SACRAMENTS – RECONCILIATION

INTRO So far we have reflected upon the ‘Sacraments of Initiation’ – the Sacraments that plunge us into the holiness of God, gift us to witness to the all Holy God and nourish that holiness in us and the community of holiness, the Church. But we know only too well that our dark shadow side is not far away and that gift of Holiness is being undermined and diminished by what we call ‘sin’. But there is a remedy, a healing of the inner person: the Sacrament of Reconciliation (or as it used to be called, ‘Confession’). Sadly it has become a very neglected Sacrament for a variety of reasons: partly because of the superficial manner of its celebration so many have experienced; partly because sometimes the penitent has not received the merciful non-judgmental welcome they should have done; partly because in recent decades the Church has lost much of its moral authority because of the sins and crimes of clergy sexual abuse. And there will be many more reasons! I hope today we can ‘revisit’ this Sacrament of unconditional love and forgiveness and so discover treasure hidden in a field! But before we do, let us explore a little this famous painting by the Dutch Master Rembrandt and perhaps see how it illuminates the joy and tenderness of ‘homecoming’ which this Sacrament should always be…

[1] Let us begin by asking ‘What is sin’? If God is Love, then all holiness is Love: and therefore sin is by definition to diminishing or rejection of Love. It is not the breaking of rules, civil or ecclesiastical: it is a wilful saying ‘no’ to Love (which may or may not involve breaking rules). Just as ‘love’ is not really a noun – a thing in itself – but rather a verb, the active positive interaction between persons; so sin also is not really a noun – a thing which is sinful – but a verb, the negative action or inaction of person in relationship to ‘another’. For example, stealing is wrong, but is a starving parent who steals to feed their child committing sin? St Thomas Aquinas would certainly say ‘NO!’ Another example: a driver speeding and crossing red lights for the fun of it without any regard to people’s safety is not only breaking a rule, it is sinful. But speeding and crossing red lights because you have a dying person in your car, or a pregnant mother just about to give birth is still breaking the rules but is likely to be a highly commendable and virtuous action seeking to save a life!  Yet the objective action is the same in both cases! Again: missing Sunday Mass because you do not care or as a deliberate rebellion against God is likely to be sinful,  but missing Sunday Mass because you are ill or you are caring for a sick family member is virtuous! Yet the objective action is the same! On a more dramatic scale, abortion is wrong, but the mother (and father?) who genuinely feels she has no alternative, perhaps bullied into it by her parents or partner, is herself a victim. The sin is likely to belong to those who pressurised her, especially as she might carry the inner scars for many years. The words of Jesus, ‘judge not and you will not be judged’ come to mind! So we must make a distinction between wrong actions and sinful people! All sin is a deliberate, knowing and willed diminishing, or denial or neglect of Love. Just as Love is an act of freedom, so is sin – I freely choose! The less freedom (external or internal) that I have the less responsibility for sinning I carry.

[2] The Sacrament of Reconciliation is therefore the sacred encounter with the all-merciful God who receives the ‘gift’ of our sin and transforms it into a door way to love and holiness. It is a meeting with the saving and forgiving Christ alive and acting through His Body the Church in which He seeks to liberate love in us, restore holiness in us, guide us to discover our true self made in the image and likeness of the Divine Love. He is the true and faithful ‘elder brother’ who comes searching for us when we wander away down wrong paths and brings us home to our Father’s loving and healing embrace; He is the Good Shepherd who comes searching for one that has got himself lost and bring us back to the safety of the flock where there is friendship, love and good pasture – companions who welcome us home, and friends who will help and encourage us on our journey in the ways of holiness! Jesus has already carried the Cross of our inner guilt and won the victory that transforms it into peace and holiness – the Tree of Death becomes the Tree of New Life because of the loving embrace of our servant brother and saviour, Jesus! 

[3] When does God forgive us? Is it when we repent?, or when we go to confession? Is it when we recognise we have done wrong and try to change our behaviour or attitude?  NO! The amazing reality of God’s all-pervading mercy is that it predates not only our repentance , it pre-dates our sin! We were forgiven on the Cross of Christ! He has already taken the burden from us. When Jesus cried out from the Cross ‘Father forgive them…’ we were forgiven (Luke 23:34). Love vanquished hate and mercy quenched vengeance – the Victory of forgiveness was won then. ‘It is completed’ (John 19: 30). We do not earn God’s forgiveness by our repentance, by our doing reparation, by performing our penance – for we can never earn God’s love otherwise it would be payment and not love! And the Grace of God’s mercy is a free gift never refused, for God will never ever stop loving us. His Love us not dependent upon our obeying His commandments! Our living Christ’s New Life, New Humanity, is dependent rather on our being loved! Everything in the Christian life, everything in the journey of the disciple is response to the already poured out love, mercy and goodness of God in to our lives. God wants to liberate us from being driven, always seeking to justify ourselves by the work we do for Him. Instead our working for the Kingdom is our response to being loved and desiring with all our heart to share the Good News of the inalienable dignity and value of every person, indeed of all creation. We must stop trying to earn God’s love – that is futile. That is the meaning of Jesus’ parable of the workers in the Vineyard (Matthew 20: 1-15). 

[4] If we are already forgiven, what is the point of going to Reconciliation (or Confession)? It is fascinating that at a time when vicious exposés and public confessions are so popular on TV screens, when there are long waiting lists to see counsellors and psychiatrists, we have neglected the Church’s centuries old healing sacrament of mercy! The purpose of this sacrament is that we might access, receive, the gift already given to us. An analogy: someone gives us a Christmas gift, beautifully wrapped. We were not in at the time, did not notice it lying around somewhere in our home and did not open it. It was given, but we did not receive it. The Sacrament of Reconciliation is not us trying to persuade God to forgive us – it is God trying to persuade us to welcome His forgiveness! In my experience as a priest hearing confessions and celebrating this Sacrament with people for 48 years now, the problem is never with God forgiving us – it is always with us not forgiving ourselves (or others!) and so the sin and guild holds its power to hurt and wound and divide. I think that is what is meant in the words of the Risen Christ to His disciples on that first Easter Evening:  ‘Receive the Holy Spirit. For those whose sins you forgive, they are forgiven; for those sins you retain, they are retained.’ (John 20: 22). Without going into the biblical background of this formula of empowering His Church, it seems to me to contain a warning to us – do not hang on to unforgiveness – of yourself or of others – because then sin retains its power to distort and wound your life, the life of the community, the fabric of creation! Be as generous as the Holy Spirit you have received, the totally unmerited free gift of God’s merciful loving and discover the ‘freedom of the Children of God’ (Romans 8: 14-17 ) as ‘perfect love casts out all fear’ (1 John 4: 18).

[5] Why go to the priest and speak out my failures? This is a question of both of the role and ministry of the priest/shepherd in the Christian community and our need for speaking out our hidden self and finding healing acceptance. In each sacrament the priest represents the community, and speaks in the name of Christ alive in the community of the Body of Christ. He (sadly still only ever ‘he’ in our Church – may the Holy Spirit change us!), he articulates, proclaims to liberating Word of Christ that the Risen Lord speaks to and through that community that is His Body. When the priest utters the Sacramental words of Absolution with (where possible and appropriate) the ‘laying on of hands’, he is not imparting God’s forgiveness (he is not the mediator – for we have only one mediator – the Christ), but he declares that forgiveness to the penitent – and it is the Christ of the Community that embraces the  ‘sinner’. In other words, you and I who are members of the community of Christ’s Body are welcoming home and expressing the free gift of divine mercy and forgiveness. That is why this Sacrament is to build forgiving and merciful parish communities, welcoming each person in their personal chaos (known or unknown). This Sacrament has the power and function of building our parish communities as ‘field hospitals’ of welcoming, accepting and non-judgmental healing love (in the words of Pope Francis). For our sin wounds the Body of Christ. If all sin is a neglect or denial of love and we are all part of building up the Body of Christ in love, then our sin (however hidden) diminishes the reality and power of Love in the Church. We have sinned against our sisters and brothers in the Church, we have wounded the witness of the Church, the Body of Christ to the world as love among us and in us is diminished. That is why in Reconciliation, we go to the community (represented by the priest) with a repentant heart and let ourselves be forgiven by our community who is Christ. Sin is never a private matter between ourselves and God for it always impacts negatively on the witness of love offered by the Church to our world hungry for love. 

[6] We have a human need to speak out our hidden darker side for love’s acceptance to bring us inner freedom. Before God there are no secrets for God knows us through and through and the more He knows us the more God loves us! But we keep our dark secrets, our ‘guilty self’ hidden from sight. This wounds us! This continues to limit our ‘freedom for love’. We need to speak that out in order for light to penetrate our dark shadows, to allow healing balm of love to be poured into our wounded self. The priest is called to be Christ the Good Samaritan, pouring oil of healing and wine of compassion into the wounds our sin has inflicted upon ourselves as well as others. This speaking our truth and having it accepted by another flesh and blood person without judgment or condemnation is the gift offered in this sacrament and the expectation of the Church upon the priest who is called only to minister the unconditional love and mercy of God Who is Love.

