Saturday, 23 July 2016

"The deeply material relationship": on Mary and the Body of Christ

As catholicity and covenant prepares for a short break, first for a holiday and then my yearly retreat, words from +Rowan at a 2008 ecumenical conference in Lourdes, 'Mary and the Unity of the Church':  

And so let's focus just for a moment on this significance that is to be found in the relationship with Jesus not being abstract. When God's people relate to Jesus Christ, they do not relate to an idea or an ideal, they don't even relate to a distant memory: they relate to a bodily person in material history; and unless there is that relationship with the material, historical actuality of Jesus, our faith is thin and empty, it becomes a faith which is essentially just about our ideas (and the one thing the Gospel is not is a reaffirmation of the brightest and the best ideas that human beings have had!) And in this respect once again we are reminded, perhaps rather uncomfortably, that the unity of Christians is much more than a unity of ideas. It's no accident that the greatest New Testament image for the unity of Christians is the Body of Christ: because that first relationship with Jesus that we encounter in the New Testament is the deeply material relationship of Mary to the child she carries. And whatever is true of our unity and our relation with Christ and with one another in the Church, it is somehow more like that kind of unity, that kind of blood within an organism, than it is like the agreement of individuals about their ideas. Our Lady becomes both the supreme example and the supreme symbol of life shared with Jesus Christ, a life shared not in the mind but in flesh and blood, not by hearing words alone, but by that sacramental life of the Church which binds us together as we eat the same food and are held together in that organic reality which is Christ's body.

So as Mary tells us something about communion and its centrality in the communication of Christ's life, and as Mary shows us a pattern of the outpouring of the Spirit immediately creating relationship with Christ in those around, so too Mary reminds us that that relationship is deeper than ideas alone. Mary points us towards that sacramental life in which we truly become Christ's body, over and over again becoming what we already are, becoming what (as St Augustine says) is 'on the table and in the cup', that single reality is both what we are and where we are.

Friday, 22 July 2016

Encountering Life with St Mary Magdalene

At the Holy Eucharist on the feast of St Mary Magdalene

Song of Songs 3:1-4 - Ps.42:1-10 - John 20:1-2, 11-18

"I have seen the Lord!"

Mary Magdalene's exclamation in the Gospel for her feast brings John's Gospel back to its beginning.

"No one has ever seen God.  It is God the only Son, who is close to the Father's heart, who has made him known" [1].

And now, St Mary Magdalene, beholding the Crucified and Risen One, confesses "I have seen the Lord!" ...

For it is here, in the Cross and Resurrection of Jesus the Christ, that God is made known.

This is the Christian proclamation - that in these events of Cross and Resurrection, God is revealed.

If we stop there, however, we can be left with a God only active and encountered in the past - in those events of the first Good Friday and Easter.

Present to Mary Magdalene, but not to us.

For there is, of course, a difference between Mary Magdalene and us ... she was there.

Mary Magdalene can say "I have seen the Lord!" ... but how can we?

How can we share in the experience of Mary Magdalene at the tomb?

"Now on the first day of the week Mary Magdalene came to the tomb ..."

A place of death, and of Resurrection life.

St Paul tell us, "we have been buried with him by baptism into death, so that, just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, so we too might walk in newness of life".

We too, like Mary Magdalene, have been to the tomb, the place of burial ... and the place of Resurrection.

It is the Font, where the Christian life begins in union with the Lord's death and resurrection.

"I am ascending to my Father and your Father."

Jesus' words to Mary Magdalene, to be shared with the apostles, echo words he spoke on the night of the Last Supper:

"if I do not go away, the Advocate [the Spirit] will not come to you" [2].

Jesus' ascension - our humanity in him participating fully in the life of God - leads to the outpouring of the Holy Spirit ...

God present and active in the life of the Church.

This gift of the Spirit is bestowed particularly in Confirmation, strengthening us for the life of discipleship.

So we too, like Mary Magdalene, participate in the promised gift of the Holy Spirit.

"Mary stood weeping outside the tomb."

