Thursday, 11 February 2016

"So quickly does he gain forgiveness": Ambrose, the Prodigal, and the Mysteries

From Book II of St Ambrose's Concerning Repentance - here he contrasts Novatianist teaching with the Parable of the Prodigal.  Ambrose strikingly interprets the Parable in terms of participation in the Holy Eucharist.  It is through sharing in the Mysteries, he declares, that "there may be remission of sins". 

So quickly does he gain forgiveness, that, as he is coming, and is still a great way off, his father meets him, gives him a kiss, which is the sign of sacred peace; orders the robe to be brought forth, which is the marriage garment, which if any one have not, he is shut out from the marriage feast; places the ring on his hand, which is the pledge of faith and the seal of the Holy Spirit; orders the shoes to be brought out, (Exodus 12:11) for he who is about to celebrate the Lord's Passover, about to feast on the Lamb, ought to have his feet protected against all attacks of spiritual wild beasts and the bite of the serpent; bids the calf to be slain, for Christ our Passover has been sacrificed (1 Corinthians 5:7). For as often as we receive the Blood of the Lord, we proclaim the death of the Lord (1 Corinthians 11:26). As, then, He was once slain for all, so whenever forgiveness of sins is granted, we receive the Sacrament of His Body, that through His Blood there may be remission of sins.

Therefore most evidently are we bidden by the teaching of the Lord to confer again the grace of the heavenly sacrament on those guilty even of the greatest sins, if they with open confession bear the penance due to their sin (18-19).

Wednesday, 10 February 2016

Cultivating Lent: Ambrose and the gift of penance

... seeking to bring forth worthy fruits of penance.

This, according the Commination liturgy appointed in the BCP 1662 for Ash Wednesday, is the purpose of Lent.

Our Lenten penance is a hope-filled practice.  It proclaims that wounds can be healed, sickness cured, and that which is broken, mended.

Writing against the Novatians - who denied absolution to those amongst the baptised who had denied the Faith in the midst of persecution - St Ambrose saw Novatian rigorism as profoundly disordering the Church in relation to the Gospel:

Do you then, O Novatians, shut out these? For what is it when you refuse the hope of forgiveness but to shut out? But the Samaritan did not pass by the man who had been left half dead by the robbers; he dressed his wounds with oil and wine, first pouring in oil in order to comfort them; he set the wounded man on his own beast, on which he bore all his sins; nor did the Shepherd despise His wandering sheep (Concerning Repentance, Book I, 6).

Refusing the gift and path of penance - the way of healing - the Novatians declare themselves to be those who "have no need of a physician":

When, then, you take away all the fruits of repentance, what do you say but this: Let no one who is wounded enter our inn, let no one be healed in our Church? With us the sick are not cared for, we are whole, we have no need of a physician, for He Himself says: They that are whole need not a physician, but they that are sick.

As the Church enters Lent, as we are each marked as penitents with ashed crosses, we are enacting the hope and joy of the Gospel.  By bringing forth worthy fruits of penance, wounds are healed, sickness cured, and that which is broken, mended.  Through penance we become open to and are changed by the gracious mercy of the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ.

The path of Lenten penance thus renews the Church in fidelity to the Gospel, calling us away from the temptation to confront the world with rigorism and purity. It overturns moralism and bourgeois respectability.  It offers that which is deeper and richer than bland tolerance, seemingly incapable of recognising wounds.

It is perhaps fitting that Ambrose captures something of the hope of Lent - a word which has its roots in the Old English for spring - in an observation similarly rooted in the natural world:

And what more suitable example can we take than one from our common mother? For the earth itself, from which we are all taken, when it is not worked and cultivated, seems to be desert; and the field dies to the vines or olive-trees with which it was planted, and yet it does not lose its own nutritive power, which is, as it were, its life. And then later, when cultivation begins once more, and the seed is sown for which the land seems suitable, it breaks forth again more fruitful than before with its products (96).

