Friday, 6 May 2016

"Pregnant with mysteries": on the patronage of St John the Evangelist

At the Holy Eucharist on the patronal feast of St John in Eastertide [1]

Genesis 1:1-5, 12-14 - Ps.92:1-2, 11-14 - John 20: 1-8 [2]

Each time we gather here for the celebration of the Eucharist ...

We cannot but see the symbol of the eagle.

It is the symbol of the patron saint of our parish, St John the Evangelist.

From from early in the church's life, St John was represented by an eagle.

Already in the 4th century, St Augustine would say:

"John ... soars like an eagle above the clouds of human infirmity, and gazes upon the light of the unchangeable truth with those keenest and steadiest eyes of the heart" [3].

When 9th century Irish monks came to write the Gospels in the beautifully illuminated Book of Kells ...

The opening page of St John's Gospel is beside a depiction of a majestic eagle.

And in the pages of St John's Gospel we encounter both soaring heights and insights worthy of eagle-like sight.

There are hints of this in the Scripture readings for today's feast.

We soar with St John in the famous words which open his Gospel, "In the beginning was the Word".

For here St John brings us to see anew the beginning of Genesis ...

The God whose Word in the beginning created all that is, who said "Let be be light!"

This Word, says St John, is "life, and the life was the light of all people".

St John soars in the opening words of his Gospel, and we soar too ...

Beholding Jesus as the Life and Light celebrated in the beginning of Genesis, now dwelling amongst us.

Our Gospel reading then shows that eagle-like sight.

We stand at the empty tomb.

John has previously told us that the tomb stands in a garden.

A garden becomes the place in which Life is encountered.

As it was in the beginning, when Adam and Eve were placed in the garden.

But now we are brought to a renewed garden, the location not of our fall but of our resurrection ...

The garden in which an empty tomb proclaims the fullness of life for all.

St Augustine says of St John's Gospel that is "pregnant with mysteries" [4].

It is the soaring nature of this Gospel and it's eagle-like insight which result in it having this character ...

"Pregnant with mysteries".

For a parish community with St John the Evangelist as a patron, it is a call for us to be likewise.

To be pregnant with mysteries.

At the font where new life is bestowed ...

At the altar where we behold the bread of heaven and the cup of salvation ...

In the contemplation offered by Choral Evensong or Compline ...

When lives shadowed by sickness or brokeness are anointed with oil ...

When words of absolution and blessing touch lives ...

When the words of Scripture are read, at once ancient and ever-new ...

Surrounded by saints reflecting wondrous light ...

With the beauty of music leading us to wonder and desire ...

When the mysteries of the Creed are confessed ...

In the stillness of this parish church during a weekday ...

This is what it means to be a community with St John the Evangelist as patron.

To be a community, a place pregnant with mysteries ...

In which we encounter the God of Incarnation and Resurrection ...

The God who dwells amongst us, the God who brings us the fullness of life.

A community, a place to soar, to discern, to encounter.

Aided by the prayers our patron, St John the Evangelist, may we, may this place ...

Continue to be pregnant with mysteries for all who share in our life, worship, prayer and silence.

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[1] The feast of St John in Eastertide was previously St John before the Latin Gate (as in 1662).

[2] The readings, particularly appropriate for Eastertide, are those provided in the Anglican Church of Canada's For all the Saints.

[3] St Augustine in his Harmony of the Gospels 1.6.9.

[4] St Augustine's phrase "pregnant with sacraments" is here rendered "pregnant with mysteries", to better reflect his wide-ranging use of the word 'sacrament'.  The phrase is found in Tractate15.

Thursday, 5 May 2016

"Now our nature is worshipped in the heavens"

Do you see then to what height of glory human nature has been raised? Is it not from earth to heaven? Is it not from corruption to incorruption? How hard would not someone toil in order to become the intimate friend of a corruptible king here below? But we, although we were alienated and hostile in our intent by evil deeds, have not only been reconciled to God the Father, through our Lord Jesus Christ, but we have also soared aloft to sonship, and now our nature is worshipped in the heavens by every creature seen and unseen. 

St Ephrem of Syria

Wednesday, 4 May 2016

"Lively sight and sense": Traherne on Rogationtide

From Thomas Traherne's instructions regarding Rogation Days, in which he presents Rogationtide as a time when with "lively Sight and Sense" we are led to rejoice in the created order as gift of God's "Wisdom and Love to us":

And certainly in this the Wisdom of the Church in Infinite. For she leadeth us in the circuit of all his Mercies; And having upon other H[oly] Days brought us by Degrees to things Past, our Saviour's Nativity, Circumcision, Epiphany, or Manifestation & to other Divine Spiritual and Celestial Blessings in the Saints and Apostles, to the Commemoration of his Cross and Passion, to the Joyful Prospect of his Resurrection, & in all those to Spiritual Joys, Sublime Feasts, & Heavenly Treasures: She now leads us by the Hand to the Sight & Possession of Temporal Delight & Earthly Blessings even to present Affairs in the Dispensation of His Providence, & the Visible Beauties of His Works beneath, which in their proper Season come also to be Remembered.  For it is not only our Gold & silver & the things in our Houses, that will make us Happy; without a lively Sight and Sense of the Benefits which He hath prepared abroad, & by giving which He hath Magnified the Greatness of His Wisdom and Love to us.

