Catholic Contextual urban Theology, Mimetic Theory, Contemplative Prayer. And other random ramblings.

Sunday, 13 August 2017

Sermon at Parish Mass, the Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary 2017

Revelation 11:19-12:6,10
Galatians 4:4-7
Luke 1:46-55

I try to hide it but you may just have picked up that I’m a fan of all things Italian, and also of the Renaissance, the great movement of art and culture that had its birth in Italy but influenced the whole of Europe.
However, when it comes to the Renaissance artist Botticelli, I must admit my keenness wobbles a little. Yes, he has the human warmth and realism that the Renaissance introduced to art. But his paintings are always a bit, well, busy. The Birth of Venus, la Primavera, the Mystic Nativity (what’s that all about?). I tend to sympathise with Irene Coles, EF Benson’s fictional avant-garde artist, who described Botticelli’s Venus as an “anaemic flapper”. Picture her, standing in her seashell, wearing a 1920s cocktail dress, and you’ll get the idea.
However, there is one painting by Botticelli that I love, and it is his “Madonna of the Magnificat”, currently in the Uffizi gallery in Florence. It depicts the Virgin Mary with the Christ Child on her lap, and facing her is Saint Luke, shown as a young man, and of course various angels crammed in to fill up the available space – it is still a Botticelli.
In the scene as Botticelli depicts it Saint Luke has been writing his gospel, and he has just got to the bit we heard today, Mary’s great song of praise when she visited her cousin Elizabeth, the song known as the “Magnificat” from its first word in Latin.
At this point, Luke has stopped writing, and has handed the book and pen over to Mary. And she is shown writing her own words, the words of the Magnificat, into Luke’s Gospel, whilst the light from heaven shines on her head, and the Christ Child on her lap guides her hand as it writes.
In this painting Mary is shown as a Bible writer, an inspired author of sacred scripture. And not just any part of scripture. The Magnificat, along with the Psalms, is part of the daily prayer of the Church. From very ancient times it has been the culminating moment of evening prayer, sung or prayed every day. And what better way is there to round off each day, filled with God’s mercies, than in Mary’s hymn of triumphant thanksgiving?
So Mary’s inspired words are not simply part of an ancient text for us to study. They are part of the living prayer of the Church, giving thanks for the reality of God’s saving love, every day.
But it is not only in her words that Mary is a part of the living church. It is above all in her self, in her person, that she stands at the heart of the Church. Raised to the glory of heaven, she is not taken out of the Church, but has entered fully into what the Church really means, what the Church will be in eternity. The gathering up of all things in Christ, the life of the world to come, is promised in the fullness of time, but is shown to us already in Mary.
In her life she was completely conformed to Christ by grace, as the whole Church will be at the end of time.
Consider the exalted language with which scripture talks about the Church. In Ephesians 5, St Paul uses marriage as an illustration, “Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her, in order to make her holy by cleansing her with the washing of water by the word, so as to present the church to himself in splendour, without a spot or wrinkle or anything of the kind—yes, so that she may be holy and without blemish.” The book of Revelation speaks of the, “holy city, the new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, prepared as a bride adorned for her husband”.
In God’s providence, Mary is the disciple who shows to us already what the Church in its fullness will be.  In her, the Church is already presented to God “in splendour, without a spot or wrinkle… holy and without blemish”. In her the Church is already the “Bride adorned for her husband”.
The Church is Christ’s body, and everyone reborn in Christ is a member of that body. This is a great mystery. The Church is not a human club. It is the new creation into which all humanity, and all the universe, is called. To be in the Church is to participate in Christ, the God-Man. It is to be, in him, the visible sign of God’s kingdom in the world, just as Jesus was in his earthly life in Galilee. It is to suffer with him so that we might be glorified with him.
It is even to take part in his redeeming work. St Paul in Colossians 1 says “in my flesh I am completing what is lacking in Christ’s afflictions for the sake of his body, that is, the church”. Christ could have redeemed the universe all by himself, and indeed in principle he has done so. But he has chosen to include his Church in that work, so that all his members may participate by grace in what he is by nature. This truth is so immense that St Augustine speaks of Jesus and the Church together as forming “the whole Christ”.
We struggle towards this goal by grace. The Holy Spirit is turning us into Christ, but that is not for us sinners the work of a moment.
But in the Church God has willed that there should always be a disciple, a human being incorporated in Christ, in whom all these things are already fully true. That disciple is Mary. If Jesus is the head of the Church, then she is its heart, a heart without spot or blemish, both the sign and the foreshadowing of the Church in its perfection.
Mary stands at the heart of the Church, hands uplifted in prayer, turned always towards the Lord, praying with us and for us her song of praise, proclaiming to the end of time that the almighty has done great things, and holy is his name.
She is part of the Church as it stands in the world as the visible sign of God’s kingdom. She is part of the work and witness of every Christian disciple, the heart that beats the life-blood of grace around the body. No-one is an ambassador for Jesus Christ without Mary. The world received its redeemer through her, and it is through her still, with and in the whole Church, that he is made known.
Outward devotion to Mary expresses this truth, and reminds us of her participation in the redemption of the world. The angelus and the rosary, litanies and pilgrimages, are personal devotions, which will appeal differently to each. It is the liturgy that expresses what the Church is corporately. And Mary runs all through the liturgy.
She is named in the Eucharistic prayer at every Mass. She is there prominently at Christmas and Epiphany. She is there, too, at the wedding at Cana, and at the foot of the Cross, sharing in the sorrows of her Son. She is there with the disciples praying on the day of Pentecost. She is there in her feast days and memorials throughout the year, most especially today. She is there in her Magnificat, her song of praise that is on the lips of the Church as the sun goes down on each successive day.