Tuesday, 9 February 2016

"Not with balance and moderation": Shrove Tuesday and Ash Wednesday

Before Lent comes Carnival, before Ash Wednesday, Shrove Tuesday: in the traditional Christian calendar there is a recognition of dialectic, even of paradox.  Lent is not, therefore, a statement that the Christian way is life-denying, built on a series of 'thou shalt nots'.  But it is an assertion that the soul which cannot say no even to the legitimate good things of this world will never be free.  We must move, as the Gospel moves, not with balance and moderation, but between affirmation and denial.  The Christian asceticism represented in Lent doesn't represent a morbid fear of life and its good things, but a profound wisdom in the tradition, which recognizes that it is precisely the good things of God which can most successfully mask from us the terrible and wonderful reality of the Creator, and of ourselves.  

Eamon Duffy's Shrove Tuesday sermon 'On not quite starting again' in Walking to Emmaus.

Monday, 8 February 2016

On restoring Shrovetide

We wish to speak to you about this present season, why the holy congregation in God’s church omits ‘Alleluia’ and ‘Gloria in excelsis Deo’, from this present day until the holy season of Easter.  

Thus the tenth-century English homilist Ælfric introduced Septuagesima.  Of course, Septuagesima, with Sexagesima and Quinquagesima, is absent from contemporary lectionaries, falling foul of the desire of post-1960s liturgists for 'simplified' calendars.  After all, what is the point of a preparation (pre-Lent) for a preparation (Lent)?

What has been noticeable in more recent liturgical reform, however, is the partial restoration of pre-Lent.  Thus both the CofW's Common Worship and the CofI's BCP 2004 have post-Presentation Sundays before Lent.  Of these, two - the Second Sunday before Lent and the Sunday before Lent - have particular themes, creation and Transfiguration.  What seems to be at work here is a recognition of the wisdom of the older liturgical calendar, that we do need a period post-Epiphanytide and Presentation to be oriented towards the season of penitence and fasting.

Indeed, a failure to recognise in the liturgy that we are moving towards such a solemn, significant season could be seen as actually undermining Lent - the very thing, ironically, the post-1960s liturgical reformers saw as happening in Septuagesima and the Sundays following.  Losing a sense of building-up to Ash Wednesday, of readying ourselves for penitence and fasting, has not aided a renewal of the Lenten fast.

What can, then, be done within the framework of the contemporary liturgical year to retrieve something of the sense of readying ourselves for Lent?

Firstly, the last two Sundays of pre-Lent, with their themes of creation and Transfiguration, offer important opportunities for reflecting on Lent as orienting us towards the restoration and transfiguring of creation.  Parish teaching should make the most of these opportunities, preparing the faithful for the season of Lent, building a sense of expectation regarding penitence and fasting.

Timothy O'Malley, Director of the Center for Liturgy in Notre Dame, tweeted yesterday about the value of "copious incense and alleluias aplenty" on the Sunday before Lent.  It is a simple but effective way of ensuring that the more sombre, simplified liturgical setting of the eucharist during Lent does not go unnoticed.

Secondly, we can see Ælfric's homily for Quinquagesima concluding by explicitly urging sacramental confession:

Now a pure and holy time draws near, in which we should atone for our neglect. Every Christian, therefore, should come to his confession and confess his hidden sins, and amend according to the guidance of his teacher.

If a sense of expectation is built within the parish during pre-Lent, it would be appropriate to offer "the benefit of absolution, together with spiritual counsel and advice" (BCP exhortation) in the days approaching Lent - Shrovetide.  Particularly in parish contexts in which sacramental confession may be rare, such an approach may resonate more easily, linked as it is a time of spiritual preparation, self-examination and renewal.

