Jews therefore knew that he was there: and they came not for Jesus' sake only, but that they might see Lazarus also, whom he had raised from the dead. 10 But the chief priests consulted that they might put Lazarus also to death ; 11 Because that by reason of him many of the Jews went away , and believed on Jesus.

St John xii.1-11

The Life of Brian paints the Jewish people as being a fickle lot, listening to the ravings of lunatics, fanatics and weirdos as their latest whims took them. This is a little unfair. Certainly there are many itinerant preachers such as Honi the Circle Drawer prattling about the countryside and various sightings of the Messiah hither and yon, yet in a time of Roman occupation, the Jews are probably better at holding onto their heritage than at the times when they were in the ascendant.

Look at the way they held onto their faith during their captivity under the Babylonians, Assyrians and Greeks. Their Jewish heritage becomes something to cling onto when the world appears to lose its head. So why is it then that, in this time of crisis, the Jews suddenly start going away to follow Jesus? Are they so jaded and scornful of their heritage that they are easily swayed by an itinerant preacher, one who, despite claiming to be the Messiah, is not acting in the militaristic manner as they had expected?

Of course, the Pharisees see in Jesus nothing but a threat. However, do they see him as a blaspheming charlatan, or do they actually recognise some aspect of His Divinity and shudder at the prospect?

The point that they fail to see is that Jesus is not pulling people away from their heritage but drawing them further in. He is stabilising them, grounding them further in their heritage as the family of God. He tells them no lies and, were it not for the fact that He follows His claims up with signs and wonders, His claims would legitimately be seen to be the ravings of a lunatic. Lunatics, however, are not in the habit of raising people from the dead. He tells them straight: He is the Son of God. God in Passiontide makes Himself transparent to us little human beings. He does not hide his reality from us, though we cannot comprehend Him fully. There is no deceit here, for God is Truth.

And so Christ calls us to be pure. We are already transparent to Him as God for our lives lie completely open to Him, and we cannot do anything about that. However, in living our lives in purity we become transparent to our fellowmen. Christ calls us not to hide the Truth, or cross our fingers behind our back, or prevaricate with fancy words, but to let our "Yes" be a yes and our "No" be a no.

To reflect the Truth of Christ in our lives means that we have to cultivate purity. Think of how wonderful the light glistens through a glass of pure water or through a pure diamond crystal. The beauty of water and diamond arises because of its purity and how the light reacts to it.

Because Mary (Martha's sister, remember) sees Jesus' transparency to her in the way that He shares her grief at the death of Lazarus, hears her protests about why He wasn't there to heal him before he died, and then goes on to raise Lazarus from the dead, she knows that He is Who He has always claimed to be. The purity of His human nature allows the Truth of His divine nature to shine through into our understanding. So Mary treats Him as she now believes in the purity and simplicity of her heart.

The hearts of the Pharisees, however, are tainted with the concerns of this world - their social standing, the number of bums on seats in their synagogues, and their way of doing things. It is they who object to Jesus' regard for the integrity of the Jewish Heritage, not knowing that it is they who have changed it to suit their methods and promote their causes, and who are prepared to dissemble, cover up and spin in order to do so. Jesus has exposed this practice for what it is, and that's why they want to kill Him. It is the impurity of their hearts and of their motives that drives them to opposing God Himself.

The purer we become in our motives and in our worship of God, the more shall this world become transparent to us so that we see God Himself at the centre of all things. Also, in purity of living, we become transparent to this world and the more will the light of Christ shine through us before others who may, if we are indeed pure, see through us to that same Christ - and what a privilege would that be for us all!

Saturday, April 02, 2011

The Scandal of the Glorious Mysteries

There is, in some sense, an inherent dualism in Christianity and one that has been exploited too much by extremes. Too far in one direction and we find ourselves in the black and white world of the absolutist to far in the other direction and there is a denial that any distinctions are all relative and of no consequence. It occurred to me, as I was praying the Glorious Mysteries of the Rosary, just how scandalous these Mysteries are and how they set up a dichotomy whose dynamics can be exploited by our common enemy, but also, if we are prudent and seek Divine assistance, by ourselves.

  1. The First Glorious Mystery: the Resurrection of Our Lord Jesus Christ from the Dead - the Dichotomy of Reason We are presented with a stumbling block for the non-Christian. The Resurrection pits our empiricism and desire for scientific understanding of the world against our faith in a loving God who not only dies in order to save us, but also to rise again to give us hope. Without the presence of science and the empirical evidence of our own eyes that "people do not simply rise from the dead" we lose the impact of the Resurrection, its significance for the future, and indeed any wonder in a God who can leap between possibilities to make something a reality. Without the scepticism of science, we would actually lose faith in God. Yet, without the presence of Faith, then there is no Christianity and empiricism merely traps us in a world of stories which we cannot believe to be true. Life loses meaning and we find ourselves purposelessly following a morality which now means nothing. Everything becomes permissible, even the grossest violations, because ultimately they shall pass, there is no Eternity for them to be remembered. Without Faith, the Resurrection saves no-one.