We are all ambassadors of Jesus Christ, not alone, not as individuals, but as the Church. And therefore we are ambassadors with Mary, who stands at the heart of the Church as the first and greatest ambassador for her Son. To be disciples of Jesus means that we must take Mary with us. Or, rather, we must follow where she leads, so full of joy in the good news that nothing can stop her running with great haste to sing her song of praise that never ends.

Sermon at Parish Mass the Transfiguration of Our Lord 2017

Daniel 7.9,10,13,14
2 Peter 1.16-19
Luke 9.28-36

I’m indebted to Fr Peter Anthony, the vicar of Kentish Town, for a theological conundrum. If one of the disciples present at the Transfiguration had had a camera, could they have photographed it? There is no definitive answer, but in general Western theologians tend to say yes, it was an external phenomenon, but Eastern ones says no, it was an interior experience.
How you answer reveals different approaches to seeing. In the West, we tend to think of sight as processing something external to us. In the East, it is much more an interior experience, an act of contemplation, not just taking a look but attending deeply to what is really there.
The East is probably nearer to the Biblical idea of seeing. We have to forget Newton’s optics. Sight was thought of as a ray coming out from the eye, exploring and encompassing that which is seen. This explains what may seem to us to be a puzzling saying of Jesus, in Matthew 6, “The eye is the lamp of the body. So, if your eye is healthy, your whole body will be full of light; but if your eye is unhealthy, your whole body will be full of darkness”.
To see something is to touch it, to hold it. This is the root of the word “behold”. Ultimately to see is to take the thing seen into yourself. To see another person is to share their life at a deep and mysterious level. True seeing in this sense is something interior and spiritual, an experience of communion.
A camera lens cannot do this – all it can produce is a static record of a moment that is already past. It is not an opening to communion. A camera can take a picture, but it can never behold.
This is why the Bible says so much about seeing, and the beauty of God. “I saw the Lord!”, cried the Prophet Isaiah. This is spiritual seeing, not physical, an interior experience, for God is the author and source of all beauty, and his beauty is entirely that of the Spirit.
It is also why the Bible is concerned about the abuse of seeing, through lust and covetousness. Jesus says that just to look at another person with lust is already to have committed adultery in your heart. It is to attempt to hold a person, to internalise them as a mere commodity. Its result is the opposite of communion, to which all true seeing should lead.
Seeing, then, is something that changes the beholder. The Transfiguration changes the appearance of Jesus, his face and clothes. But it is not any change in Jesus himself. He is in fact what he always has been, the Son of God from all eternity, and the Son of Man since his incarnation. The voice from heaven has already proclaimed him to be this, at his Baptism.
Nothing has changed in Jesus. When the message from heaven is repeated at his Transfiguration, it says what has always been true. What has changed is that the disciples are seeing it for the first time. The Divine light has entered them, and they are being transformed by it, so that they can see Jesus as he really is.