Her tears are those of despair ... of life now again given over to those demons and that brokeness which had scarred her past.

As she weeps, "Jesus said to her, 'Mary'."

Here hope touches the depths of her being - demons and past brokeness will not define her ... Resurrection will.

This is what happens to us when, following the confession of our sins, we hear the words of absolution address us.

Then our wounds are healed, then we are renewed in Resurrection life.

"Jesus said to her, 'Do not hold me'."

Mary Magdalene's encounter with the Risen One is strange.

She does not recognise Jesus, until she is called by name.

And then she - first weeping, now joyful - is told, "do not hold me".

It is a strange presence, not immediately recognisable, not like you or I being present in a place - different, greater [3].

But it is presence, it is encounter.

As it is in the Eucharist, when bread and wine mysteriously, strangely, become infinitely more than their substance ...

When "faith, our outward sense befriending, makes our inward vision clear" [4].

For here in bread and wine, over which the solemn prayer of thanksgiving is offered, we see the Lord, we encounter the Crucified and Risen One.

The Venerable Bede, a great 8th century interpreter of Scripture, says of this passage, "Mary ... stands for the Church" [5].

Her experience at the empty tomb is our experience in the sacraments.

With her, we confess of the sacraments, "I have seen the Lord!"

Here, we too encounter the Crucified and Risen One, and with Mary Magdalene - amidst our fears, anxieties, brokeness - share in Resurrection life.


[1] John 1:18.

[2] John 16:7.

[3] "It remains that Christ's body is not in this sacrament as in a place" - Summa III.76.5.

[4] St Thomas in Tantum ergo.

[5] Quoted by St Thomas in his Catena Aurea on the Gospel of St John.

Thursday, 21 July 2016

The Kingdom, Europe and the polity: renewing the vocation to Christendom

John Milbank's latest ABC Religion and Ethics essay includes the following statement:

... a fully incarnational and sacramental Christianity is bound to be concerned for Europe and her fate. For she remains in a certain way the most exemplary human reality, such that "Europe" is the name of the transmission of Greek philosophy, Roman law and ritual, and biblical revelation.

The article concludes:

... the European passport is a stepping-stone, if not to heaven, then at least to a more sacramentally mediating earth.

This affirmation of the EU flows from his account of Christendom:

... the ecclesia constituted itself from the outset as a new sort of international jurisdiction, aiming, as to earthly purposes, beyond the city and the empire at a more perfect human co-existence and reconciliation, and a more unrestricted, holistic care of the soul and body of every human person, of whatever age and whichever gender.

For this reason a system of dioceses and parishes was eventually constructed.

The secular governance of terrain was now seen as subordinate to the flourishing of this more fundamental social and jurisdictional purpose of the Church. In an imperfect, fallen world, military defence, coercive rule and extreme punishment were seen as necessary to the aims of earthly peace and ecclesial protection (and therefore in a sense, even for salvation) and yet still to be held at a certain distance by the Church which sought, here and hereafter, the deeper justice and peace of entire, though various consensus.

The dual though single realm within which alone the Church might flourish on earth - since any entire secular refusal of its ends, as once under Communism, would prevent its operation - constituted "Christendom" which, since it originally denoted just "Christianity," one might say, can be held to be in existence (not entirely unlike the nonetheless more monistic Islamic umma) in various degrees in different times and places.

But it has most of all been historically realised in Europe - including Russia. 

It is an ambitious account of a catholic Christian vision of the polity - of the need for a renewed vision of Christendom to inform the Church's public witness.  What is more, it coheres with how the Church has historically understood its public mission, articulating what it means in the polity to confess that the Crucified and Risen One is Lord.  It thus provides an answer to question Milbank poses:

is theology confined - after the tepid Anglicanism of William Temple - to enunciating platitudinous general principles, that may be variously interpreted according to the facts and expert analysis of any given geopolitical situation?

