Sunday, April 15, 2012

The Apocryphal Destiny of Man

God created man to be immortal, and made him to be an image of his own eternity. Nevertheless through envy of the devil came death into the world: and they that do hold of his side do find it. But the souls of the righteous are in the hand of God, and there shall no torment touch them. In the sight of the unwise they seemed to die: and their departure is taken for misery, And their going from us to be utter destruction: but they are in peace. For though they be punished in the sight of men, yet is their hope full of immortality. And having been a little chastised, they shall be greatly rewarded: for God proved them, and found them worthy for himself. As gold in the furnace hath he tried them, and received them as a burnt offering. And in the time of their visitation they shall shine, and run to and fro like sparks among the stubble. They shall judge the nations, and have dominion over the people, and their Lord shall reign for ever. They that put their trust in him shall understand the truth: and such as be faithful in love shall abide with him: for grace and mercy is to his saints, and he hath care for his elect.

Wisdom ii.23-iii.9

Among Anglicans, the Apocrypha receives mixed appreciation. Some will give it more weight than others. Officially, the Apocrypha adds no extra doctrine to the Church, but it does enhance the doctrine that can be found in the rest of Holy Writ. This passage from the Wisdom of Solomon is a wonderful example of that enhancement and just shows how the Old Testament gets bound to the New. St Paul himself probably reflects on these very words when he speaks of the destiny of mankind in his letters.

One of the dividing issues in Christianity is the idea of predestination. I cannot go with the Calvinistic interpretation of "once saved always saved" which doesn't really seem to mean anything until the death of the individual. Our Salvation is both corporate and individual; individual because our own humanity matters to God with its free-will; corporate because we are saved in unity with Christ in the Church. Human beings are destined to follow the same, almost paradoxical, quality of the Godhead. Oliver Clement describes the Church as one human being in the multiplicity of persons to mirror one God in a Trinity of Persons. An individual is saved because the Church is saved and the Church is saved because an individual is saved. Human being is a mystery in itself, even if we try to probe that mystery with neuroscience, anthropology and sociology.

It seems to be Man's quest to find himself and understand himself fully, and it is this very question that taxes his imagination. Can Man understand the reason why he wants to understand himself? Can he expect to find the answer to that within himself? Is the answer to that to be found within the individual, in a representative sample, or within mankind as a whole? The quest for self understanding is an ouroboros like the snake eating its own tail. It is self-consuming if all it does is perform an overinvasive introspection, and if something consumes itself, can we honestly describe that as a healthy state of affairs?

In this passage from Wisdom, we are also pointed towards a purgatory of a much more beautiful nature than as a place of punishment. To see Purgatory as a place of punishment is to view Salvation far too legally - in fact, that idea points more towards a stimulus-response relationship. The word Salvation has its roots more in the idea of health, rather than law. It is true to say with St Cyprian of Carthage that extra ecclesiam nullus salus since being part of the Church is a return to health. This is Purgatory, a return to full health in God.

The Church is very visible, but that is not to say that it is entirely visible for the same reason that the whole human nature is not visible. Those whom the Lord saves are part of the Church, thus St Cyprian's statement is more of a tautology if viewed legally. If viewed from the point of view of health, then one perhaps understand St Cyprian's aphorism as a call to find that very renewal within the broken society which the Church seems to comprise.

But we need to see the Church as an entirety. Those who have died are as much a part of the Church as those who are alive now precisely because the Church comprises of the people destined for perfection. The Church really does have a democracy of the dead because, although they seem to have died, her members are still extant and vital. The one who forgets this is the one who cuts himself off from the fulness of the Church and lives a half-life as a thin film between the past and the present whose existences he denies to be full.

To the one who has no concept of eternity, the sufferings of the Church and her members indeed look like punishments - arbitrary enforcements of a law as penal code. The route to the full health of a human being is the way of perfection and, considering that the Devil entices us to fight against that perfection, to take the easy route out and to regard our health as restrictive, unkind, intolerant and contrary to the happiness of the individual, we can see why the way of perfection is hard, painful and, at times, deeply depressing.

This passage in Wisdom is very clear because it encourages us to look out of ourselves. We can only find an ecstasy (i.e. a standing out from ourselves) if we are prepared to look out from ourselves, out from our existence, indeed out from our assumptions about our existence. If we cannot find happiness within ourselves, then it is because happiness is not just within, but without and not just without, but within.