True seeing is a spiritual and interior transformation. It requires training, a life of prayer and co-operation with grace. At this point in the gospel story it is only the three inmost disciples who attain to this vision, Peter, James and John. They have been prepared by their closeness to Jesus and his teaching for their inner eye to be opened. But true seeing also requires persistence. The same three disciples will fall asleep in the Garden of Gethsemane, not staying awake to pray.
Nevertheless the vision of God, the seeing that transforms, is the goal of the spiritual life, even if our glimpses of the Divine are fitful and brief, and we too often fall back into spiritual sleep. The whole of the life of grace is a tale of gradual transformation, lamented falls alternating with hesitant advances. But through it all the Spirit of God is working. As St Paul says in 2 Corinthians, “all of us, with unveiled faces, seeing the glory of the Lord as though reflected in a mirror, are being transformed into the same image from one degree of glory to another; for this comes from the Lord, the Spirit”.
St Paul says this when speaking of the ministry the Church has received, the work of justification, that is, of putting the world at rights with God. It is not any qualities of our own, but the transformation worked by the Spirit, that is the source of “the confidence that we have through Christ towards God”.
The Church is called to be the visible sign of God’s kingdom in the world, just as all disciples are called to be ambassadors of Jesus Christ in our daily lives. But we can only be this by the work of the Spirit, changing us into the image we reflect, the Divine Son with whom the Father is well pleased.
This is why the mission of the Church absolutely has to be rooted in prayer and the life of the Spirit. Nothing else will do. Without the life of the Spirit, whatever outreach we engage in, whatever projects we may devise, are simply not going to open people to the vision of God which transforms. At best, we will achieve a good piece of social work. There is nothing wrong with social work, but, without interior transformation into the image of Christ, it is not the work that the Church has been given to do.
In order to be ambassadors of Jesus Christ, in order to be the Church in the world, we have to allow the Spirit to work in us, just as the disciples on the holy mountain had done.
How do we do this? The usual ways. Conversion of life, constantly turning away from the things that diminish communion and towards the Lord who calls us to himself.
Prayer, opening our hearts to the Lord, beholding Christ with the eye of the spirit. This opens us to the deep experience of communion, the seeing that transforms. Prayer takes time, both time every day and time throughout our lives, patient waiting on the Lord as St Peter says in this morning’s reading, “You will do well to be attentive to this as to a lamp shining in a dark place, until the day dawns and the morning star rises in your hearts”.
And the sacraments. Living our baptism, which is our primal once-for-all illumination. Holy Communion: not just as a matter of form, but coming to the Eucharist with real intention and hunger for the Lord, who gives according to our capacity to receive. And the sacraments of healing and confession, according to our need. It is all work, the work of a lifetime, but most fundamentally the work of the Spirit in us.

The only church that will transform the world is a Church that lives from the deep experience of the seeing that transforms, of being changed into the image it reflects, from glory to glory. The world awaits the salvation that comes from the light and holiness of God. And, by God’s providence, every disciple of Jesus Christ has a part to play in that, through their own transformation into the image of Christ, the Lord. The world will know its Lord through those who have learned to see him as he really is.