[7] The Sacrament of Reconciliation provides also an opportunity to seek guidance especially about moral dilemmas, life choices and spiritual growth. Most people do not have their own Spiritual Director, but the absolute confidentiality of this Sacrament enables a  person to find healing for wounds, wisdom about decisions and a resource to help them identify areas for growth in their inner journey of discipleship. This might concern difficulties in prayer, sharing spiritual experiences, searching out God’s call in our lives and almost anything and everything that affects my growing in love for Christ and walking the Way of the disciple in mission to our world. 

SACRAMENTS – EUCHARIST

INTRO We have explored Baptism and Confirmation – Sacraments of Initiation which lead to and are completed by full participation in the Eucharist. Receiving the Eucharist completes our ‘initiation’ into the Body of the Christ, the Church – by ‘eating His Body and drinking His Blood’ we become His Body and Blood given for the life of the world!

[1] The Greek word ‘Eucharist’ does not appear in the New Testament in reference to the Sacrament (this emerged end of the first century beginning of the second as recorded in the ‘Apostolic Writing’ called the ‘Didache’) – the terms used are ‘the Lord’s Supper’ or ‘the Breaking of the Bread’. ‘Eucharist’ means ‘blessing’ or ‘thanksgiving’ – eg the frequently used Jewish prayer – ‘Blessed are you, Lord God of the Universe’ (like that used in the Offertory of the Mass). It was also used to express thankfulness within the context of human relationships: and of course the Eucharist is the heart and expression of our shared relationships as the Body of Christ, the Church. So the Eucharist is the greatest act of the Church ‘giving thanks’ to God for all the ‘blessings’ showered upon us and the world through His Son, Jesus Christ, and above all by His sacrificial love we see on the Cross. 

[2] The Eucharist finds it origin in the Jewish Passover Meal, which it seems that Jesus celebrated with his disciples in the Upper Room the night before He was crucified (Matthew 26: 26-29; Mark 14: 22-25; Luke 22: 19-20; 1Corinthians 11: 23-25; John 13-17). So we must look first to understand more the nature and significance of the Passover meal.  The Days of the ‘Unleavened Bread’ culminating in the ‘Passover’ were among the greatest of all Jewish Feasts. While lambs were sacrificed (in thousands) in the Temple (at the ‘sixth hour’ onwards John 19: 14), the central focus of the celebration was in the home. For they were remembering and indeed ‘reliving’ that sacred night of Liberation when the Hebrews gathered in their homes, sacrificed a lamb, marked the lintels of the doorposts with blood of the lamb, and remained in the house together, eating in haste, while the final plague (the visitation of the Angel of Death upon the first-born of Egypt) literally ‘passed over’ their Hebrew homes (Exodus 12: 15-50 ). They were saved from death and Yahweh, the God of the Hebrews, won victory over Pharaoh and his gods. The Hebrew slaves were also instructed to bake hurriedly ’unleavened bread’ – the bread of haste, bread for the journey that would not decay and was compact to carry, bread of freedom! So this meal involved a sacrifice, the shedding of blood, the saving of the chosen people from death and their liberation from slavery in Egypt. That night they left the land of oppression and ventured into the unknown to journey towards a land of freedom. They passed through waters of destruction (for the Egyptian oppressors) which became the passage to life and freedom (Exodus 14: 5-15: 20). In this event of human liberation, a loose rabble of oppressed and defeated slaves of Semitic origin escaped from under the noses of the most powerful force in the world at that time, and God was revealed as liberating power who ‘heard the cries of my people’ and acted decisively (Exodus 3: 7-10 ). The people were revealed as ‘chosen’ by God for freedom.  In the annual family ‘Passover’ seder supper, they retold the story, they ‘re-membered’, reconnected, and in doing so considered themselves being liberated, entering into the one saving event of God’s love for His people. Passing the ‘paradigm’ story or event onto a new generation, keeping the memory alive down through the generations so that all experienced themselves as being present that original Passover Night, all went through those waters of destruction and liberation – this was at the heart of the Passover meal.

[3] It was the Jewish belief that the Messiah-King would come at Passover and bring decisively and for ever the reign of God, which would involve the restoration of the people to freedom and the gathering of the Tribes of Israel back to their own soil (see John 6: 1-15). It was on this night, the night of His arrest and trials, as He was about to conquer the greatest enemy (sin, evil and death) that Jesus gave us the Eucharist and told us to ‘do this in memory of Me!’ (Luke 22: 19). He did not choose the lamb of the meal, because He was the Lamb of God to be sacrificed on the Cross; instead he chose the simplest and poorest of elements of the Passover meal – unleavened bread and the wine of rejoicing and suffering, the wine of love. And before He did so, the Messiah King discarded his outer clothes and performed the most menial task of the household slave and knelt at the disciples feet and washed them – as a sign that this was the meal of a new kind of victory – the liberation to become no longer slaves but loving servants of the world.  

[4] Each time we celebrate the Eucharist, we become present to that saving, victorious destruction that became liberation, death that became life, hate that became love – the Cross of Death transformed into Resurrection and the liberation of Life and Love for ever! This is ‘memorial’: we retell the story of Jesus’ death and Resurrection in the Eucharistic Prayer (the section we call ‘anamnesis’ – the ‘remembering’) and so we passover with Him from death to life, from sin to holiness, from disunity to unity in the Body of Christ. We partake of the sacrificial loving Cup of Christ in order to grow as the community of that Great and Liberating Love. In the Eucharist we celebrate God in Christ liberating humanity from all that dehumanises us and oppressed our sisters and brothers (the essence of sin). In the Eucharist we the scattered People of God are gathered together in Love’s unity as we share ‘the one loaf’. In the Eucharist we are fed with this same liberating love so that we can journey through history, building the Earth as the Promised Land of Freedom and Humanity until Jesus comes again!

[5] But we need to remember that Jesus celebrated two Eucharists – the night before He was Crucified in the Upper Room of the Last Supper, and then the evening after He was risen from the dead around the table in the tavern of Emmaus (Luke 24: 28-35). These two ‘instituting’ Eucharists are like two hands that hold the Passover event of Jesus Death and Resurrection. We re-member, immerse ourselves in the one liberating event that is death transformed into Life, slavery into Freedom. And in ‘the Breaking of the Bread’ we recognise the real presence of Christ both suffering among the crucified of our own time risen, alive, healing and liberating among us.

[6] So the Bread we share is healing for the broken, freedom for the oppressed, light for those in darkness, unity for the scattered, food for the hungry, love for the abandoned. The Cup that we drink Wine that assuages the sufferings  of the world, wine that rejoices in new life, the Lord’s cup we are invited to share so that we too will have the same sacrificial love in us that is in Him whom we eat and drink. The table of the Eucharist gathers in unity, a place where all are welcome and all are fed and all can be healed! But all this only if we become Living Eucharist, if we allow our communities to be moulded and shaped into the living Christ, Suffering and Risen in today’s world. The Eucharist must never remain simply a Liturgy – it must become our shared life as witnessing communities of the Risen Christ, powerfully voices for the Voiceless and speaking with the restlessness of the Prophets!

[7] Every Eucharist is a Pentecost – for the Holy Spirit overshadows the community gathered around the Table so that we can become the Body of Christ, so that these elements of our created world – bread and wine can become the Presence and Dynamism of the Dying and Rising Christ. This is expressed by that section in the Eucharistic prayer we call the ‘Epiclesis’, the invoking of the Spirit not just on bread and wine but upon the whole community. In each Eucharist the Church is being born and re-born as we ‘re-member’, reconnect, breathe in that final Spirit-giving Breath of Christ form the Cross (John 19: ). At the heart of our celebration is the sharing of the ‘One Loaf’ and the ‘One Cup’ – sharing our joys and sorrows, and not only ours but that of all the world for Jesus drank this Cup on the Cross and so must we! There should never be a Eucharist where the People are denied the cup (I am not speaking of the extraordinary issues facing us with Covid of course), as there should never be a Eucharist where those hungry for God in the chaos and disorder of their lives (or the so-called ‘irregularity’ of their relationships or sexual identity) are denied a place around the table!

[8] And at the centre of our Worship are the things of the Earth – bread from the fields, wine from the vine-glad hills. The elements of Creation are transformed into Christ’s presence, His Body and Blood. This is the ‘eschatological’ dimension of the Eucharist, the Sacrament of the final transformation of all Creation, when Christ will be ‘all in all’ and gather the whole Cosmos into Himself. The Eucharist we celebrate and share nourishes us with Hope for all creation as we receive Christ’s ‘Cosmic Love!’ (Pope Francis in Laudato si’). The Eucharist having gathered us into unity as the ‘Assembly of God’ sends out re-visioned and re-energised in Mission to transform the world with Gospel Good News and Loving service until the Reign of God’s loving is complete and Jesus comes again transfiguring all Creation into the glory of his Body. The Eucharist forms and send Missionary Community – if we are not missionary communities we have not truly celebrated Eucharist!! Never separate the Eucharist from the formation of Eucharistic Community of Mission.