  2. The Second Glorious Mystery: The Ascension of Our Lord into Heaven - the Dichotomy of Purity This is the stumbling block to the extreme purist. We are faced with the dichotomy of purity and involvement which reflects the dichotomy of immanence and transcendence. While the Lord walks with us, we have a focus - someone physical who can answer our questions and whose voice we can hear. With an objective physical focus we can strive to live as He wishes, for our focus drives our purity, our single mindedness on Him. The Ascension means that, in order for others to be focused, we must lose the focus. We face the challenge of living and preserving the Faith in a World that is constantly changing. God remains constant; His Word remains constant, but its surroundings do not. We can fight to keep our lives pure, withdraw them, lock them away, prevent the World from ravaging them. However, this betrays a lack of faith in God who will preserve the Faith around us. Without involving ourselves with the world, our own personal purity causes us to wither and die. On the other hand, too much involvement in the world wrests our focus away and we succumb to worldly ideas and philosophies which lead us inexorably away from the Truth by colouring it with relativistic visions and nuances. The new meanings take over and we lose what we once had because we become unaware that our focus is no longer the right focus. The waters have become muddied, our single mindedness has gone and we have been made impure and confused.

  3. The Third Glorious Mystery: The Descent of the Holy Ghost - The Dichotomy of Authority This is the stumbling block to the relativist and anarchist. We are presented with the empowering of the individual with the power of God. This is the reverse of Babel and yet it is in someway another Babel because it scatters as well as unites. The Church becomes a group of unique individuals each with different gifts, and each with different ideas. We are thus presented with the dichotomy of the authority of individual conscience and that of the institution of the Church - differentiation versus integration. Too much individualism and there can be no leadership. It becomes less possible for the individual to trust a spiritual leader in favour of his own individual faith in the Holy Spirit whom he claims to have received. He finds that his "Holy Spirit" suddenly leads him into darksome realms. Too much institution and the Church becomes an impassive monolith intent on insuring absolute uniformity of belief and the eradication of all that is heretical, yet crushing the delicate petals of the revelation of God through the blessed individuals whom He calls to challenge the humanity of the Church and stir it up into continual conversatio morum.

  4. The Fourth Glorious Mystery: The Assumption of Our Lady into Heaven - The Dichotomy of Reliability This is the stubling block for the Sceptic. With this being one of the few dogmata made using Papal Infallibility, we are presented with the dichotomy of fallible and infallible. While this is a variation on the above notion of authority, it points us to the problems of just how certain we can be about our faith, upon whom or what to we place our reliance? Upon God, of course, but how does he reveal Himself? Is hearing the pronunciation of a dogma from the lips of God's representative on Earth sufficient? Does it need to be "proved" from the Bible? What does "proving from the Bible" really mean? We are faced with the challenge of the reliability of Heavenly Truths being promulgated by Earthly beings, and Pope, Bible, Catechism and Creed are temporary in their very nature. If there is no reliability, how can our Faith grow? Yet, there seem to be many interpretations of the same sources, and which is reliable?

  5. The Fifth Glorious Mystery: The Coronation of Our Lady in Heaven -the Dichotomy of Humanity. Finally, we have the stumbling block for the communist. A Pentecostal friend of mine nearly decorated the wall opposite with a mouthful of tea when I spoke of the Blessed Virgin Mary as Queen of Heaven. The problem here is the scandal of Theosis - the notion of God making Humans divine. Αὐτὸς γὰρ ἐνηνθρώπισεν, ἵνα ἡμεῖς θεοποιηθῶμεν God became Man so that Man could become God. (St Athanasius, On the Incarnation of the Word liv.) We are faced with a grave dichotomy, we either see ourselves too much as gods and thus demand worship from others, or we see no-one as gods and begin to despise any man who would dare reach out and touch the Creator or who would set himself apart from his fellow men. One smacks of Fascism, the other of Communism, especially a Communism which would rather see God abolished rather than have any man dare to try and separate himself from his humanity. We are tempted to despise our flesh in favour of our souls, or to despise our souls in favour of our flesh, and thus we divide up our very selves into a duelling dualism.

Of course, the fact is that many of these dichotomies are false or immaterial. Our existence is held in this elastic tension so that our lives can be catapulted into the arms of God. There is no dichotomy between Science and Religion. Human beings are both flesh and spirit. God is Three persons and yet only One being. The Church is both Temporal and Eternal. The Bible is indeed the inspired word of God written by human beings.

The challenge of the Rosary is to confront these dichotomies within our very selves, to address where we ourselves are inwardly biased and to appreciate that there are others who share different biases. That doesn't mean that we relinquish the notion of objective Truth and the Tradition of the Church in order to be "ecumenical" but it does mean that we try to love others of different views as much as we can.

Holy Mary, Mother of God, pray for us sinners now and at the hour of our death. Amen.