Physicists postulate that 70% of the universe is "Dark Energy" which underlies the fabric of reality. It underlies all things, pervades all things, exists within a vacuum. Thus Science itself is pointing to something more to our existence which does not meet the eye, (or oscilliscope or Large Hadron Collider). All humanity possesses this tendency to perfection, this predestination if that's what you want to call it. It is our choice whether to accept that destiny in its fullest in the arms of God, or to the half-life of what we assume ourselves to be.

Saturday, April 14, 2012

Archepiscopal Visitation

Just a reminder that the Most Rev Dr Mark Haverland, Metropolitan Archbishop and acting Primate of the Anglican Catholic Church is visiting the Diocese of the U.K.

It is a real joy to have him back on these shores and it would be wonderful if as many people would turn out as they can to welcome him as a show of traditional Anglican solidarity and confraternity. All information about his visit is here.

Thursday, April 12, 2012

Future fractions and Ecclesiological Integrity

Looking at the state of Christianity in the U.K., one might be forgiven for not being very optimistic. Not only is there greater antipathy towards the religion more ingrained in our culture as evidenced in the Radio Times and the increasingly critical attitude of the BBC, but Institutional Christianity itself is changing quite rapidly.

Over the life of this blog, I've been commenting on the fragmentation that is occurring within the Established Church. The Ordinariate has certainly increased the speed at which parishes are leaving the CofE and, judging by the Ecclesiastical press, there are rumblings within Southwark Diocese because the top positions are filled by "liberal Catholics" (whatever that means) and the Evangelicals feel squeezed out.

The Partisan nature of the Established Church has been with it since the Elizabethan Settlement. It is interesting to note that the main political parties are struggling for domination of the centre-ground, while, ecclesiastically, the polarisation and estrangement is increasing and little is being done to at least encourage some sense of brotherhood between the parties.

The latest parish to join the Ordinariate described the CofE's attitude to them as telling them to "Sod off" [sic], the formal statement from the CofE is "we wish them well in their new home." I;ve been there myself and have personally experienced this "well wishing" which we know is just lip-service. There has been no attempt by any diocesan officials even to discuss the situation and offer some understanding, some little show of encouragement to stay or real regret that some parting might occur.

Forward in Faith are trying to hold together the CofE and Traditionalists in the Society of St Wilfred and St Hilda. The idea is to ensure the integrity of Anglican Orders by providing some enclave with Bishops, Priests and Deacons of the traditional mind-set for the Parishes that need them. The idea is certainly laudable in intention but overlooks the fact that the Bishops will be appointed by the CofE. Thus the Society's existence is entirely dependent on the goodwill of the CofE. Given the CofE's record, it seems that this goodwill will be supplanted by the strident voices of the liberals demanding total recognition of their changes. Can members of SSWASH be confident in the goodwill of the Established Church? Given that promises made to them in 1992 have been broken, this seems unlikely though not impossible and I will continually pray that they always have the provision they need. However, SSWASH would do well to ensure that it receives some concrete (and, regrettably, legally binding) assurance in writing!

What has to be appreciated is that there is more fall-out from the Established Church than just the Ordinariate and SSWASH. There are individuals who have fallen out as fragments from fractures, and they are very easily overlooked. These individuals are vitally important because they represent a silent majority of the unwillingly unchurched. These evolve into the willingly unchurched and, further still, into the increasingly anti-Church.

What can we do to reach these folk? There needs to be some kind of contact with these folk, particularly if they find themselves completely isolated. To develop a network of contacts is of vital importance. The more contacts made, the more communities can be built up. If individuals can be encouraged to follow a personal rule of life of prayer and reading, then there will be some binding influence for them to follow so that even the most isolated can find common ground with others.

However, this has been tried. A good priestly friend tried to do something just like this - an online community following the Rule of St Benedict - but it fell apart because confidences were breached. Without this trust, there was no binding agent.

So what do we need?

1) We need to reach out to isolated individuals.
2) We need to meet those isolated individuals personally to discuss their situations and needs.
3) We need to encourage them to meet together occasionally at some convenient venue in order to provide for them Sacraments and spiritual assistance.
4) We need to provide a quick and easy way to contact each other. An online forum would do well here.

However, one thing is clearly missing. How on earth do we find these isolated individuals? Well, this means that we need to be caring enough to look out for our isolated brethren and, if the isolated brethren are serious about their faith, they need to be searching too, though admittedly this is rather tricky.