CHRIST HAS DIED, CHRIST IS RISEN, CHRIST WILL COME AGAIN! ALLELUIA!

SACRAMENTS – CONFIRMATION

INTRO Yesterday we began a series of talks exploring the meaning and purpose of the Sacraments, and hopefully discovering the beauty of God’s work in our lives through these sacred encounters with the living God; hopefully opening ourselves to the working, impact and presence of the Spirit of God who comes as breath of energy, fire of love, water of life. We explored how ‘Sacrament’ is the making visible the invisible action and presence of God in our world, how Jesus is the Sacrament of the Father, the Church the Sacrament of the Christ and each of the Seven Sacraments is making visible the love of God active in our world – through us!

[1] We reflected upon Baptism as the Sacrament of our re-birth – what can be more radical than ‘re-birth’, becoming a ‘New Creation’, experiencing what St Paul calls ‘the revolution of a New Mind’ in Christ. We become a ‘person made new’ – not a different person for our creation, our personality , our uniqueness is God’s great gift to us. No … but we can now live our ‘personhood’ with a new freedom, with a new orientation, with a new purpose. In baptism we know and experience ourselves as loved beyond anything we can imagine, caught up in the endless loving of the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit, Who make their home in the core of my being (John 14: 22 ). Baptism is essentially the Sacrament of our being loved (1 John 3: 1 & 4: 10, 16 ). And this ‘being loved’ is what makes us ‘new’ (2 Corinthians 5: 17, 21  & Rev 21: 5), brings about ‘rebirth’ into a new realm of personal existence (John 3: 3-8) as a child of the Father, sister/brother/co-worker of Christ Jesus, embraced by the Holy Spirit. It is nothing less than being ‘born through water and the Holy Spirit’ (John 3: 5) born from the pierced heart of Christ in the water and blood flowing (John 19: 34) from the right side of the Temple (Ezechiel 47: 1-12) that is Jesus Crucified and ‘lifted up’ in Love’s victory! (John 19: 28-37). In baptism we are literally like a sponge soaking up the waters of God’s Loving of us beyond all measure – the invisible divine reality graphically made visible when as here at St Nicks nearly all our baptisms are by ‘total immersion’.

[2] If Baptism is being a sponge soaking in God’s utterly free gift of Divine Love, then Confirmation is like becoming a hose-pipe carrying that grace, that love and pouring ’it’ (the divine love within us)  out upon the ‘dry ground’ of our world to transform the desert into a land teeming with fertility and life (Ezechiel 47: 9-12 & Rev 22: 1-2). This love so freely by our God given to each of us is of its very divine nature overflowing into our world: it cannot be contained. Just as the Eternal Divine Love exploded into the nothingness to create the Universe (what astrophysicists cal ‘the big bang’ in which the whole Cosmos emerged from nothing into our awesome and beautiful evolving Universe), so the ‘love by which we are loved’ (1 John 4: 10) in our baptism overflows into a world crying out for love, for justice, for freedom, for hope, for healing! In Baptism we receive the gift of God’s Loving – in Confirmation we become part of God’s Loving of the world. In Confirmation we are called not just to receive Pentecost, but to be part of God’s Pentecost, the outpouring of God’s loving, renewing the face of the earth.

[3] Confirmation has sometimes been described as ‘a sacrament looking for a theology’ and yet it carries empowerment for mission, service and prophetic courage! We see in the Acts of the Apostles how baptism in water is often followed by the ‘laying on of hands’ in prayer to receive the gifts of the Holy Spirit (Philip the deacon and then the apostles in Samaria – Acts 8: 4-8; St Paul in Ephesus – Acts 19: 1-7). Sometimes the Holy Spirit ‘falls’ first as the with Peter’s conversion of Cornelius, the Roman Centurion (Acts 11: 44-48 ), followed by baptism and the laying on of hands; sometimes the laying on hands in prayer comes before Baptism – but almost always they are associated together. Are they one ’rite’ or two separate acts? Are we talking about one sacrament or two? Or two sacraments in one action of Initiation? However we answer this theological ‘conundrum’, what is so clear from Scripture is that Baptism and the ‘Laying on of hands’ for the empowerment of the Holy Spirit belong together. Baptism (the ‘lavishing of the Father’s love’ upon us 1 John 3: 1-4) is somehow incomplete without the gifts and charisms of the Holy Spirit empowering our witness to Christ and our serving of the world in its growth and transformation into the ‘liberty of the children of God’ (Romans 8: 20-21). Since the reforms of Vatican II the ancient order of Sacraments of Initiation – Baptism, then Confirmation then Eucharist, celebrated together – has been restored when baptising adults and older young persons. The practice of almost all the Eastern Churches (including the Eastern Rites and Uniat Churches in communion with the Pope) is that babies are baptised, confirmed and given Eucharist together. Historically, as the Western Church grew in numbers it reserved (as a norm) Confirmation to the Bishop. It was then celebrated usually when children were about 13 years old or above (ie when entering on the paths of maturity and adulthood). Confirmation then came to be seen (without theological justification) as a ‘rite of passage’ into Christian adulthood and responsibility. This was further emphasised by the reform of Pope St Pius X (around 1910), encouraging frequent Communion and the admission of children from 7 years old onwards to the Eucharist (itself a great innovation), which had the unfortunate by-product of detaching Confirmation from the completion of the Rites of Initiation in the Eucharist. The Catholic Church is in a process of re-thinking its practice without depriving our children of the ‘Bread of Life and Cup of Love’ that is the Eucharist.

[4] But what is clear is that the ‘laying on of hands and the anointing with Chrism’  (the external physical actions associated with Confirmation) expresses that Baptism brings a responsibility to share the love we have had lavished upon us – to be build the Church as a communion of Love, a community of Mission, a Servant Church in the world, a Prophetic voice proclaiming the Gospel of Justice, Freedom, Humanity – God’s agent of change and transformation bring about the ‘renewal of all things’ (Rev 21: ) until we see the ‘New Heaven and New Earth’ where there ‘will be no more pain or death’  (Rev 21: ). The Gifts of the Holy Spirit released in Confirmation are essentially gifts of ministry and mission. Confirmation is, so to speak, the fulness of our ordination to the Priesthood of All Believers, gifted us to be a ‘People of Hope’ and Communion for Mission’. That is why our celebration of Confirmation employs the same physical actions as the ordination of priests. 

[5] We need to put far more emphasis on the importance of Confirmation as God’s gifting us and sending out to our world to change it! We are called to become God’s Pentecost in the world, to become part of God river of love transforming the desert!

SACRAMENTS – BAPTISM

INTRO We have entered the Church’s first and greatest Novena – to the Holy Spirit in preparation for the Feast of Pentecost. We are opening ourselves and the whole Church (and every parish and Christian community) to the renewing, reforming and transforming power of the Holy Spirit. The Spirit is not a doctrine to be believed so much as a transforming encounter to be experienced. Too many of us expect too little – and are content with a sub-normal Christian experience! Indeed, the sub-normal seems to have become the normal! But the true ‘normal’ is the New Testament experience. May the Holy Spirit become a mighty wind of change in our lives, a powerful flame of love in our hearts and the fountain of Living Water welling up from deep within bringing us fully alive in Christ. So we are going to explore as part of our Novena the Seven Sacraments with a particular interest in the work of the Holy Spirit in each Sacrament.

[1] What is Sacrament? Put simply it is the visibility of the invisible presence of God in you and me and in the community. Jesus Christ, Eternal Word made Flesh (John 1: 14), ‘visible Icon of the invisible God’ (Colossians 1: 15) – He is the ‘Sacrament of the Father’, for ‘to have seen Me is to have seen the Father’ as Jesus told Philip the Apostle (John 14: 9). The Church is the Body of Christ – making Christ visible in the flesh of the contemporary world and in every culture, not just proclaiming Him but manifesting Him, making Him visible to our modern world. Therefore before the Church celebrates sacraments, we are together the Sacrament of Christ, making visible and tangible His Love, His liberating Truth, His Life of Service in the quality of our communities of Mission, Witness and Prophetic Proclamation. Quite a challenge – to live community with commitment and love for one another. The Church’s sacraments are the grace-filled encounters with God that are the nourishment that makes the Church the Sacrament of Christ.

[2] Each Sacrament is an encounter with Christ alive and active in His Body the Church. Every sacrament is the action of Christ in His Body the Church, an encounter with the living God whereby we enter more deeply into the vey Life of the Divine, into the ‘mystery’ of the Trinity, that vortex and energy of infinite Love. Each sacrament is celebrated with ritual composed by the Church because ‘ritual’ is the way we can express the inexpressible, put into shared words what is essentially beyond all words. However, the ritual only is the vehicle carrying the Divine, the Grace, the saving and liberating encounter with the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit. A Devotion is my reaching out to God, while the Sacrament is God reaching out to me and my community. No sacrament is my private affair, not simply my God coming to me – it is always shaping, renewing, building the community of the Church, drawing me more deeply into the community of missionary disciples that is the Church. Every Sacrament builds the Church for mission.