Despite catholicity and covenant's Remain vote, and the reasons for that vote, Milbank's insistence that 'Europe' must be understood as 'EU' does need to be questioned.  As Milbank himself notes, the historic realisation of Christendom in Europe has "includ[ed] Russia".  Indeed, without such inclusion - in the words of John Paul II - "Europe has two lungs, it will never breathe easily until it uses both of them".  The EU, however, has defined itself over and against Russia, particularly in recent years contrasting its liberal values with those of Orthodox Russia.  If the EU is an expression of Christendom, it is a Christendom quite definitely breathing with only one lung.

Furthermore, Milbank admits that there has been a "drift towards a neoliberal Europe", seen not least in the TTP agreement, through which " the EU has ultimately betrayed itself". 

Historian Tom Holland has also highlighted a key weakness in identifying the EU as building block of renewed Christendom:

A continent that had come to pride itself on transcending history had no wish to dwell on the more embarrassing aspects of its own past. In 2003, when the first draft of a putative E.U. constitution was drawn up, its authors were happy to acknowledge Europe’s debt to ancient Greece and Rome, and to salute the achievements of the Enlightenment—but of the Christian roots of European civilization not a mention was made. The implication was obvious: Everything between Marcus Aurelius and Voltaire ranked as backwardness and superstition. Europe’s values had to be reckoned not sectarian, but universal—or they were nothing.

He then goes on to contrast how peoples were received into Christendom with how those today become European:

Baptism offered any pagans who wished to take their place among the ranks of the Christian people a ready entry visa ... Today, though, in a Europe that has ceased to be Christendom, no ritual comparable to baptism exists—nor could possibly exist. The nearest equivalents may be the classes given in Norway to refugees about the principle of sexual consent, or the cards issued by the Austrian government to migrants advising them that it is perfectly permissible for two men to kiss. Whether these rituals will inspire new arrivals to do as the Hungarians and Vikings did, and abandon the convictions and conventions of their homelands, only time will tell. If ideas of freedom and tolerance fail to gain universal acceptance, it may once again become necessary to acknowledge explicitly the Christian faith that was their wellspring and may yet prove to be their mainstay. 

There are, then, quite serious weaknesses in proposing the EU as a form of Christendom.  Brexiters, however, cannot take heart at this.  For Milbank's key point remains:

a fully incarnational and sacramental Christianity is bound to be concerned for Europe and her fate.

Few Brexiters have expressed any authentic interest in exploring what it means to be concerned for Europe outside the EU.  The UK and EU in trading partnership does not equate to being concerned for Europe - it is, rather, an even more emaciated understanding of Europe than that articulated by those who support an aggressively secular vision for the EU. 

If Brexit does occur - and, unlike Milbank, I cannot see how this cannot occur in light of the popular vote of 23rd June - there will be a renewed obligation on the churches of those parts of these Islands which leave the EU to engage in reflection, study and dialogue to answer Milbank's call - what does it now mean for a fully incarnational and sacramental Christianity in the lands of the United Kingdom to be concerned for Europe and her fate?

As we must, for, as Milbank states, "because theology is not neutral in its attitude towards geopolitical terrain".  Related to this aspect of the Church's public mission, Holland refers to "those who find the pieties of Europe’s liberal society boring".  Outside the violent minorities of Neo-Nazis and Islamists, such boredom is becoming more obviously mainstream and prevalent, and understandably so.  The homo economicus view which has shaped contemporary European politics and the EU project has left the citizenry dissatisfied and unfulfilled, seeking a sense of 'we', of a deeper, more authentic meaning and purpose in the life of the polity.

The Church colludes with the homo economicus view, with the boring "pieties of Europe's liberal society", when it fails to offer a 'thicker' vision of what life in the polity should mean in light of the Cross and Resurrection.  The foundation for that 'thicker' vision of Europe is obvious - in Chartres, Westminster Abbey, St Basil's in Moscow; in the patron saints of continent, nations and regions; in Clovis, Alfred the Great and Tiridates of Armenia; in stained glass and icons; in Gregorian chant, Choral Evensong, Bach and Orthodox chant.  Europe's physical, cultural and spiritual landscape has been shaped by the confession of the Crucified and Risen One. 