Often what happens to us in the ACC is that someone pops into the parish, raves about what we do and then departs never to be seen again. Why? Is their raving false? No, for the most part it isn't. Often they find themselves a home in the Roman Church or they drop out altogether. If someone is isolated then we must establish what the real reason for that isolation is.

For many people, it is the loss of what they've been used to. The familiar words and expressions, the beloved prayers and rituals are being changed and adapted to respond to a modern and often more materialistic age. For the ACC where these rituals, words and prayers have not been changed but are used at their fullest, these will certainly gladden the heart of one from whom these precious morsals have been torn.

For others, it is the change in doctrine, though for many people this tends to be a bit superficial. They leave the church "because of gay clergy" or "because of women at the altar" or "because they've changed the words of the hymns" or "because they've got guitars" as if these single issues were entire of themselves. What they need to appreciate is that all these are symptoms of a deeper misconception which has infiltrated deeply into the system and that rejecting the symptom may affect how other issues that they had accepted.

For example, they may have become isolated because of gay clergy but be very comfortable with women "priests" unaware that the two are very much related. The same is true vice versa. What we have here, of course, is why the fractures from the CofE are so fine. Playing pick and choose with doctrine damages Ecclesiological Integrity. For the mainstream church, we see this in the fact that it is becoming an umbrella organisation for any philosophy imaginable in order to somehow incorporate those of all faiths and none. The result is a loss of any integrity because there is no way of reaching back to the same faith as our forefathers.

This is something that the Isolated need to consider. What do they want of a new establishment? If it really a single issue, then they will find another parish somewhere within the CofE. However, if they sit and really think, then they will realise that these issues stem from a matter of belief, not of superficiality. This needs encouragement on a 1-1 basis if they are to recover some integrity as well as find some confraternity.

The fact of the matter is that people do see through insincerity and single-issue Churches will not really give the depth for which people are searching, and people are searching for that depth and integrity. Why? Because integrity is born of endurance, character and love and these are all things that Humans are looking for.

However, if anyone is reading this and finding themselves isolated, or knowing someone who has been isolated by the movement of the CofE from orthdoxy, the Anglican Diaspora is a forum for people to speak to others. If anyone is interested in the ACC, then do check out the link on the right and do get in touch if we can help. You'd be very welcome.

Sunday, April 08, 2012

The Day of Resurrection 2012: The Dignity of the Human Condition

Christ is risen!
He is risen indeed! Alleluia!

There is in the world today a terrible tendency to look at human beings in a terribly negative light. Many scientists are beginning to regard human beings as mere biological machines which have all the illusions of self-knowledge and some ability of self-delusion in believing itself to be something special before collapsing into a bundle of fatty acids and proteins when they came.

Any joie de vivre is spawned from some belief that this is all there is, and it is better to learn to be happy because the darkness is coming to put a stop to it. In the West, there is a hatred of old age, because old age is a reminder that the joy of living will be slowly extinguished before the end comes.

Others see human beings as corrupt despoilers of Earth, the ultimate parasite destroying whole ecosystems. They see proliferation of wars and violence, endless political wranglings, intercommunity hatreds and battles, and they conclude that humanity is intrinsically evil. They see little in human achievement which is merely the product of anthropological societal construct, convention and evolution.

Others look out into space at the massive structures of the universe, calculating sizes in millions of parsecs, billions of light years and working on scales of galactic clusters and they see human beings as a meaningless speck of insignificance in the void that exists for a glimmer before oblivion finally envelopes it.

Yet, the Resurrection says otherwise.

If we believe in a God that creates, then we believe in a God that wants to create.

If we believe in a God that wants to create, then we believe in a God that willingly decided to create human beings.

If we believe in a God that willingly decided to create human beings, then we must believe that He has some regard for our being.

We have been willed to exist by One who defies our understanding. We have been placed here on earth amidst the complex circling of the arches of the heavens, to evolve and grow according to the elegant rules of organic structures, and to live our lives with each other as independent units seeking understanding, to investigate and enjoy. We seek meaning because there is meaning to seek. And the Resurrection is proof.

We are fallen. Our choices are wrong. They affect others. They hurt others. Sometimes we care because we see that pain and feel it. Sometimes we don't because we are obsessed with our own pain. But God, in His absolute love for us seeks to free us from the pain of our choices by irradiating the entire universe with His love and by transforming it with His very being. We receive our existence from the existence of God. We share it with Him and Our Blessed Lord's Resurrection shows us that we are invited to share, not just Existence with God but Life with God.