[3] The Seven Sacraments all touch an essential part of our life experience: Baptism and our birth; Confirmation and our maturing responsibility for others; Eucharist and the need to be fed, drawn into community, becoming what we eat and drink; Reconciliation and healing broken relationships; marriage and our growing in loving and life-giving union with another; ordination and our need to be guided, supported, cared for; anointed for healing touching our sickness, frailty and mortality. The Sacraments are not primarily religious rituals but God embracing fundamental moment s and experiences of our life’s journey and as the Emmanuel, being God who walks with us through them on our Pilgrimage of Life.

[4] Baptism, the Sacrament of New Life, drawn into the heart of God. The Greek word ‘Baptizein’ means both immersion and washing, a ‘water bath’. Ritual washing was common in Judaism prior to both John the Baptist and Jesus and indeed was a widespread practice throughout Middle Eastern religions.  The Q’mran community used frequent ritual washings as an expression of purity and faithfulness to God. It expressed a desire for ritual and inner purity, and an expression of ‘repentance’ and forgiveness. These ritual washings were not rites of Initiation into a new life, however, but perhaps more like the Christian practice of frequent confession. It had also become used as a ritual in the conversion of Gentiles to Jewish faith, as a preparatory rite of repentance leading to circumcision (the Jewish rite of initiation for males). John the Baptist appears to have used this sign of repentance while adapting it in his practice of baptising the Jewish people who came to him at the Jordan River – which is why he saw no reason to baptise Jesus as there was no need for repentance (Matthew 3: 13-17). These rites of baptism of repentance are an expression of the recipient’s desire for forgiveness of sin, while Christian Baptism is altogether different: a fundamental turning point in one’s life and immersion into a new realm of existence – the New Life of the Spirit of God. In other words it is God’s action not ours! Of course repentance and forgiveness are elements in entering this new existence but being plunged into an utterly new relationship with the Divine, becoming a child of the Father, brother of Jesus, ’co-heir with Christ’ (Romans 8:), filled with the Holy Spirit – this is Christian Baptism.  Therefore the New Testament makes a very clear and consistent distinction between John’s baptism of repentance and Christian baptism as the once only Initiation into the New Life of Christ: a necessity as the rite of entry into this New Life and the Community of New Life – the Church. This can be seen in Matthew description of the Ascension when Jesus instructs his disciples to baptise in ‘the name of the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit’ as vital in evangelising the nations (Matthew 28: 19). Clearly it was the established liturgical practice of this early Matthean Jewish Christian community. Luke in the Acts of the Apostles also shows the necessity for baptism in the practice of conversion in the earliest Church. Meanwhile Paul develops a profound theology of Baptism in his writings, born out his own experience of his baptism at the hands of Aeneas (Acts) and his missionary experience.

[5] To understand our Baptism into Christ we must look briefly at Jesus’s baptism in the Jordan river. Although conceived by the overshadowing Holy Spirit, Jesus grew into the realisation that He was to give himself decisively to the work and Mission of the Father. He expressed that adult commitment by seeking John’s baptism. But whereas everyone who came to John wanted to repent (it was ‘their action’), Jesus’s baptism was God’s action – the Father spoke of the depth of relationship ‘You are my Beloved Son in whom I am well pleased!’; the Holy Spirit descended over the waters, as at the moment of creation (Genesis 1: 1-2) and again at after the Great Flood in the story of Noah and his Ark of New Creation. This Baptism is heralding a new Beginning for the world, the ‘Recreation of the face of the Earth’. Jesus in his humanity breaks through to a new awareness and experience of his being ‘beloved’ of God who is in the most absolute way His ‘Abba’ Father. In that embrace of Divine Love, He is empowered for the work of Ministry, Mission, He becomes the Servant (Luke 4: 16-22 & Philippians 2: 6-8). A New Era, a New Time, a New Creation has begun. 

[7] Our Baptism is being plunged into the same relationship with ‘Abba’ Father as Jesus’ relationship, heir of the Father, co-heir with the Son as Paul describes (Romans 8: 17). We too are empowered by the HolySpirit, this Divine Intimacy of Love that is Baptism for His Mission, His Servanthood in the world. We are caught up in the inner dynamic of the infinite and eternal Loving relationships of Father, Son and Holy Spirit (‘This is the love I mean, not our love for God but God’s love for us!’ 1 John 4: 10) – which is why we are baptised in the name of the Trinity. Their ‘vortex’ of loving becomes the dynamic and energy and being of our own lives. The Sacrament of Confirmation in the Holy Spirit expresses the servanthood and Mission; our Baptism immerses us into the love of the Father, filling us with that embrace of Love that is the Holy Spirit and preparing us for the Spirit-empowered, Spirit-led Mission of the Gospel. Our ‘servanthood’ our mission flows from being infinitely beloved of God. It s a free gift, not dependent of our ‘performance’ our ‘earning’ of that love (see the Parable of the workers in the Vineyard all receiving the same reward – God cannot give less than everything to us – Matthew 20: 1-16). The repentance and forgiveness of sin that is part of baptism is in preparation (clearing the Highway for ‘the Coming of our God’, as it were – Luke 3: 3-6) for being immersed in the inner life of God who is Love. Baptism is about radical new relationship with God first and foremost.

[8] So being baptised (and every day is our baptismal day as it orients our life once and for all towards that Love we call the Trinity) is the free gift of Divine Loving Intimacy which leads on to mission, the desire to share the Good News of this relationship and build this new World. Baptism makes us a New ‘Being’ while Confirmation entrusts to us a New ‘Doing’. But more about this when we explore Confirmation tomorrow! Baptism is a call to holiness, to live the New Humanity we have received in these Waters of Re-birth. We are made Holy in Baptism: repentance and forgiveness (expressed in the Sacrament of Reconciliation among other ways) are ways of returning to that Baptismal Holiness we have already been given. Baptism is the Healing Sacrament, for the wounds of self-loathing, self-hatred, lack of self-worth are healed as we hear God whisper everyday in the still centre of our being ‘You are my Beloved Daughter/Son – in you I am well pleased!’ Our life of discipleship is first learning how to yield to the gift already given, to that Love, so as to become that Love in mission to the world.

THE ASCENSION OF THE LORD

INTRO We have been celebrating Jesus risen and appearing among His disciples for  a period of 40 days (Acts 1: 3) and today the Church celebrates Jesus return to the Glory of the Father, an event of salvation we call ‘Ascension’. We have the Icon of the Ascension her in this prayer room, beneath our Paschal Candle. As always with icons it seeks to express the mystery rather than illustrate the event. It seeks to proclaim the glory rather than tell us what happened…More clearly perhaps than any other facet of Jesus life – in the flesh or in the Resurrection – the Ascension is so clothed in symbolism that it is clear we are confronted with the early Church’s experience of the Divine mystery and grappling for ways to describe the experience and its effect more than the event itself.

[1] First we need to understand the ‘cosmology’ of the time of Jesus – how they understood the structure of the universe. They saw Creation as in three sections – the flat earth (supported by pillars or huge animals); the ‘underworld’ or ‘hades’ the dark place of half-life where the dead are buried (‘descend’); above a semi-circular dome lit by sun in the day and moon and stars in the night. and Heaven where God and the Angels lived was above the dome looking down on the world and its inhabitants. So Heaven and God where ‘up there’ somewhere, transcendent and beyond, and angels were the messengers who ‘descended’ to communicate messages from the Divine world and then ‘ascended’ to return to God. With this ‘world-view’ or understanding of the structure of the Universe (which was less a scientific than a spiritual understanding) it made perfect sense to think of ‘descending’ from and ‘ascending to’ a place called ‘heaven’. However of course our understanding of the Universe and its structure is vastly different, informed by science. Such a physical ‘ascension’ (like a rocket from Cape Kennedy) makes no sense. So the Ascension of the Lord was a real spiritual experience, but not a physical event. The Resurrection of Christ takes us into a different realm, beyond the normal physical experience into the ‘spiritualisation of matter’, just as the Incarnation itself does. This does not mean that the Ascension is not true – it means that it is truth of a different character. Theological truth and scientific truth are equally God’s truth, for all truth is of God.

[2] It is worth noting briefly that both in the Hebrew Scriptures and in non-biblical literature, ‘ascension’ is not unique to Jesus Christ: in the Bible there is reference to the ascension of both Enoch and Elijah, and of many angels. In extra-biblical literature, both Jewish and pagan, there are many stories of ascension. Clouds, mountains and angels often figure in these stories., as they do in the Gospel Ascension narratives. This shows that the New Testament writers are using a familiar ‘literary form’ or contemporary ‘myth’ to express a profound spiritual experience – just as we see in the passages about God’s creation of the Universe in Genesis ch 1 and 2. However, the key difference in Christ’s ascension is the promise to remain among us, not to leave us ‘orphans’ (John 3: 13-14), but the Ascension was a way of remaining among us in a new and indeed deeper way – indicated by the ‘joy’ which the disciples left the scene and continually praised God in the Temple (Luke 24: 51-53). 

