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

Saturday, 25 March 2017

Homily at Parish Mass, the Annunciation of the Lord 2017

Isaiah 7.10-14
Hebrews 10.4-10
Luke 1.26-38

“In the sixth month the angel Gabriel was sent by God to a town in Galilee called Nazareth.” As soon as today’s Gospel reading begins, we are anchored in time and space. The sixth month, in Nazareth.
And we might add, as we do on Christmas night, “In the one hundred and ninety–fourth Olympiad; the seven hundred and fifty–second year from the foundation of the city of Rome; the forty–second year of the reign of Octavian Augustus; the whole world being at peace”.
It is very specific. The eternal God enters time and space, and necessarily does so in one time and one place. God becomes anchored in this world. The Word becomes flesh, not as an idea, but as someone dwelling among us. From now on, God has an address, and a diary.
But we might ask, why then? Saint Paul in Galatians says, “when the fullness of time had come, God sent his Son, born of a woman”. Humanity had been around for countless thousands of years, but this crucial saving moment waits for the “fullness of time”. What is that?
The first thing to say in response is of course that God is God and we are not. God alone sees all. We accept as a matter of faith that Divine providence disposes all things for the best, though we do not always see that for ourselves.
But we can say, looking at the grand sweep of history, that this was a singularly fitting moment. God’s revelation of himself had been gradual, over thousands of years preparing humanity for the fullness that we might not have been able to bear all at once. The spiritual inklings and yearnings of every race and culture have always led people towards God, even if in obscure and partial ways.
In that grand scheme one particular race and culture, the Jews, had been chosen by God to receive a fuller revelation, the Law and the Prophets, revealing God as One, the absolute act of existence in himself, upholding a revealed standard of worship, righteousness and integrity.
Jewish people had spread throughout the world, East and West and North and South, taking with them that revelation. Their faith shone like a beacon through the fog of a pagan world that had forgotten its ancient wisdom and grown old and weary amid debased barbaric rites. All over the world Gentile believers, the “God-fearers”, gathered to the Synagogues to hear that saving truth.
With the rise of the Roman empire much of the known world was united in one common language, easy travel and communication. The world was ripe for God’s full revelation of himself. It was primed for the start of a new movement bearing that revelation that would spread like wildfire, the movement that we call the Church.
So in the sense of history the fullness of time certainly had come. But there is a deeper meaning too. Time is what human beings inhabit, what the Bible calls the “aeon” – this age or dispensation of the world. The fullness of time is the culmination of the age of yearning and hunger for God, the fullest extent of humanity reaching out to the Divine.
It is Mary herself who is the fullness of time in that sense, the culmination of the human age. She stands on the pinnacle of our reaching towards God. She is our mouthpiece and representative in that moment. Preserved by God’s prevenient grace from sin she is the first of our race able to say “yes” to God in complete freedom and simplicity. And she does so. In the words of an Orthodox hymn, she “has given answer for the whole of creation to the redeeming love of God”.
And in that moment of the Annunciation the fullness of time, given expression by Mary, is answered by the fullness of God, the Second Person of the Trinity emptying himself to become human in time and space in her womb.
Time, the human age, this present dispensation, is not enough. We yearn for God but cannot reach him. And so God comes to us, joining his nature to ours in one person, so that all human nature can be adopted in Christ as children of God and heirs of eternal life.
The Annunciation is the meeting point of time and eternity, where the fullness of human longing, powerless by itself, is met and raised up by the fullness of God. From that meeting point everything flows. The life and teaching of Christ, his foundation of the Church, the sacraments and scriptures, our adoption in Christ, the life of God himself open to every human being. All that flows from and is made possible by this moment.

No wonder the Church says the Angelus, the commemoration of this moment, almost obsessively, morning, noon and night calling to mind that moment when the handmaid of the Lord said, “be it unto me according to your word”, and the Word was made Flesh and dwelt among us.  For that meeting point, the intersection of time and eternity, is where the Church lives, and where our true life is to be found, the fullness of human longing taken up into the fullness of the life of God.