We have been given the choice. Either we refuse to see any good in human beings, refuse to see in the Crucifixion the price of true love, ignore the mystery of the incarnation thus fulfilled through the cross and beyond into the Resurrection, or we realise the full potential of this event which rocks history to the core. When Christ commands us to love our neighbour as ourselves, He is not just telling us to do something, He is also inviting us to see others how He sees them and this is a participation in His existence. In commanding us to love God with all our being, He is inviting us to see in Him the source of all love and to be a part of that love in Creation. The Cross and Resurrection stand together as two fulfilments of physical and spiritual natures and as two ends of a tunnel through Death into a perfected life.

This is the promise and it is the promise of a God who regards human beings with such dignity that He respects their choices even if they hurt Him. Here we stand at the cross-roads. Do we turn back or move forward. Of course we move forward, but let us move forward in joy as well as penitance. Our penitence is temporary, but our joy is eternal.

May God richly bless you this Paschal time and forever.

Saturday, April 07, 2012

The Passionate Antagonists: 6 Simon Peter

Peter an Antagonist? Really?

While I've been reflecting on these characters from the crucifixion, I have been thinking of just how vulernerable, how fallible and how human they are, none more so than St Peter whose love for Christ is remarkable. Yet he falls spectacularly.

"The pathway to Hell is paved with good intentions" is, apparently, a paraphrase of St Bernard of Clairvaux and surely it applies to Peter who intends to follow Jesus to the end, and yet, when his life is threatened falls away as he denies his discipleship of Jesus three times.

Had he done this in the Diocletian Persecution, would he have been labelled traditor and barred from further office by the Donatists? Well, St Peter does form the case against Donatism.

Peter shows us clearly that even Christians fall away and reject Christ when it comes to the crunch. The Church is comprised of sinners who yet still manage to maintain the teaching of Christ. It is by that teaching that even the greatest Christians can be convicted of sin. So the Church, far from being corrupt, has in place a failsafe device that ensures that sin cannot be simply hidden under the carpet by shamed Christians. Often it takes folk without the Church to demonstrate it!

Mere adherence to the rules does not save us. We may fall again and again usually with habitual and ingrained sins. How can keeping the rules bring us back to God when we have broken them? We must keep the rules by first keeping Christ in order for that grace to grow.

What grace? See tomorrow.

Friday, April 06, 2012

The Passionate Antagonists: 5 Gestas the not-so-penitent Thief

"If thou be Christ, save thyself and us."

These are the sole recorded words of a man whom tradition has named Gestas, one of the men crucified with Jesus. He is said to have been crucified for robbery and it is clear that he has little respect for people, either their belongings or their situations. Why should it be that in the last hours of his life, that all he can say are taunts to Jesus? Does he expect to be saved? Why does that phrase enter into his head?

Clearly this is a man who doesn't believe that he should be punished for transgressing the law. He seems to be one of those men who only believes that punishment is only for someone else and that he has a right to help himself everything that he wants. This thief is a law unto himself. Why else does he entertain the possibility that, should Jesus work a miracle, he can expect salvation automatically?

Salvation only comes with an intention to submit to the rule of Christ. This is entirely personal between God and the individual as evidenced in the conversation between Jesus and the other thief, traditionally named Dismas:

But the other answering rebuked him, saying, Dost not thou fear God, seeing thou art in the same condemnation? And we indeed justly; for we receive the due reward of our deeds : but this man hath done nothing amiss. And he said unto Jesus, Lord, remember me when thou comest into thy kingdom. And Jesus said unto him, Verily I say unto thee, To day shalt thou be with me in paradise.
We have no power to make the decision for another's Salvation. We may only pray to God for it and hope that He will include that other in the Church outside of which there can be no salvation. Do we accept the rule of Christ's kingdom or do we expect salvation on our own terms and thus reject Jesus as the one who calls the shots?

Thursday, April 05, 2012

The Passionate Antagonists: 4 Barabbas and the Crowd

What makes a crowd call out in favour of someone who has proven guilt of being a revolutionary and a murderer? Was it simply the incitement of the Chief Priests whipping the crowds up into a frenzy, or was the notoriety of Barabbas so compelling? Would he be the person to succeed where Jesus failed in the eyes of those who sought freedom from the Roman Regime?