[3] There are essentially three images of experienced ceremonies in the Ancient World of the Middle East that have informed how the accounts of the Ascension experience are expressed in the New Testament accounts. They express three theological dimensions of the spiritual meaning of Christ’s Ascension.

(a) Royal Enthronement ceremony: Ancient Middle Eastern coronation or enthronement ceremonies  involved building a kind of staircase towards the sky and the new King would ascend the staircase and be seated on a throne. Meanwhile priests would burn great quantities of incense that created a cloud into which the King would ‘disappear’ from sight. This ritualised the understanding of the role of kingship: that the King represented his people to God and God to his people. This is how Judea and Israel understood the role of their kings and why the prophets criticised them so much when they failed in this task. The King was therefore a ‘corporate’ person or image – representing the people and exercising the rule of God among them. In that role they were called the ‘Son of God’, adopted as God’s son in their royal role. Their failure to perform this essential role was seen as the cause of the suffering of the whole people. So the Ascension is expressed in the language of the Enthronement of Jesus as the Messiah King – furthermore, it was seen, especially by Mark (who stresses the question – who is this Jesus and portrays Him as being constantly confronted with disbelief to the end even from his own disciples) as the moment when the Father acknowledged Jesus as the Divine Son. Jesus is acclaimed as King of Heaven and Earth and exalting Him as the ‘Name above all Names’(Philippians 2: 9-11) in this most radical ‘lifting up’ (John 3: 13-14). We are gathered into the Ascended, glorified Body of Jesus Christ and we too are enthroned at the right hand of the Father in Christ, as is expressed in our anointing as ‘priest, prophet and king’ at our baptism. The Ascension is the great Feast of Christ the King, the Feast of our human dignity now that our flesh is enthroned at God’s right hand and the Feast of Mission as we are sent to transform our world into that Kingdom of Justice, of Love, of Peace, of Beauty, of Freedom, of humanity’s equality.

(b) Victorious King or General returning from war in a victory procession: when a conquering general returns after the successful campaign there was a triumphal procession – the General comes first, then his troops and then the slaves and captive people and all the spoils of war – the treasures stolen from the vanquished people. He would often ascend a staircase to the enthrone King taking with him the booty of war as a gift to the the King. The Ascension of Jesus is the return of Him who conquered the greatest enemy, death, and brings the ‘captives’ – only we are ‘captured’ by faith and love and ‘captured’ only to be set free with the liberty of the children of God. As Paul writes in Philippians 3: 12 & 14, ‘I have not yet won, but I am still running, trying to capture the prize for which Christ has captured me … I am racing for the prize to which God calls us upwards to receive in Christ Jesus’

(c) The High Priest entering the Holy of Holies in the Temple on the Feast of Yom Kippur (the Great Day of Atonement). In the letter to the Hebrews the sacrificial redeeming work of Jesus is compared to the High Priest (Hebrews 2: 17 & 4: 14), especially on the great day of Atonement – this is the only day of the year on which the Hight Priest was allowed to enter the Holy of Holies in the Jerusalem Temple – to go beyond the curtain into the very presence of the God of Israel. He took with bulls blood as a sacrifice for the sins of the people. At that moment he was in a sense ‘deified’, caught up in the divine. In the Ascension, Jesus enters the real Holy of Holies, not made by human hands, and takes with him the one and only sacrifice – Himself, His own body and blood given for the life of the world, for the redemption and forgiveness of all the sin of the world for all time (Hebrews 9: 11-14 & 23-28).

[4] The Ascension of Jesus is our Mission to go out to the whole world. Each Gospel account of the Ascension of the Lord (and including Luke’s in Acts of the Apostles)  carries with it the ‘Great Commission’ – to go out as witnesses (Luke 24: 47-48 & Acts 1: 8), to make disciples of all nations (Matthew 28: 19-20), to proclaim Good News to all Creation (Mark 16: 15), to be sent as the Father sent Jesus to continue His work (John 20: 21-22). The Church is Mission, before it is anything else. In a sense, Jesus gives us but two commandments – the love one another as he has loved us (ie sacrificially), and to go to the world as missionary disciples of the Victory of Love and so build the Kingdom.

AFTERWORD There are two great questions for us as Christians and as Christian  communities:
Do we live the immense human dignity that is ours expressed by the Ascension of Jesus which is our ‘Ascension‘ into Divine glory (which also means proclaiming and working for the inalienable dignity of every human person, healing people and structures of everything that wounds human dignity)?
Are we truly a People of Mission – is that the first and greatest priority for our parish communities, our over-riding purpose, to be Good News to all Creation, witnesses of a revolutionary New Order, New World which is not fatal utopian idealism or illusion, but authentic Kingdom  Reality?  

MARY – SESSION 15

INTRO We come this evening to the third significant doctrinal definition concerning Mary – the Assumption of Mary into Heaven. Her identity as ‘Theotokos’, ‘Mother of God’, her Immaculate Conception and her Assumption into heaven are all implications of that first ‘Yes’ to God, when Mary, Miriam, Mariam, the ‘Exalted One’ abandoned herself totally to God as the servant (or ‘handmaid’) of the Divine loving design for the world. Each doctrinal statement is a making explicit of Mary’s role in God’s saving work in Christ Jesus. Each statement speaks both of the redeeming work of Christ in her own life and also what it means for the disciple to yield lovingly to God’s work of Grace in our lives.  I would like us to ponder a few moments the Eastern Icon of the Dormition of Mary (the ‘falling asleep’). All the apostles gathered, the angels also – Mary in the midst of the Church on earth and the heavenly host! Risen Christ carrying Mary in his hands to heaven, into the fullness of Life.

[1] The Assumption of Mary. While defined as an essential doctrine of there Church only in 1950 by Pope Pius XII, it has been the belief of the Catholic and Orthodox Churches from very early days and was celebrated as a Feast of the Church before 500AD. This suggests that it was widely held at the same time as the Council of Ephesus in 431 AD. In fact historically this belief has been held and celebrated more universally, with less dispute and for far longer than the doctrine of the Immaculate Conception. The Assumption is the principal Feast of Mary. Many of the medieval churches in England dedicated to ‘St Mary’ were in fact dedicated to the Assumption of Mary, the first in Britain being built in the sixth century in Glastonbury at the summit of Glastonbury Tor. The overwhelming number of medieval or more ancient churches in England that were built on hill tops carry the dedication either of St Michael the Archangel or of St Mary. These hills were often sites of pagan worship and/or occult demon worship.  Early missionaries wanted to ‘purify’ these sites (banish the ‘demons’) as well as Christianise them and so they carry either of these dedications. Michael is the Archangel in Revelations who battles against and defeats the Devil and his hordes and Mary was associated both the Woman in Revelations 12 and the crushing of the serpents head in Genesis. Although the formal definition in the Catholic Church was not until 1950, it was a belief universally held since the early centuries in both Eastern Orthodox and the Catholic Church.

[2] What is defined: ‘The Immaculate Virgin, preserved from all stain of original sin, when the course of her earthly life was finished, was taken up body and soul into heavenly glory, and exalted by the Lord as Queen over all things, so that she might be more fully conformed to her Son, the Lord of lords and conqueror of sin and death’  (Pope Pius XII ‘Munificentissimus 1950). Her Assumption is linked to her Immaculate Conception, which itself is in virtue of her role as ‘Theotokos’, Mother of God. Once more, this doctrine is not primarily about glorifying Mary but about how the disciple participates in and expresses (witnesses) the life and work of Christ Jesus. Mary is the greatest example of the 16th Century Reformer Martin Luther’s fundamental teaching – ‘sola gratia’ – ‘grace alone’. All is the work of the free gift of God’s grace in Mary, in us. As disciples we are gradually transformed in Christ to the point that upon death ‘we shall see him as He really is and become like Him’ (1 John 2: 1-2). The Immaculate Conception is the expression of Mary’s total yielding to God’s grace (‘Rejoice most highly favoured’ Luke 1: 28), God’s redeeming love in Christ from her first moments. This bore the fruit of her womb (Luke 1: 42) – the Incarnation of the Word made Flesh, Jesus Christ, in whom we are all reborn to a new and eternal life. This New Life, this oneness of communion with Christ, this immersion into the life of the Holy Trinity through baptism, comes to its fulness as we journey through death into the Resurrection. Then our identification with Jesus Christ, our participation in His life is completed as we see God face to face and are truly risen to our eternal life in Him. This is our firm belief, this is what we celebrate at every Requiem Mass and every year at Easter and on All Souls Day. We are heirs of the Father, co-heirs with Christ (Romans 8: 17); we beloved daughters and sons of God filled with the vision of His glory and transformed in His love, becoming our true selves in the Resurrection. 