Renewing this insight, imaginatively reintroducing it to the citizens of a flattened and disenchanted Europe, should be part of the Church's public mission.  Alongside this, flowing from it, must be a renewed vision of what Europe is - of nations, polities, societies and cultures viewed from within the reality of Incarnation, Cross and Resurrection.  The alternative would seem to be a tepid Christianity - not living out Incarnation and sacrament - colluding with the boredom of secular pieties, unwilling to speak the soul of Europe.

Wednesday, 20 July 2016

The passion of the King of Ai

The king of Ai was taken alive and brought to Joshua ... And [Joshua] hanged the king of Ai on a tree until evening; and at sunset Joshua commanded, and they took his body down from the tree, threw it down at the entrance of the gate of the city, and raised over it a great heap of stones.

Joshua 8:23 & 29

The Church of Ireland daily office lectionary is presently working through Joshua at Morning Prayer, but this section of chapter 8 was omitted from today's reading.  It is, of course, one of the 'texts of terror'.  The Canaanite city of Ai is put to the sword by Joshua.

The total of those who fell that day, both men and women, was twelve thousand - all the people of Ai (8:25).

Against the general background of Daesh atrocities, against the particular background of Nice, it would have made for painful, uncomfortable reading.  And that is perhaps one reason why it should be included in the daily office lectionary - to confront us with religious violence not as 'other', but as a phenomenon known to the Hebrew and Christian scriptures; to demonstrate that the Christian narrative embraces this world in which religious violence is a continuing, bloody, painful reality.

This embrace is not, however, merely at the level of inclusion of reference to acts of religious violence in the Scriptural narrative.  Something much more radical occurs.   St Thomas tell us that the Lord's Passion was fitting because "this kind of death responds to very many figures" (Summa III.46.4).

And [Joshua] hanged the king of Ai on a tree until evening; and at sunset Joshua commanded, and they took his body down from the tree, threw it down at the entrance of the gate of the city, and raised over it a great heap of stones.

The King of Ai - condemned by God's people, a victim hung from a tree, outside the city, buried in a hastily arranged grave before sunset - becomes a figure of the Crucified.  Read apart from such topology, the incident becomes either a triumphalised account of religious violence or an invitation to incipient Maricionite hermeneutics.  The Church can practice neither of these readings and yet be faithful to the Crucified and Risen One.  Alternatively, the account is ignored, handing it over to the New Atheist critique of the evil of religion.

Balthasar states in his Theo-Drama Vol. IV of the work of René Girard:

Girard’s is surely the most dramatic project to be undertaken today in the field of soteriology and in theology generally. In his view, world history and all the values realized in it are based on a primal tragedy that has now been disclosed; it comes to a climax - and this is also its turning point - in the tragedy and rejection of Christ.

The tragedy of the King of Ai becomes a part of the Mystery of the Passion.  The Mystery of the Passion embraces the darkness of the killing of the King of Ai - the Crucified God embraces the nameless King of Ai, and the tears and hellish fear of his people slaughtered by Joshua.

There is the divine irony, Yahweh's answer to the fate of Ai.  Another Joshua - Yeshua - will become the Victim, answering the pleas of Ai's king and people that they be not forsaken.

He descended into hell.

And there Ai's king and people would have recognised the One who was in solidarity with them, the Victim who - like them - was handed over to brutal and bloody death. And there, in "an action which plants within eternal death a manifesto of eternal life" (Balthasar in Mysterium Paschale), Ai's king and people can recognise this Joshua/Yeshua as the One who comes not to condemn but save, the One who brings not death but life.

Tuesday, 19 July 2016

"As from a spring pouring life abundantly"

On the feast of Gregory of Nyssa, words from his On the Holy Spirit, against the Macedonians.  Here Gregory points to the gift of life bestowed in Baptism as witness to the divinity of the Holy Spirit - it is a wonderful example of understanding the sacraments as experience of participation in life of the Triune God.