In this age we have the cult of celebrity. The nature of what it means to be a "celebrity" does not seem to be very well-defined. Some celebrities are singers, others are actors, some are heroes for climbing Everest or presenting fascinating television programmes. Others are celebrities for no other reason than they have just been in the right place at the right time. Yet others are famous for being infamous - the Kray twins, Katie Price, Monica Lewinsky. Sometimes we choose the wrong role models in life - people who have done nothing to make being human praiseworthy. Yet, there are plenty of people who make one very proud to be a human being because they fight against oppression. Some fighters, however, are fighting for causes which are less than honourable, or a fighting for good causes in less than honourable ways.

It is often the case that Jesus is rejected in favour of someone more glamorous, or because we have decided to follow the crowd rather than been discerning in our choice of exemplar. Whom do we prize most of all as our hero, today? Why?

Wednesday, April 04, 2012

The Passionate Antagonists: 3 Pontius Pilate

Like Judas, Pilate is another complex character. Much of what we know of him comes from the Gospels, though there are apocryphal mentions in the Acts of Pilate and the Gospel of Peter. There is some (disputed) archaeological evidence in the "Pilate" stone, a first century inscription bearing the name "...TIVS PILATVS". That he does exist can be seen from Philo, Josephus and Tacitus who do not regard him very favourably.

However, how does Pilate come across in the Gospel? Historically, he is the governor of a very troublesome province which has a history of uprisings and insurrections. Jesus is hauled in front of him very visibly beaten up by the Jewish authorities. Here in, Pilate's mind, is another potential flashpoint brewing. His main concern is to establish what's going on in order to avert another crisis. Couple that with the message from his wife that she has dreamed that this Jesus is nothing but trouble, and one can see in Pilate's mind only one impetus: find out what's going on in order to stop the trouble.

He has the Chief Priests on the one hand and possibly the followers of this King of the Jews about to cause another conflagration in the city which he must somehow contain. Careful questioning must take place.

However, when Jesus refuses to commit Himself to any political leadership and rather points to the kingdom of heaven, it becomes clear to the disinterested Pilate that this Jesus is utterly innocent of every charge and poses no "real" threat to the Roman Rule.

How then, when convinced of a man's innocence, can Pilate then just let him be crucified? The baying of the crowd for the man's life threaten the stability of Roman Rule and, seeking the easy way out, it becomes expedient for the man to be got rid of. Pilate has established that Jesus doesn't have hoards at the gates of Jerusalem ready to bring down the Imperial Government. It is better to let one man get crucified in order to keep the peace. Yet, knowing Jesus to be innocent, he simply washes his hands of the responsibility and gains for himself a larger stain on his soul.

Anything for a quiet life? Even at the cost of your soul? Are you sure?

Tuesday, April 03, 2012

The Passionate Antagonists: 2 Judas Iscariot

Of all the people in the Passion Narrative, none is more wretched than Judas Iscariot. There's so little of him really mentioned in the Gospels that it is difficult to get any idea of his motives or what was going on in his mind.

So what little do we have to go on?

He is consistently named as one of the twelve disciples.

He is described by St John as the one who kept the purse.

He is also described by St John as a thief. (St John xii)

He is the one who goes to the Chief Priests to betray Jesus and that he receives money (30 pieces of silver) in order to do so.

He leads a mob to Gethsemane and betrays Jesus by indentifying him with a kiss.

He either realises what he has done, returns the money to the Chief Priests and hangs himself (according to St Matthew), or bursts asunder (according to St Luke in Acts). This is easily reconcilable if we make the assumption that the hanging body of Judas remained on the tree for some time and then fell in a state of decomposition. It might not be correct, but it's a credible explanation.

The first question we must ask is: what does Jesus see in Judas that makes him call him as one of the twelve? Is it simply that He knows Judas will betray Him? Judas, being a human being always has the choice to betray or not betray. So perhaps the question should be, what did Judas see in Jesus that he would accept being in the party? Was Judas so thoroughly a rogue that he could see Jesus as someone from whom he could embezzle funds as St John suggests? If so then he could easily have been seen the bribe of the Hierarchs as irresistable. Why then the change of heart at the end? Why did it bring him to suicide?