[3] Yet again, Mary’s Assumption is God’s pledge and promise of our Resurrection. She is the fulness of discipleship which finds its fulfilment in Resurrection and an eternity in the presence of God, transformed into the total love that God is in whose image and likeness we have been created (Genesis 1: 27). She is the Sign and Model of the Church, not only in our Earthly Pilgrimage of Faith as disciples; not only in our Mission to bring Christ to birth in every age and culture and people: but most of all in the fulfilment of our lives and the life of the Church in the glory of God’s presence and infinite love for all eternity. This is what is meant by describing Mary as the ‘Eschatological Sign’ of the Church and Creation. Just as Mary was there at the beginning (the birth of Christ – Luke 2: 6), at the commencement of Jesus’ Ministry (Marriage Feast of Cana – John 2: 1-12), there at the foot of the Cross (John 19: 25-27) and finally at the outpouring of the Spirit in the upper room of Pentecost (Acts 1: 12-14 & 2: 1-4) that say the birth of the Church as the Body of Christ – she is the sign and promise of ‘mission accomplished’, for her sharing in the Resurrection of Jesus is the pledge of ours too. And not only ours – but the gathering of all Creation into the Resurrected body of Christ, into the final victory of Life over death in the consummation of All things in Christ. Indeed ‘Blessed is she who believed the promise made her by the Lord would be fulfilled’ (Luke 1: 45): the promise made through her to all humanity is indeed fulfilled in our sister, Mary – and therefore we too can believe the promise! 

[4] Yesterday we reflected on the Ascension of the Lord, imaged as the conquering Hero returning to King with all the captives in tribute. We are ‘captured’ for freedom not slavery! Mary’s Assumption is the expression and sign of that Ascended, glorified Christ carrying all humanity, indeed all creation into the fulness of our destiny in the ‘liberty of the Children of God’ in the eternity of the ‘New Heaven and New Earth’. Mary’s role as the ‘handmaid of the Lord’ the servant of Christ’s saving work, is to show what is means to be ‘saved’ to be ‘redeemed’ to live the life of the Spirit forever. She never ceases to be the Disciple, from her conception to her Resurrection – the God-given sign of the fulfilment of God’s promise to us of ‘life in all it fulness’ (John 10). If we want to know what it means to live out our baptism, look at Mary and see the Redemption of Christ in or sister, fellow disciple and Pilgrim, our Mother. Never the redeemer, always the redeemed – that is Mary’s greatness and the gift of God to us.

MARY – SESSION 14

INTRO We have explored in these talks the Mary we find in our Scriptures, in particular in the Gospels. Throughout, she serves the manifestation of Jesus her Son, the Son of God, Son of Man and draws us not to herself (she remains in the background of the Gospel story as the faithful ‘handmaid of the Lord’), but to her son. As such she is the model of discipleship, the model of authentic holiness for the Church that is called to be ‘one, holy, Catholic and Apostolic’. Mary is the supreme example of the holiness of the Church, even as there are many examples of where the Church is far less than holy! As such she calls us constantly and accompanies us on our Pilgrim Journey into the Holiness of God, made flesh in Jesus and reflected by Mary. We reflected on the first definition of doctrine about Mary by the Council of Ephesus in 431 AD – Mary ‘Theotokos’ – the ‘God-bearer’, the ‘Mother of God’ and how this title serves and anchors our core Christian belief in the the humanity and divinity of Christ, the pre-existent eternal Word of God made flesh in human history who comes ‘to share our humanity so that we might share His divinity’ (a prayer uttered by the priest during the Offertory of the Mass). Now we come to explore the two other doctrinal declarations concerning Mary in order (the Immaculate Conception and the Assumption of Mary) to reflect what they might mean for the life of the disciple of Christ – us!

[1] ‘The Spirit leads us into all Truth!’ (John 16: 13). Let us remind ourselves that the Truth revealed in Christ, Who is the fulness of Gd’s self-revelation to the world, is a dynamic unfolding Truth whose depths are inexhaustible. As the Church from its beginning struggles with new challenges in every age, as it journeys its Pilgrim Way through human history and in the real world where God has planted us, the Holy Spirit guides the Church to understand more fully that  fulness of Truth in Christ. We call this ‘development of doctrine’. The Church cannot ‘invent’ new doctrines, but defines what is the faith the People of God, as we walk the Way of Christ, proclaim the Truth of Christ and live the Life of Christ in an ever changing world: this is what we mean by ‘Tradition’. It is the living stream of the Church’s Pilgrim Journey. This is  not ‘traditionalism’ which sadly has become too common in the Church today with people’s fear of the adventure of the Spirit guiding us into the future! We see a clinging to old forms and expressions of liturgy, piety, paternalism and authoritarianism that simply alienate us from the real contemporary world, and lock us into a religious ‘bubble’ that has nothing to do with proclaiming the radical Gospel of Love’s Revolution to our contemporary world. It is a loss of faith in the Holy Spirit’s guidance into the future and empowering us for Mission in ever new ways in faithfulness to the Gospel that is always Good NEWS!

[2] So the emergence of the definitions of Mary as Immaculately Conceived and Assumed into Heaven are not new doctrines, but definitions of the Faith of the People of God down through the centuries. We are to explore what these defined beliefs might mean for us in today’s world and today’s Mission of Evangelisation. Mary is in a sense a ‘two way mirror’: by that I mean that she reflects who Jesus is and she reflects who we are both in our God given humanity and in our Spirit-led discipleship.  We can see this in the many Feasts of Mary – her conception reflecting the Annunciation; her birth reflecting the birth of Christ; her Presentation in the Temple, reflecting His; her ‘Sorrows’ a sharing in His Cross, her Assumption a participating in Christ’s Resurrection. In Mary we discover something of Christ’s sharing our Humanity;  and in her we see something of what it means to let the Grace of God work in our lives; and in her we see what is to be the Community of Disciples we call the Church.

[3] Let us turn to the Immaculate Conception of Mary the Mother of the Lord. Defined in 1854 by Pope Pius IX  the definition states that Mary from the first moment of of her existence, conceived in the womb of her mother (traditionally names ‘Anne’) was without sin, and remained so throughout her life.  Further and most importantly, this sinlessness was because of the redeeming work of Christ (not her own merits), the sheer gift of grace, and was in function of her vocation to be the mother of the sinless One, Jesus, the Divine Word made Flesh in her womb. Her sinlessness was the servant of the conception and growth and development of Jesus as the sinless and perfect human being. The language of the Proclamation of the Doctrine speaks of her ‘privilege’.  I confess to finding such language of privilege difficult as Jesus Life and Mary’s were not privileged – they struggled with poverty, rejection and misunderstanding. And as Peter says, ‘God has no favourites’ (Acts 10: 34). The divine work of Grace is precisely creating radical equality of all people, an equality that extends even to be one with Christ – ‘heirs of the Father and coheirs with Christ’ as Paul says (Romans 8: 17). The centuries old belief in the sinlessness of Mary is linked Scripturally with the experience of being chosen and blessed, called from the womb (Jeremiah 1: 5) that is the experience of each disciple – you and me. Paul again is very clear as he quotes the early Christian hymn in Ephesians 1: 3-14 – Blessed be God the Father of our Lord Jesus Christ who has blessed us with all the spiritual blessings of heaven in Christ. Before the world was made, he chose us, chose us in Christ, to be holy and spotless and to live through love in His presence…’ Our belief in the sinlessness of Mary is the belief that we are created ‘very good’ (Genesis 1) – Mary is God’s affirmation that we are characterised, defined not by sin but by divine holiness. Our Truth, our deepest and most real self, is our goodness, not our sinfulness. Thankfully there is at this time a developing theology of ‘Original Blessing’ and at the same time a radical rethinking of what we mean by ‘Original Sin’. Just as the biblical stories of Creation make no sense with our modern scientific world view, so also with St Augustine’s development of Paul’s concept of all humanity sinning in Adam –  we need to rethink the concept of ‘Original Sin’ and how it relates to ‘the sin of the world’ and ‘structural sin’. This will also lead us to re-examine some aspects of our theology of Baptism. 

[4] The Immaculate Conception is therefore a  Healing doctrine. So many people are tragically trapped in self-negativity, even self-hatred and that in turn not only causes mental ill-health but also limits their ‘freedom for love’ (Eric Fromm). The great command of the ‘Torah’ (the Jewish Law), ratified by Jesus, is a threefold love – to love God with everything we are, to love our neighbour with everything we are, to love ourselves in everything we are – as God loves us. Mary’s Immaculate Conception is God’s affirmation of the profound goodness of each one of us. My hope and prayer is that with Mary’s intercession, we can find healing for our lack of acceptance of and love for ourselves and  so liberate love which we can give joyfully to the world around us.