Then let us look to this too. In Holy Baptism, what is it that we secure thereby? Is it not a participation in a life no longer subject to death? I think that no one who can in any way be reckoned among Christians will deny that statement. What then? Is that life-giving power in the water itself which is employed to convey the grace of Baptism? Or is it not rather clear to every one that this element is only employed as a means in the external ministry, and of itself contributes nothing towards the sanctification, unless it be first transformed itself by the sanctification; and that what gives life to the baptized is the Spirit; as our Lord Himself says in respect to Him with His own lips, It is the Spirit that gives life; but for the completion of this grace He alone, received by faith, does not give life, but belief in our Lord must precede, in order that the lively gift may come upon the believer, as our Lord has spoken, He gives life to whom He wills. But further still, seeing that this grace administered through the Son is dependent on the Ungenerate Source of all, Scripture accordingly teaches us that belief in the Father Who engenders all things is to come first; so that this life-giving grace should be completed, for those fit to receive it, after starting from that Source as from a spring pouring life abundantly, through the Only-begotten Who is the True life, by the operation of the Holy Spirit. If, then, life comes in baptism, and baptism receives its completion in the name of Father, Son, and Spirit, what do these men mean who count this Minister of life as nothing? If the gift is a slight one, they must tell us the thing that is more precious than this life ...

So that if these despisers and impugners of their very own life conceive of the gift as a little one, and decree accordingly to slight the Being who imparts the gift, let them be made aware that they cannot limit to one Person only their ingratitude, but must extend its profanity beyond the Holy Spirit to the Holy Trinity Itself. For like as the grace flows down in an unbroken stream from the Father, through the Son and the Spirit, upon the persons worthy of it, so does this profanity return backward, and is transmitted from the Son to the God of all the world, passing from one to the other.

Monday, 18 July 2016

Versus populum - an invitation into the Mystery

Does versus populum undermine the mystery of the Eucharist?  It is the implicit question certainly in the ongoing debate amongst our Roman Catholic brothers and sisters regarding Cardinal Sarah's suggestion regarding ad orientem.  And even if Anglican reflection on ad orientem is thankfully free of culture war dynamics, here too the suggestion is present - that ad orientem more significantly embodies the mystery of the Eucharist than versus populum.

Now, yes, certain interpretations of versus populum do indeed - intentionally or otherwise - detract from the mystery of the Eucharistic celebration.  There is a 'flattening', even disenchanting, pragmatism that can be seen in some explanations of versus populum.  But need it be so?

In a Catholic Herald piece discussing Cardinal Sarah's call, Fr Mark Drew pointed to the practice in the early Roman basilicas in which ad orientem was not the norm:

The Roman basilicas were an exception, because the overriding concern there was to locate the altar over the relics. Celebrant and people may indeed have faced each other over the altar.

Here was a sense of encountering the mystery of Cross and Resurrection in this location, sanctified by the blood of the martyrs.  Versus populum embodied this.  While the average parish church is not built over a shrine to ancient martyrs, it is a place of witness and encounter - sanctified by prayer, sacrament, proclamation of scripture, by hope-filled burial of the faithful, by the prayers of its patron.  Versus populum can embody this sense of encounter here, in this location.

Related to this is the emphasis placed by Martin Thornton on the local parish as the Church Catholic:

.. the relation between the Catholic and parochial organism is seen to be one of recapitulation or microcosm: ideas constantly recurring in Christian theology ... St Paul addresses the local churches with 'Ye *are* the Body of Christ' - no mere portion of it, still less a group of individuals within it, but the complete Body in microcosm. 'The local church would be regarded by Saint Paul not as one element of a Catholic confederacy but as the local representative of the one divine and Catholic society.' (Gore, Epistle to the Ephesians) And if this applies to Ephesus and Corinth, it applies equally to Little Puddlecombe parish and St Barnabas, Barchester ... If the whole Body is complete at every altar, the whole communion of saints are in attendance at every altar.