If Judas were one of the twelve, then he must have been privy to some of the deepest teaching of Jesus and received much of his personal ministrations. There must have been a considerable affection between them if it were in some way normal for an affectionate kiss to be shared between them. It seems that whoever Judas was, he cannot have been unaffected by the person of Jesus.

Yet still, Judas rejects Jesus. Material things mean more to Judas than spiritual. Money seems to hold a deeper place in his heart than what Jesus means to him and yet he is haunted by his doings which does indicate some conscience. However, rather than confront what he has done, he takes an easier yet horrifying route to silence that inner voice.

Judas is complex, yet rejects Jesus for material reasons. Does this mean he deserves the reputation of being so thoroughly bad? Are we completely free from association with Judas?

Monday, April 02, 2012

The Passionate Antagonists: 1 Caiaphas and the Chief Priests

As we begin the Passion Narrative of St Matthew's Gospel, we meet the people who have had it in for Jesus ever since He started teaching about the Kingdom of God. These are the Scribes and the Pharisees, most heartily embodied in Caiaphas and the Chief Priests of the Temple in Jerusalem.

Let's be very clear, there was nothing wrong with being a scribe or a Pharisee per se. Both St Nathanael and St Paul were Pharisees, and very good Pharisees too, but these two very learned gentlemen did something that many of their colleagues refused to do. They risked their reputations as learned men by submitting their intellect to the teaching of Jesus Christ.

By way of contrast, Caiaphas and his ilk were so full of intellectual pride that they were driven to plot, conspire and, ultimately bear "legal" responsibility for the crucifixion of the Lord. They believed that they were right and they had the power to inflict that vision of their own self-righteousness on others. So great was their fear of losing their power that they refused to believe the evidence of their own eyes when a non-descript itinerant preacher came preaching about the love of God and claiming to be His Son and, further still, backing up that claim with miracles which went in contravention of their laws and understanding.

Jesus does not come to change the substance of the Pharisees' teaching. They have the right words but the wrong tune and they are putting the emphases in all the wrong places. However, rather than be corrected, Caiaphas and the Chief Priests play the legal card and trump up charges of blasphemy. They refuse to consider all the evidence, they limit themselves and the judgement to their terms and by clinging to their learning rather than find its fulfilment in Jesus, they seek His destruction.

Many people today reject Jesus because what he teaches runs contradictory to their understanding of the world. They may accept His, “love thy neighbour” and “do unto others…” but as soon as they hear Him claim to be the Son of God, they stop short. The modern mind hates miracles because they do not fit into the pattern of everyday experience forgetting that if they did fit into the pattern of everyday experience, they wouldn’t be miracles.

Perhaps if we become more willing to look beyond the world we understand, we might glimpse the beauty of the world we don’t. Caiaphas wasn’t so prepared, an, wallowing in his own understanding he ends up rejected by the One Whom He rejected.

The Passionate Antagonists: 0 Introduction

This year, I'd like to spend some time reflecting on the characters in the Passion, primarily those whom I collectively refer to as The Antagonists because in some way they add to the suffering of Our Lord, and yet they stand for the fallibility of flawed human beings. Each rejects Christ even as we reject Christ and we really have no moral high ground on which to stand here. In some way, we each embody one of these folk who aren't exactly villains but are certainly very far gone from righteousness.

Ironically, it is because of their actions that Christ is able to do precisely what He intends to do. It is the nature of fallible human beings that brings about the circumstances in which Jesus Christ can become Salvator Mundi. St Paul alludes to this in Romans viii.28 and St Augustine refers to this whole Divine Good from human Sin as O Felix Culpa. Before we can really appreciate what has been achieved on our behalf, we need to appreciate just how our wickedness plays its part. This way we can look towards the Resurrection and be assured that we can be made clean and live cleanly in the eyes of God.

Sunday, April 01, 2012

Palm Sunday: Gory Garments and Saving Wrath.

Bishop A. Cleveland Coxe

Who is this with garments gory,
Triumphing from Bozrah’s way;
This that weareth robes of glory,
Bright with more than victory’s ray?
Who is this unwearied comer
From his journey’s sultry length,
Traveling through Idumè’s summer
In the greatness of his strength?

Wherefore red in thine apparel
Like the conquerors of the earth,
And arrayed like those who carol
O’er the reeking vineyard’s mirth?
Who art thou, the valleys seeking
Where our peaceful harvests wave?
“I, in righteous anger speaking,
I, the mighty One to save.”