MARY – SESSION 13

INTRO We have explored for the last two weeks the Mary of the Scriptures, recognising that she is presented as the one of who gives to the Eternal Divine Word of God (Son of the Father) humanity, human flesh from her flesh. Her total giving of herself to the will and Word of God in the Annunciation with ‘a trust beyond all measure’ (Bl Charles de Foucauld – Prayer of Abandonment) enabled the Word to be made Flesh in human history, enabled God to be ‘Emmanuel’ the God who walks with us, who lives in our skin, walks in our shoes. As such she is the One above all others who ‘hears the Word of God and keeps it’. She is the Woman of Faith who gives herself to an unknown future, who does not understand the Ways of God in Christ but walks faithfully; she is the Woman of Prayer growing in understanding as she ponders in her heart and mind the mystery of Christ ‘that is beyond knowledge’ (Ephesians 3: 19); she is the Woman of Love who yielded to Infinite Love so that this Infinite Love would be made flesh of her flesh. Mary is there at the beginning of Jesus ministry at the Marriage Feast of Cana, there at the foot of the Cross and there when the Spirit of God at Pentecost was poured out on the first community of disciples.  Therefore, Mary (Miriam or Mariam – the ‘exalted one’) is the first and greatest Disciple of the Lord, a model of discipleship always being transparent to Christ, drawing the world to her Son and not to herself. And she stands not alone but in the community of the ‘anawim’ (the faithful, humble poor of Israel) and among those first disciples (in the Upper Room of Pentecost). In these ways, she is the ‘sign’ of what it is to be Church, to be together, to pray together, to love one another, to witness together by our shared life and prayer and mission. She is the model of Mission, for her whole life is one great act of self-giving so that Christ can transform the world. Having explored the Mary of the Scriptures, faithful Virgin Daughter of Zion, let us now explore the meaning of three key doctrines of the Church in regard to Mary – Mary as ‘Theotokos’ (‘Mother of God’), Mary’s Immaculate Conception and Mary, Assumed into Heaven.

[1] Mary, ‘Theotokos’, the God-bearer, the Mother of God. This was the first doctrinal definition concerning Mary in the history of the Church. The first five centuries of the Church’s existence were a period when there was immense controversy and so many various heresies concerning the true identity and nature of Jesus the Christ. The Church was hammering out its belief, discussing, arguing struggling to define exactly what was orthodox (‘true teaching’) concerning the central doctrine of the Christian Church – ‘Who do you say that I am!’ (Matthew 16: 15). To over-simplify the complex doctrinal story, some thought Jesus was human but not truly God, some that he was God clothed in humanity but not truly human, and some believed he was a ‘demi-God’ or ‘super-angel’ neither human nor divine but carrying the message of God. And all used the same Scriptures to defend their position. Remember that the New Testament in general and the Gospels in particular were not ‘theological manuals’, not text books of systematic theology – they were Proclamations drawing people to faith in Jesus. There were a variety of theological insights in the four Gospels (as we seen in these talks) and different emphases arising from differing ‘oral traditions’ and the needs and nature of the ‘originating communities’ that gave birth to the Gospel accounts. This led to a surprising plurality of beliefs (or perhaps not surprising!) in those first centuries and there was a need to make a definite statement in a new language that could not be misinterpreted. That is why we have the early Creeds, to clarify authentic orthodox belief, what was truly revealed by God in Christ. Those early ‘Councils of the Church’ were led by the Holy Spirit, that ‘Spirit of Truth’ that ‘leads us into all Truth’ as John’s Gospel describes, and as we see in that first Council in Jerusalem recorded in the Acts of the Apostles. We will explore the ‘development of doctrine’ and what is meant by the authentic Tradition of the Church at another time, but definition of Mary as ‘Theotokos’, Mother of God is an example of it in practice.

[2] So we come to the Council of Ephesus in 431AD. Bishops and theologians from various parts of the Church gathered in the ‘Cathedral’ Church of St Mary in the Greek city of Ephesus. This was the only Church in the world at that time dedicated to Mary – the custom was that a local church would be dedicated to either the saint who founded it, or the saint who lived there: testimony therefore to both the early Church’s revereence, devotion and love for Mary as well as the very early tradition that Mary lived with the ‘beloved disciple’ in Ephesus until her death (Assumption).  After long debate, the Fathers of the Council defined the doctrine of Mary ‘Theotokos’ – Mary the ‘God-bearer’ , Mary the ‘Mother of God’. Why did they make this binding definition of Faith? It was not primarily to honour Mary (unlike some later definitions), but rather to secure beyond doubt the truth that Jesus Christ is utterly divine and utterly human. They defined ‘that God is truly Emmanuel, and that on this account the holy virgin is the “Theotokos” (for according to the flesh she gave birth to the word of God become flesh by birth)’. The Motherhood of God was the servant of the Truth of the mystery of the Incarnation. This is the primary doctrine of the Church concerning Mary, making explicit what is thoroughly rooted in Scripture. Mary’s motherhood is the servant of the Emmanuel, enabling the Divine to enter into the human drama from ‘inside’ our humanity. The early Fathers of the Church had a saying – ‘What Christ has not shared, Christ has not redeemed’. As the Letter to the Hebrews (ch2: 17) says, we need a High Priest who is in all ways like his brothers and sisters. Our God is not a lonely isolated power remote from the joys and hopes, the pain and sufferings of the world, but engaged, involved, suffering with us, rejoicing with us, being wounded by us and healing us by those very wounds (‘By His wounds we are healed’  1Peter 2: 24 & Isaiah 53: 9).

[3] The centre of our Faith, the Fulness of God’s self-revelation of the Divine nature and Love is not a book, not a creed, not words of a doctrinal definition but a Person. We do not worship the Scriptures, we worship the Person of Jesus Christ, Flesh of the Father’s love who breathes the Spirit of their shred Creative Love upon us and the all creation. As Fr Henri Nouwen observes, a doctrine does not have a mother – a Person does! Without Mary, our faith could easily become an ideology and as such a tool of division, culture wars and worse – real wars! Mary reminds us that Person is the centre of our Faith, the Person who is the Universal Brother who carries within himself all humanity, indeed all creation and therefore there is no authentic Christian Faith that is not Love for all humanity.

MARY – SESSION 12

INTRO Having explored the place of Mary in the infancy narratives in the Gospels of Luke and Matthew, her role in the public ministry of jesus in the Synoptic Gospels, and then her role in John’s Gospel,  we have now to explore the 12th Chapter of the Book of Revelation (the vision of the Woman giving birth to a male child and pursued by the dragon), Mary’s song of praise, the Magnificat in Luke’s Gospel and her role in the infant Church after the Ascension of the Lord and at the Pentecost event. Today, let us examine the complex ‘Woman clothed in the sun, standing on the moon crowned with twelve stars’ (Revelation ch 12).

[1] We cannot come to any understanding of this strange vision without some understanding of the purpose and literary form of this most complex and puzzling book in the Bible. It is the most abused book of the Bible, with many bizarre interpretations and it being used to preach a vengeful and fearful God – which we do not find in the preaching of Jesus – as well as justifying predictions of the end of world in our time. This strange book goes by two titles – ‘Revelation’, referring to the visions of ‘John of Patmos’ described in its chapters; and ‘Apocalypse’, from the Greek word that means ‘unveiling’, and referring to that form of religious literature that purports to ‘unveil’ or reveal the things of heaven and their impact on history on earth. ‘Apocalyptic’ literature developed during the two or three centuries immediately before the coming of Christ and were common in the two hundred years after Christ. There are aspects of Apocalypse in the books of Daniel, Ezechiel, Zechariah and some Wisdom literature in the Old Testament. There is a large body of  so-called ‘apocryphal’ works which the Early Church did not include in the so-called ‘Canon’ of Scripture, many coming from heavily dualistic Gnostic sources. Gnostics claim to have special knowledge not known to others and see the world as in constant conflict between two powers Good and Evil, Light and Darkness. The Church has always rejected Gnosticism as contrary to the God of Love who has created all things ‘very good’ (Genesis 1). Apocalyptic literature was heavily influenced by Babylonian, Persian and Greek mythology, with their demons, astrology, and dualism. And of course the Christian Church grew up in these cultures, the Middle East being the cradle of Christianity. 

[2] What are the characteristics of ‘Apocalyptic’ Literature? Their background is the historical experience of conflict, persecution, social upheaval, and all the insecurities and dangers that communities experienced who endured these threatening events, speaking of God’s eventual deliverance of the faithful. God is pictured as having a ‘fixed plan’ so everything happens according to that plan and is moving towards the ‘end time’ when God is victorious and the faithful are vindicated. Apocalyptic writing therefore seeks to ‘explain’ the suffering, to ‘unveil’ the meaning through spectacular visions, with cosmic images of dragons, and demons and angels, with plagues and the stars and moon and sun being disrupted – Cosmic disasters! They use complex numbering systems – four, seven, twelve etc to depict eras in this cosmic conflict. There is usually a ‘seer’ the one who receives the revelations through  visions and dreams or angels. The ‘seer’ sees at the same time events in heaven and on earth and interprets their connection. The ‘seer’ also interprets events past, present and especially the future. Their visions include exuberant and grotesque imagery of women, animals, trumpets and vessels. All of these aspects are there in abundance in the Book of Revelation, the final book we find in our Bibles.