Thursday, 3 August 2017

Sermon at Parish Mass Trinity 7 2017

1 Kings 3.5-12
Romans 8:26-39
Matthew 13.31-33,44-52

This is our third week of parables; but in fact it is the last part of a series of parables that Jesus teaches in one day in Matthew’s Gospel. Taken all together, the parables form a course of teaching that draws us into the deep meaning of the Kingdom of Heaven.
In the previous parables we have learned how not to think, the ways in which our perception is skewed and needs to be transformed in the light of the Kingdom. The Parable of the Sower taught us that life is not limited by death, the resurrection enables us to live with the limitless generosity and hope of Jesus. The Parable of the Wheat and the Weeds warned us against a dualistic mind-set, dividing humanity into “us” and “them”.
To enter the kingdom of Heaven, we have to let go of our previous misunderstandings, to be “transformed by the renewing of our minds” as St Paul says (Romans 12.2). It is only when we have left behind an imagination bounded by death and dualistic thinking that we can begin to grasp what the Kingdom might be.
The mustard seed is a weed that nobody would choose to plant, in fact it was not kosher to sow it among your crops – but that useless weed becomes the Tree of the Kingdom that shelters all. The weed that is cast out is Jesus – a scandal to a dualistic mind-set, but the secret of the Kingdom to those who believe. Jesus is the Kingdom in person – human nature perfectly united with Divine nature in one person, and therefore enacting God’s rule in his life.
We have learned from the parables not to think about “us” and “them” in terms of our fellow human beings. In Jesus, the ultimate dualism is broken down, that which divides God from humanity. The Kingdom of Heaven is Jesus in person, God and humanity can no longer be spoken of as “us” and “him”; there are no longer two, but one.
Like the yeast in the dough, the union of God and humanity in one person is a seemingly small and invisible thing that acts on and transforms everything. The Church – the disciples of Jesus – becomes the dough leavened all through, participating in the union of God and humanity by the grace that works in secret.
Then follow the two little jewels of parables, one sentence each: the treasure hidden in the field, and the pearl of great price. And here we come to the heart of the teaching of the Kingdom.
First of all, note that the Kingdom is something happening. It is not a treasure hidden in a field, or a pearl of great price. It is like someone finding these things. The Kingdom of God is not a still-life picture, but something active and dynamic, an act of discovery and revelation.
We can come across it in different ways. The treasure in the field is something found, seemingly, by accident. Someone just came across it without looking for it. But that discovery changes everything. He sold everything that he had to buy the field.
The pearl, on the other hand, is something that a merchant has been looking for all his life. And this discovery, too, changes everything. He was in search of fine pearls; now, to gain just this one, he sells all that he had.
The Kingdom of God is the discovery that just one thing is worth giving up everything else. What is that one thing? It is the weed that becomes the tree of the Kingdom, the yeast that leavens the whole dough. It is the union of God and humanity, made real in Jesus, the Divine and human in one person, a union extended by grace to all who believe.
The Christian tradition insists that union with God surpasses anything we can comprehend. God is beyond our understanding. We cannot know him by intellectual knowledge, but we can know him by the knowledge of the heart, by love. The way of union passes through the Cloud of Unknowing, forgetting what lies behind and reaching out to that which is before, so that we can know God by love, in the union of the heart. This is exactly the path that the parables trace. The path to union is prepared for us in Jesus Christ, and we enter through our adoption in him, by faith and grace.
But the Kingdom of Heaven is not, of course, individualistic fulfilment. We do not vanish into vague self-absorbed navel-gazing. Quite the opposite. The Kingdom is a society, it is in fact human society as it was meant to be, living out God’s rule because it is living in perfect union with God in Christ. The values of the Kingdom: good news for the poor, the binding up of the broken hearted, setting the captive free, all these are rooted in and flow from the union of God and humanity which is already established in Jesus, and in which we come to share by grace.
The scribes trained for the Kingdom bring out of their treasure what is new and what is old. The discovery of the Kingdom is rooted in the tradition we have received, the scriptures, the law and the prophets. All spoke of it; all proclaimed its values. We have to know the tradition and live it well, in order to inherit the kingdom. But we also have to move beyond, to what we had never guessed. In Jesus, the Kingdom is made real, and its secret heart, the union of God and humanity, is opened to all, a wonderful and unlooked for discovery, the hidden treasure, the pearl of great price.
“Have you understood all this?”, ask Jesus today. The parable of the good fish and the bad, with which Matthew’s gospel ends this day of parables, is a test of that. Have you got the point that the parables have been exposing to us the ways in which we do not understand? Union with God, the secret of the Kingdom, cannot be attained by intellectual knowledge, but only by love; and Jesus opens the heart of that love for us to enter in.
Then, we will be ready for those moments of discovery and recognition that are God’s gift to us as we follow in his way and leave our illusions behind.
Like the merchant who spent his life searching for fine pearls, it can take time and persistence. There’s a story of a hermit on Mount Athos, the monastic centre in Greece, who spent years in his hermitage on a mountain fasting and praying and practicing austerities in his search for union with God. And then one day after a shower of rain he looked out of his cell and saw God in a puddle of water. 
On the other hand, like the treasure hidden in a field, sometimes God catches up with us without us even knowing that we were looking. As that great spiritual master of the 20th Century, Winnie the Pooh, put it, “Sometimes, if you stand on the bottom rail of a bridge and lean over to watch the river slipping slowly away beneath you, you will suddenly know everything there is to be known.”

The parables teach us to be like scribes trained for the Kingdom, rooted in the treasures that are old, the tradition of the scriptures, the law and the prophets, living them well, being transformed by the renewing of our minds. Because that way we will be watchful and ready for the new treasure, the pearl of great price, the secret of the Kingdom in Jesus Christ our Lord.