That "lively Sight and Sense" is ours through the Church "hav[ing] Ordained also Procession at this time", which is "an Act of Thanksgiving by Joining His Praises to so convenient a Season".

There is something delightful here about Traherne's emphasis on joy in the physical coming through the physical act of procession, seeing, gathering around, standing in and amidst that which is the gift of "Wisdom and Love to us"

(From Denise Inge's Happiness and Holines: Thomas Traherne and his Writings.)

Tuesday, 3 May 2016

Herbert on Rogation, blessing and re-enchantment

It is noteworthy that Herbert's defence of the Rogation processsion in The Country Parson is immediately followed (xxxvi) by his defence of the priestly act of blessing, "effectually applying God's favour to the blessed".  He presented Rogation as primarly an act of blessing - "First, a blessing of God for the fruits of the field".  He then interestingly goes on to relate the absence of the practice of blessing to "coldness, and Atheism". It is suggestive of how a culture of blessing is a means of re-enchantment, of blessing as an act which leads away from (in Taylor's terms) the buffered to the porous self:

The Country Parson wonders, that Blessing the people is in so little use with his brethren: whereas he thinks it not onely a grave, and reverend thing, but a beneficial also ... Now blessing differs from prayer, in assurance, because it is not performed by way of request, but of confidence, and power, effectually applying Gods favour to the blessed, by the interesting of that dignity wherewith God hath invested the Priest, and engaging of Gods own power and institution for a blessing. The neglect of this duty in Ministers themselves, hath made the people also neglect it; so that they are so far from craving this benefit from their ghostly Father, that they oftentimes go out of church, before he hath blessed them. In the time of Popery, the Priests Benedicite, and his holy water were over highly valued; and now we are fallen to the clean contrary, even from superstition to coldness, and Atheism. But the Parson first values the gift in himself, and then teacheth his parish to value it.

Monday, 2 May 2016

"In our bread and drink is he": the homily and Rogationtide

God hath not so created the world, that he is careless of it; but he still preserveth it by his goodness, he still stayeth it in his creation. For else without his special goodness it could not stand long in his condition ... If his especial goodness were not everywhere present, every creature should be out of order, and no creature should have his property, wherein he as first created.  He is therefore invisible every where, and in every creature, and fulfilleth both heaven and earth with his presence: in the fire, to give heart; in the water, to give moisture; in the earth, to give fruit; in the heart, to give his strength; yea, in our bread and drink is he, to give us nourishment. where without him the bread and drink cannot give sustenance, nor the herb health.

From 'An Homily for the Days of Rogation Week, the First Part', in the Book of Homilies.


Saturday, 30 April 2016

Once there was no secular: Rogationtide and May Day

Beginning with Hooker, a radical insistence on the mingling of Christ's human and divine natures that later gave rise to an "incarnationalism" and "kenoticism" refusing - often in contrast to the intellectual and spiritual betrayals perpetrated by Catholic baroque scholasticism - any facile separations between the sacred and the secular or between faith and reason, grace and nature. 

Thus does John Milbank identify one of the characteristics of Anglicanism.   This weekend is evidence of Anglican resistance to the 'facile separation between the sacred and the secular'.  Tomorrow is Rogation Sunday and - by happy coincidence this year - Monday is the May Day holiday.  Both Rogationtide and the May celebrations were defended by the Anglican settlement against 'godly' critics.

The 1559 Injunctions restored Rogation ceremonies, "common perambulations, used heretofore in the days of rogations":

... for retaining of the perambulation of the circuits of parishes, they shall once in the year at the time accustomed, with the curate and substantial men of the parish, walk about their parishes, as they were accustomed, and at their return to the church, make their common prayers.

The 1618 Book of Sports defended the traditional May Day customs:

And as for Our good peoples lawfull Recreation, Our Pleasure like is, That after the end of Diuine Seruice, Our good people be not disturbed, letted, or discouraged from any lawfull recreation, Such as dauncing, either men or women, archery for men, leaping, vaulting, or any other such harmlesse Recreation, nor from hauing of May-Games, Whitson Ales, and Morris-dances, and the setting vp of May-poles & other sports therewith vsed, so as the same be had in due & conuenient time, without impediment or neglect of Diuine Seruice: And that women shall haue leaue to carry rushes to the Churches for the decoring of it, according to their old custome.

Both practices affirmed a rejection of the separation of sacred and secular.  The Injunctions restored Rogationtide, the old ceremonies to seek blessing on the land and labour of the parish.  The Book of Sports judged May Day joy in the coming of spring - "honest mirth or recreation" as the Book of Sports describes it - to be "lawfull or tolerable in Our Religion", with no impediments to be placed in its way by the 'godly'. 