Homily at Parish Mass, Lent 3 2017

Exodus 17:1-7
John 4:5-42

What do we most deeply desire? Our gospel reading this week is a story of desire, but as we read it our understanding of desire is transformed.
Jesus begins with bodily need, for water. It is midday, he is tired out by his journey, and he is sitting by a well. He needs a drink, and asks a woman who comes to the well to draw water. So far, so everyday.
But Jesus uses this situation, and his natural thirst, to explore a deeper thirst, our need for God. As he did with Nicodemus last week, he speaks of the life that is “from above”, the life of the Spirit. This is the living water Jesus gives, which becomes in those who receive it “a spring of water gushing up to eternal life”.
This is in truth our deepest need, and it is our deepest desire, though we may not know it. Our desires need to be trained and transformed, our minds opened to the life “from above”. Our bodily desires and needs may be what we are most immediately aware of, but they are not what we most deeply need. They belong to this life that passes away; they will not give us eternal life.
But this does not mean that the body and its needs are evil. One of the central truths of Christianity is that creation is good. The good things of this life are to be received with thankfulness, as gifts from God our loving creator. And they are to be used and shared generously, for God gives them generously.
But it is also true that our natural desires are disordered by sin. We tend to desire, not what we need, but what other people have got. This leads to envy, rivalry, conflict and violence, feelings often focussed on some scapegoat or outsider against whom the violence is turned. Our rivalrous desires create victims. This is the exact opposite of the generous desire of God, who gives himself without ever being diminished.
In the words of Saint Augustine, we are “turned in on ourselves”. Our desires need to be converted, turned outwards in generosity and love. If we do that, then our natural desires open to us our deepest desire, the desire for God. The thirst for the water that the body needs uncovers for us the deeper thirst for the life of the Spirit. This is the life of grace, which is not opposed to nature, but heals and perfects it.
The woman in today’s story brings up with Jesus an ancient rivalry between the Jews and the Samaritans, “Our ancestors worshipped on this mountain, but you (Jews) say that the place where people must worship is in Jerusalem.”
Her desire is for God, but that desire is trapped in a rivalrous understanding. There is no answer to her argument, because the argument itself is wrong. “The hour is coming when you will worship the Father neither on this mountain nor in Jerusalem [but]… in spirit and truth.”
Her complicated relationship history, too, hints at the destructive effects of disordered desire. She has had five husbands and is now with a man who is not her husband. There is nothing in this gospel reading, by the way, to suggest that this is her fault. In a patriarchal society she is likely to be the victim of the rivalrous desires of these various men. And this has left her as something of an outcast, as she comes to fetch water on her own in the midday heat, instead of at dawn with the other women of the town.
Jesus cuts through all that tangled history, and all the social conventions about not associating with Samaritans and not speaking to women. Jesus leads her to her deepest desire, the living water gushing up to eternal life.
Discovering our deepest desire for God reorders and converts our lesser desires, and changes our priorities. The desire for God leads us to the living source, the spring of water gushing up to eternal life. This is deeper than the desires of this passing life. It is not contained in outward forms of worship. The mountain where we worship God is not enough for us: it is God himself who alone can satisfy our need, in spirit and in truth.
In Lent we are thinking about the question, “what do we need to flourish as a church?” Today we think about our deepest desire, our desire for God, and how that desire is satisfied for us as a church. What for us unseals the living water? What refreshes and renews us spiritually?
As a church of the Catholic tradition in the Church of England we have a particular style and approach to our worship. The Sacraments are central to our worship, though that of course does not exclude Bible reading, prayer, meditation and service to others. What aspects of our life as a church help us in our quest for God? What other resources might help us from elsewhere, from other traditions, or perhaps even from outside the church altogether?
And we need to think too of what might get in the way, and of when attachment to outward forms might become an obstacle. We share our building with Grace Church, whose evangelical tradition is very different from ours. We are reflecting on what helps us to flourish as part of the wider question of what it might means for our two churches to flourish more fully together.
We need then to be aware of the kind of rivalry and polarisation that the Samaritan woman imagines about her own tradition – should we worship God on this mountain or in Jerusalem? The reply of Jesus speaks to us, too. Neither on this mountain nor in Jerusalem: we are to seek the Father in spirit and in truth. Outward forms and traditions are meant to lead us to God, but if we become attached to them they will stop us reaching our goal.
So in twos and threes, please, could you talk for about five minutes about the questions on the news sheet:
         What practices, devotions and kinds of worship quench your spiritual thirst? What, for you, helps to satisfy your need for God? They may be things we do in this church or from somewhere else, or from outside the church altogether.