If ad orientem witnesses to the 'yet to be' aspect of the Church's identity and vocation, versus populum witnesses to the fulness that is received in Christ in baptism and eucharist, "the riches of the glory of this mystery, which is Christ in you, the hope of glory".

Finally, we can also consider Augustine's teaching on the eucharist:

That bread which you can see on the altar, sanctified by the word of God, is the body of Christ (Sermon 227);

What you can see here, dearly beloved, on the table of the Lord, is bread and wine; but this bread and wine, when the word is applied to it, becomes the body and blood of the Word (Sermon 229);

There you are on the table, and there you are in the cup (Sermon 229).

The mystery of the eucharist is made present in visible signs - "there .... on the table, and there ... in the cup".  Augustine's use of "see" emphasises this.  Beholding the visible signs draws us into the eucharistic mystery.

The rubric before the Prayer of Consecration in 1662 shares something of Augustine's emphasis:

When the Priest, standing before the Table, hath so ordered the Bread and Wine, that he may with the more readiness and decency break the Bread before the people, and take the Cup into his hands, he shall say the Prayer of Consecration, as followeth.

This Bread, this Cup, they are the Body and Blood of Christ, on this Table.  Versus populum, then, is no denial of the mystery, but an invitation to enter it as we see and behold.

Whatever the theological and liturgical case for ad orientem, eucharistic communities in which versus populum has been the norm for some time would be potentially confused and disoriented by a change to the eastward position.  The potential for misinterpreting such a change (i.e. as an expression of clericalism) is also significant.  Where it is normative - as is the case in many catholic Anglican parishes and cathedrals - ad orientem should flourish.  Where it is not, however, we should heed Fr Mark Drew's advice:

It is difficult to ignore the fact that reverence, awe, a sense of mystery and transcendence have become all too rare in many of our celebrations. “Facing east” is not the only way to restore these vital elements in our liturgy. But those who are reticent about this return to tradition might seek to find other ways of redressing the balance.

One way of redressing the balance is to practise versus populum and teach it so as to emphasise that it embodies rather than denies the Mystery.  The parish as the place of encounter, the recognition of the parish as the Church Catholic, the recovery of an Augustinian emphasis on seeing and beholding - these can lead to an enchantment of versus populum.

(The fresco is 11th century, from St Clement's, Rome.)

Saturday, 16 July 2016

"Brief mysteries, but great ones"

As for what you heard at the Lord's table: The Lord be with you is what we say both when we greet you from the apse, and as often as we pray; because this is what we need, that the Lord should always be with us, because without him we are nothing. As for what sounded in your ears, notice what you say at God's altar. You see, we are somehow or other questioning you and admonishing you, and we say, Up with the heart. Don't put it down below; the heart rots in the earth; lift it up to heaven. But up with the heart, where to? What's your answer? Up with the heart, where to? We have it lifted up to the Lord. You see, this business of up with the heart is sometimes good, sometimes bad. How can it be bad? It's bad in those people of whom it is said, You cast them down, while they were exalting themselves (Ps 73:18). Up with the heart, if it isn't to the Lord, is an act not of justice, but of pride. And that's why, when we say Up with the heart, because up with the heart can still be a matter of pride, you answer, We have it lifted up to the Lord.

So it's a matter of condescension, not elation; and because it's a matter of condescension that we should have the heart lifted up to the Lord, does that mean we have done it? That we have been able to manage it all on our own? That we have lifted up the earth which we were right up to heaven? Perish the thought! He did it, he condescended, he put out his hand, he stretched out his grace, he caused what was down below to be up above. That's why when we said Up with the heart, and you replied We have it lifted up to the Lord; to stop you claiming the credit for having the heart lifted up, I added, Let us give thanks to the Lord our God.

These are brief mysteries, but great ones. I call them brief, but they are great in their meaning and effect. After all, you say these things very quickly, and without a book, and without a reading, and without long discussion. Remind yourselves what you are, and in whom you ought to persevere, so that you may attain to God's promises.

From St Augustine's Sermon 229a, on the introductory dialogue to the Eucharistic prayer.