What is more, the means of restoring Rogationtide and of affirming the old May Day customs was itself witness to a rejection of a facile separation of sacred and secular.  To state the obvious, the Injunctions were a proclamation of Elizabeth I, the Book of Sports the work of James I (and reissued by Charles I).  In many ways exemplifying Hooker's vision of the Royal Supremacy, the Injunctions and the Book of Sports embodied - both in means and content - that vision of the baptised polity that the Lawes suggested to be a defining characteristic of the reformed ecclesia anglicana

In his critique of the accusation of the 'godly' that the Book of Common Prayer included too many petitions "for earthly things", Hooker refers to the liturgy "respecting what men are" (V.35.2) - embodied creatures in the midst of the material order.  Our prayers for earthly things "taketh therewith the souls of men as with certain baits": the material, then, becomes the means of encountering the Divine. 

Rogationtide and May Day witness to nothing less than the hypostatic union of the divine and human natures in the Incarnation.  When the land of the parish was blessed, when the Maypole was set up and the parish church decorated with those rushes, it was an affirmation of the material participating in the light, grace and goodness of the Triune God. 

The Rogationtide provisions of the 1559 Injunctions and the Book of Sports tell us that once there was no secular.  Reflecting on how the Church might imaginatively keep Rogationtide in the early 21st century, and sanctify and make space for celebrations of the warmth and longer days of spring, might perhaps aid in piercing the dullness of the secular age with the vision of "all things" manifesting "beneficence and grace in them" (Lawes I.2.4).

Friday, 29 April 2016

"I find only mercy": Catherine of Siena and Jesus of the Passion

At the Holy Eucharist on the commemoration of St Catherine of Siena, 29th April 2016.

Today we celebrate the witness of Catherine of Siena, Teacher of the Faith.

In many ways, she seems an odd choice.

The century in which she was born and in which she died, the 14th century ...

Is filled with the names of great theologians, engaging with the flowering of Christian theology that had occurred in the previous century.

But today we turn to a young Dominican nun, who only learned to read and write, with great difficulty, in adulthood.

Catherine died at the age of 33.

So there was no long career of writing theological treatises.

And, to state the obvious, she was a woman ...

In an age when Church and culture were inherently sexist, when there was profound suspicion of women exercising any kind of authority.

This at least partly explains why ecclesiastical authorities interrogated her for suspected heresy.

In her short life time, however, Catherine was already recognised as a spiritual guide and counsellor.

Bishops and priests, kings and queens, sought her out as a spiritual director.

The heart of Catherine's appeal is hinted at in today's collect:

God of compassion, who gave to your servant Catherine of Siena a wondrous love of the passion of Christ [1].

Catherine's life of prayer was profoundly centred on the Cross and Passion of Jesus.

Here we can see something of a new direction in Christian spirituality.

Classic Christian spirituality of the previous millennium, regarded the Cross as the place of victory.

Depictions of the crucifixion showed Christ reigning from the Cross ... not in agony, but in majesty.

Catherine exemplifies the change.

"Remember Christ Crucified", she wrote, "Make your aim the Crucified Christ; hide in the wounds of the Crucified Christ and drown in the blood of the Crucified Christ" [2].

It's not the restrained, sober language we associate with Anglicanism, is it?

Such an emotive devotion to the wounds and passion of Jesus seems to be not really 'us'.

But then we might think of the words of the Prayer of Humble Access, used in the traditional Communion liturgy:

that our sinful bodies may be made clean by his body, and our souls washed through his most precious blood [3].

It's a spirituality, in other words, not as alien to us as we might think.

It also challenges those presentations of the Christian faith which can lead to a perception of a distant, disengaged God, aloof from the world's pains.

Catherine's world needed a different God to this, a flesh-and-blood God who knew the world's travails.

She lived in the century of the Black Death, which killed one-third of Europe's population. 

Amidst this sorrow and fear, Catherine pointed not to a cold, aloof deity, but to the Crucified One ...

God in the flesh, immersed in the world's pain, bringing redemption to our darkest experiences.

It was also the century of the Hundred Years War between England and France, a time of conflict ...

And a century of profound division in the Church, with three rival popes.

Not so very different then to the world we know - power, division, conflict, religious tensions.

Catherine points to the Crucified One and tells us that meaning is found not in power, institutions and empires - but in the One who is Love.

She points to the Jesus of the Passion - the One who in the midst of sorrow and darkness utters no curse, but forgives.

In our own time, rather than being shaped by the forces of power, selfishness, fear and division, we too need the Jesus of the Passion - the One who is abundant mercy.

For then, in Catherine's words, "No matter where I turn to think, I find only mercy".

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[1] From the Common Worship collect.

[2] This and the concluding quote from St Catherine are taken from Benedict XVI Great Christian Thinkers: From the Early Church through the Middle Ages.

[3] From the Prayer of Humble Access in Eucharist Order One, BCP 2004, p.187.