“I, that of the raging heathen
Trod the winepress all alone,
Now in victor garlands wreathen
Coming to redeem Mine own:
I am He with sprinkled raiment,
Glorious for My vengeance hour,
Ransoming, with priceless payment,
And delivering with power.”

Hail! All hail! Thou Lord of Glory!
Thee, our Father, Thee we own;
Abraham heard not of our story,
Israel ne’er our Name hath known.
But, Redeemer, Thou hast sought us,
Thou hast heard Thy children’s wail,
Thou with Thy dear blood hast bought us:
Hail! Thou mighty Victor, hail!

There are times when I have sung hymns which have raised the hairs on the back of my neck. This morning at Mass I sang this hymn for the first time to a tune which I've always attributed to O the deep, deep love of Jesus and I must confess that it gave me quite a start.

Bishop Coxe based his words very closely on the episode in Isaiah lxiii of the figure who has trod the winepress visiting the wrath of God upon the enemies of His people. It is a troubling and arresting image for all those who cannot reconcile the God of the Old Testament with the God of the New. However, there is a great deal of hope in both Bible passage and the subsequent poetic rendition.

Of course, there are (not so massive) cultural differences between ourselves in the West and the original hearers of the prophecy of Isaiah (in this case trito-Isaiah). For the Israelites, the relationship with Edom was always very rocky. Edom became a vassal of Israel under David and Solomon, but later helpe Nebuchadnezzar II to plunder Israel, and it is this act to which God is responding through Isaiah. Interestingly, the name "Edom" has the idea of redness and was etiologically associated with Esau, Israel's rubicund brother. If we have that in the back of our minds when we approach Isaiah lxiii, then it gives our brains another jolt when we read of the "gory garments".

Of course, for many people, the difficulty is how we reconcile a wrathful God with a God of Peace. We tend to be a bit squeamish these days about gods being called upon in fighting battles. We tend to think of battle and war as being "politically incorrect", after all, Christians have still the problems of the effects of the Holy Wars known as the Crusades to deal with! We don't like to fight our battles in the name of God.

However, we are seldom at peace. For the past decade, the West has engaged in a "War on Terror", trying to rid the world of acts of violence which we saw all too clearly on 11th September. This has still resulted in horrible acts from all sides and it is quite right that we should find war repellent. We should be living as if “I hate you” was the most horrible swearing and cursing of all. Nonetheless, in this day and age we are still in the middle of wars and battles. Note well that, in the hymn above and the generating Biblical passage, Bozrah is the old name for Basrah of very recent memory in Iraq!

Yet, it is the titanic battle between Good and Evil that we overlook because it continues invisibly and yet affects us all the time. We are called to fight this battle, and yet more often than not we languish and fall to sin. All sin deserves the wrath of God because God thoroughly hates all sin. This brings us back to the picture of the wrathful and vengeful God that is supposedly peculiar to the Old Testament and different from that of the New. However they are the same God, and if we believe that Jesus Christ is God as the Second Person of the Trinity, then Jesus too possesses the wrath of God.

God’s wrath is a terrifyingly beautiful notion if we think about it. It is not we who are the objects of God’s wrath but Sin. If we choose to sin then we put ourselves in the greatest danger of death because God will not be where Sin is. We are so steeped in Sin. All around us we see the effects of greed, hatred, lust, loneliness, selfishness, cupidity and envy which are killing us and do we have anything that can help us?

This is where a passive, emotionless god would be useless, because such a being would sit on the side-lines, wringing his hands and calling ineffectually. Instead, God in His wrath does something.

It is He Who steps into the world, getting his hands, feet and garments gory with bloodshed. Ironically, this blood is His own, not that of His enemies. We are presented with a God who willingly pays the price for Sin, who makes good the satisfaction for the evil that we have done, do and will do, if only we will turn to Him. The price is His very own lifeblood.

This is such a very different wrath from that of a human being. This is because the idea of “wrath” is a human term and God is not simply a human being – the analogy breaks down if we think this way. God doesn't suffer from emotions and passions as we do, but He does act justly and with the most intense dispassionate compassion that one can every know. What we can understand is the intensity of emotion that wrath carries, that burning passion and the fact that it drives us into activity, usually foolishness and to our shame. But God’s foolishness is higher than Man’s wisdom and by His wrath we are saved.

This week, we behold that very foolishness and this very wrath. How will we experience them in our lives?