•         How could we build on these things at St Peter’s, or use them if they are not already part of our life?

Homily at Parish Mass Lent 2 2017

Romans 4:1-5, 13-17
John 3:1-17

Nicodemus “came to Jesus by night”. Picture the scene. No modern urban street lighting, dark streets, dark houses, perhaps a single flickering lamp shedding its light on the two faces bent together, intent in conversation.
Night and darkness have a great dramatic power in John’s Gospel. In his prologue, which announces the Word made flesh, the light of the world, we are told that “The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it.”
So when John tells us that something happens by night, he’s more than just telling us the time of day. Night has a profound spiritual significance. And John places only two scenes in his gospel at night. This meeting with Nicodemus, and the betrayal by Judas. The night is a time of fear when evil can seem triumphant. If Jesus is the light, then night, in John’s gospel, is symbolic of turning away from the light.
So Nicodemus comes by night, and we are meant to understand the spiritual meaning of this: Nicodemus has yet to realise that Jesus is the light of the world. But it also is a dramatic device: it suggests fear, a furtive meeting, in secret.
But whose fear, and why? Nicodemus was a leader of the people, a member of the religious elite – people who had a position in society and wanted to keep it.  They were on the watch for subversive movements and rebel leaders who might turn the people against them, or against the Roman occupying power, which would be just as dangerous.
So what is going on when Nicodemus comes to Jesus by night? Is he genuinely interested in Jesus? If so he puts himself at risk by visiting him, if he is found out. Or is he a spy sent to find out what Jesus is about and report back? If so, then the meeting is dangerous to Jesus.
And yet Jesus shows no fear. This scene is laden with ambiguity and risk. But Jesus nevertheless imparts to this dubious visitor the heart of his teaching: the need to be “born from above” and share the life of the Spirit. The most famous verse in the Bible, “God so loved the world that he gave his only Son”, is entrusted to someone whose motives are altogether unclear. And Jesus does this without fear. Why? Because he believes what he is teaching.
He knows that the true secret of his life is “from above”. His is the life of the Spirit, the life of God. The secret of his life is inextinguishable, inexhaustible. And that life is love:
“God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life. Indeed, God did not send the Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him.”
This is why Jesus is not afraid. God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved. Those who believe in Jesus are saved by being born from above, by being admitted to the secret source of life that is God, eternal, inexhaustible, completely immune to all threats that might be made.
What, then, is there to be afraid of? Nothing. Not even death can take away the secret source of life in God, the life born from above.
Notwithstanding the unknown motives of his guest, Jesus speaks without fear. Notwithstanding what will happen to him on Good Friday, foretold in his saying that the Son of Man must be lifted up, Jesus goes on through his life following his Father’s will to the end. Jesus can live as if death were not, because he knows the secret of his life and being is utterly secure. It is the life of God, which can never be extinguished.
So this scene by night, ambiguous and threat-laden, is a scene in which Jesus nonetheless lives without fear. It is Nicodemus who comes “by night”; the night relates to him, not to Jesus, because Nicodemus is still trapped in the fear of a life bounded by loss and death. And, as a leader of the people, he has more to lose than most – or so he thinks.
I wonder what resonances this scene has for us, if people know that we are Christians and come to us asking, perhaps very tentatively, about our faith. We could be afraid for various reasons: the fear of ridicule, or of being thought odd. The fear perhaps that we might not have the answers they are looking for. Or just old fashioned British embarrassment at talking about religion.
Next time that happens think of this scene, the meeting between Jesus and Nicodemus. The fear is all on Nicodemus’ side, the enquirer who comes by night. The world we live in is full of fears and anxieties, people live their lives bounded by fear, ultimately the fear of death.
If they come to us as Christians, perhaps it is because they have caught a hint, however remotely, that we are people who have been let in on a secret. That secret is living without fear, because “God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life”. If that is what your friends are seeking when they come to you “by night”, then tell them about it.
To discuss in twos or threes:
     What are the fears of our own society, and how might they impact on our witness to the Gospel?
•       In our daily lives how can we make known the love of God without fear?