[3] So very clearly, the Book of Revelation cannot be interpreted literally and was never intended to be so used. This book finds in social background and origin in the Johannine communities of the ‘Asia Minor’ (modern Turkey) among the seven Churches mentioned in the first chapters. The Christians were experiencing fierce persecution from both Jews and the Roman Empire. They were living in the context of overwhelming Emperor Worship, and were suffering because they refused to worship a divine Emperor and burn incense before his statue (which was everywhere especially in the Eastern part of the Empire). The ‘seer’, named in the book as John of Patmos, is suffering exile on an Imperial prison island, barren with little vegetation or shelter, where most prisoners can expect an early death in the harsh conditions. It is possible that this ‘John’ had leadership responsibility for these beleaguered communities and seeks to encourage them in their suffering from the place of his own imprisonment. So this book is to strengthen the faith of a persecuted church, calling them to faithfulness and trust in the final victory of God’s purpose even if they are martyred in the process. It sees the Roman Empire as the new Babylon, the Emperor as the Beast, the servant of the Devil pictured as the dragon or serpent. The Christian communities are caught up in a cosmic battle (expressed by avenging angels pouring out plagues from vessels, stars falling from the sky and the sun and moon losing their brightness, oceans and rivers turning to blood etc) – but the faithful are servants of a new world emerging, a new order, for God’s plan will not be defeated. 

[4] So who is this Women of sun and moon and stars? (Revelation 12). The liturgy for  the Feast of Assumption of Mary uses this chapter and visual representations of Mary’s Assumption and also of the Immaculate Conception (in Western art) leans upon the imagery contained here. It is impossible to give an accurate and precise interpretation of these extraordinary ‘visions’. However, the pregnant woman giving birth is likely to symbolise both the true Israel that gave birth to the Messiah, Jesus, and the Church who is undergoing ‘labour pains’ of bringing Christ to birth in the first century world of  Roman persecution persecution. The dragon is certainly the ‘evil empire’ of Rome. Because Mary is so often expressed in the New Testament (especially in the Johannine literature) as representing the community of faith, the model of discipleship, it is understandable that this passage has been taken, over the centuries, to express Mary as well as the Church. Whether this was the intention of the author is unlikely as we have seen this book is so heavily reliant of apocalyptic imagery from non-Jewish and non-Christian mythology. Yet Mary is given to us a sign of God’s purpose to transform the world (as we will see when exploring the doctrines of the Immaculate Conception and the Assumption of Mary). The Woman, sister and mother, who walks the suffering Pilgrim path with the Church in every age, the one who comforts  and encourages us in our journey of faithfulness.

AFTERWORD The Book of Revelation challenges us to be a people who ‘listen to what the Spirit is saying to the churches’; challenges us to be a People of Vision who see the world differently and recognise God’s design for our world that is this ‘New World’ of justice, equality, humanity, freedom and peace, living in communion with all creation. We are to bring Christ’s love and transforming life to birth in our world of today, whatever the cost to us. We are called to be a Pilgrim People of Faith, of Hope and of persevering Love, transforming the world around us – and not creating our own comfort bubble of religious piety disconnected from Mission. It is a call to an authentic spirituality that contributes to the shaping of the New World God desires.

MARY – SESSION 11

INTRO As we have seen, Mary appears only twice in John’s Gospel, but very crucially! At the beginning, with the First Sign of Glory at the Marriage Feast of Cana and then towards the end of the Gospel at the foot of the Cross, the Hour of Glory when He is ‘lifted up’. Unlike the Synoptic Gospels, she is absent during Jesus public ministry. This suggests that her appearances at the beginning and the end are especially symbolic. Let us now explore Mary at the foot of the Cross. But first, let us look at two icons – the first with the beloved disciple and the Crucified Christ, the second the praying, weeping Palestinian Mariam of Peace that we have seen before …

[1] ‘Woman, behold your son’ (John 19: 26). To our ears for Jesus to call any woman ‘Woman’ sounds rather insulting or derogatory, but in the contemporary culture of the Middle East in Jesus time, it was not. In John and the Synoptics it was a normal way of addressing a woman especially in public. However,it is unheard of that a son would address his mother in that way in Jewish or Greek culture of the time. As mentioned already, these two references to Mary are at crucial moments in the Johannine Gospel story, and so it is very likely that the use of ‘Woman’ has a special significance. It seems to evoke Eve of Genesis ch 2. The prologue alludes to the creation story in Genesis ch 1, and this is followed at the beginning of Jesus ministry with the Woman (Mary) reversing the disobedience of Eve. Eve did what the serpent told her to do – Mary instructs the servants to do as Jesus tells them. Perhaps in Mary’s request to Jesus she is prompting Him to do as His Father tells him – the Hour to begin His work has arrived. This is further emphasised by the fact that the author has constructed John ch 1 and 2 over seven days (as creation in Genesis ch 1), and again the Risen Christ comes to the disciples over another sequence of seven days in John ch 20.  Genesis 3: 15 predicts that there will be enmity between the serpent and the woman and that her seed would crush its head (the serpent of course symbolising the devil). John’s Gospel sees the Crucifixion as Jesus’ victory over ‘the Prince of this World’ – the devil is crushed. This is graphically illustrated in Resurrection icons of the ‘Harrowing of Hell’ that we contemplated on Easter Monday. Whether this was interpretation was the intention of the author is a matter of debate, but since the early Fathers of the Church, this has been seen in the deep levels of symbolism that the Fourth Gospel brings us.

[2] The Mother at the foot of the Cross (John 19: 25-27). At one level, Jesus is caring for his widowed mother (presumably with no other children otherwise there would be no necessity to ensure her care after his death). Jesus showed his care for his family of disciples in sending the Advocate, and in praying for them (John ch 17). This also suggests that Mary is seen as part of his family of disciples, rather than separate – it is the constant witness of the four Gospels that Jesus gives precedence to the discipleship family above the biological family. But then Mary is the model of discipleship in John. There are four women at the foot of the Cross, as there are four executing soldiers also (John 19: 23). Here is the contrast between worldly power  and unbelief (the soldiers) and divine power (the faithful women), between those who remain in darkness and those journeying into the Light. We must note that it was the women who had the courage to stand with Jesus, not the apostles (and the unnamed ‘beloved disciple’ is almost certainly not John the Apostle). And as Mary in Luke ‘ponders these things’ the Church of today must ponder the implications of the women’s faithful witness and the absence of the male apostles! The synoptic Gospels place the women at some distance and do not highlight Mary’s presence – John deliberately ‘alters’ this oral tradition – at the foot of the Cross and placing Mary centre stage of this part of the Passion. Nether Mary nor the ‘beloved disciple’ are named. This in itself is significant, for they become representative of the community of disciples – both in different ways model disciples of Jesus – bound to Him with a great love (because they re greatly loved), faithfully standing by Jesus in the Hour of the Passion, when the others deserted. Both are eye witnesses of what happened and its significance (the blood and water from the side of Christ as well as the Last Words). It would seem that both Mary and the ‘beloved disciple’ were founding members and inspiration for the Johannine communities. Shortly after this episode, Jesus says his final words ‘It is accomplished’ (or ‘completed’) (John 19: 28). What is completed? Yes His love has been made perfect and the revolution of Love has begun. But this ‘love made perfect’ is precisely in the love shared with the community of faith and discipleship, now gathered at the foot of the Cross. In His dying, the future of the Christian community is set in place and assured. Mary is mother to this family of disciples (of which family we are members by our rebirth in baptism). Mary in accepting the ‘beloved disciple’ as her new son is accepting to be Mother of the Church, Mother of a New Humanity, a New Order, and a New World – for this new family is the sacrament and servant of this emerging new world by virtue of the ‘love you have for one another by which the world will know you are My disciples’ (John 13: 35) – the loving Oneness that enables the world to believe (John 17: 22-23). The Fulness of Divine Love in Humanity is precisely the ’Hour of Glory’ – that which is ‘lifted up’ for all the world to see and be healed (see John 13-15, followed by the famous v 16 – ‘God so loved the world’). So Mary, Jesus biological Mother is now given a  new spiritual motherhood of the community of Christ’s disciples. Jesus has given birth to the Church through the blood and water flowing from his pierced side and heart: and Mary symbolises the Church (the Body of Christ) giving birth to and being Mother of disciples who are brought to birth in the waters of Baptism and nourished with the Body and Blood of Christ in the Eucharist the Church celebrates. Mary symbolises the Church as Mother bringing to birth and nurturing generation after generation of missionary disciples. (So why does the Church choose not to nurture so many whom it has brought to birth in baptism by denying them the Eucharist?)

AFTERWORD Perhaps after Mary as Mother of the Word made Flesh, the most fitting title for Mary in the Church’s devotion is one that has flowed from the reforms and insights of Vatican II – Mary, Mother of the Church. We need to recapture on the one hand the Mary who is one of us, among us, a Pilgrim with us, a sister disciple as well as a mother; and on the other hand the one who challenges the Church to a true Mother, never rejecting, always including and loving nurturing, never refusing to feed and welcome and heal. We must not use the language of ‘Mother Church’ if we are not prepared to feed all who come around the table and are not prepared to love and gather those who are in so-called irregular relationships, of diverse sexual identities, and feed those currently denied the Eucharist because refuse to change human regulations about those eligible for ordination.