Finally, there is 'Pancake Day', as Shrove Tuesday is now known in the UK - and it is widely known.  Supermarket shelves suddenly are filled with pancake-making material, primary school children make pancakes in class, and media stories on the last blow-out before 'giving up' something for Lent appear.  It is distinctly odd that the Church does not make more of this.

Shrove Tuesday is a day to re-connect with the cultural remnants of approaching Lent, and a day which gives itself to explaining the Christian practice of fasting (our Muslim friends fast in Ramadan, Christians in Lent), and to extend an invitation to share in the Lenten fast.

All of which offers the possibility of a restored Shrovetide - of liturgical celebration on the Sunday before Lent which calls us to be open to transfiguration, and joyfully emphasises the liturgical elements from which we will refrain during Lent; of "the benefit of absolution, together with spiritual counsel and advice" offered in the parish in preparation for Lent, the soul's spring-time; and of Shrove Tuesday, as the day when we, with joy, ready ourselves for the Lenten fast with a filling reminder that we fast not because food and the created order are 'bad' but so we may be renewed in gratitude for them as good gift.

Perhaps, then, Lent does need Shrovetide?

Saturday, 6 February 2016

"But He is a Physician ..."

The eyes of the Lord are over the righteous: and his ears are open unto their prayers. 

Ps. 34:15.  Ps. 34 is appointed to be said or sung at Evensong on the 6th day of the month in the BCP 1662.

Only do thou hold fast His ways, and when you are in tribulation, He hears you. But He is a Physician, and still have you something of putrefaction; you cry out, but still He cuts, and takes not away His Hand, until He has cut as much as pleases Him. For that Physician is cruel who hears a man, and spares his wound and putrefaction. How do mothers rub their children in the baths for their health. Do not the little ones cry out in their hands? Are they then cruel because they spare not, nor hearken unto their tears? Are they not full of affection? And yet the children cry out, and are not spared. So our God also is full of charity, but therefore seems He not to hear, that He may spare and heal us for everlasting.

Augustine on Ps. 34:15.

Friday, 5 February 2016

David's story: grace and glory

At the Holy Eucharist on the Friday on the second week before Lent.

Sirach 47:2-11 - Ps.18:31-33, 50-51 - Mark 6:14-29

"The Lord took away his sins, and exalted his power for ever, he gave him a covenant of kingship and a glorious throne in Israel" [1].

And so the book of Sirach - today's Old Testament reading - brings to a close the story of David which we have heard in our readings at the daily eucharist over the past few weeks.

Now, we might just be wondering if Sirach has been reading the same story we have heard.

He heaps praise on David - "set apart from the Israelites ... In all that he did he gave thanks to the Holy One".

And yet, the story we have read of David over recent weeks appears to have been quite different.

We have been confronted with David's sins.

We have heard David confess:

"I have sinned greatly in what I have done" [2].

And yet all of this is summarised in a mere few words by Sirach:

"the Lord took away his sins".

What seems to be the story of David - a story of failure, of a life disoriented and irretrievably scarred by sin - is not what Sirach sees.

He sees as a radically different story.

Sirach sees in David a story of grace and glory.

"The Lord took away his sins, and exalted his power for ever, he gave him a covenant of kingship and a glorious throne in Israel."

Sirach is echoing the Great Story told in Israel's scriptures and in the New Testament.

For the prophets of Israel, David foreshadowed the king who would come to establish the reign of God.

When Isaiah glimpses a vision of this reign, he describes it as one of "endless peace for the throne of David and his kingdom".

And the New Testament closes in the Revelation of John with the ascended and glorified Jesus declaring, "I am the root and descendant of David".

Sirach saw rightly - David's story is one of grace and glory.

David's sins - so vividly portrayed in the history of Israel's kings - are not the story. 

His sins merely show that it is this world, that it is people just like us - flawed, failing, disoriented - whom God incorporates into the Great Story of grace and glory.

Our sins do not get to write the Story.

By the grace of God, they are written into the Story - from that first sin of Adam and Eve in the Garden - but they do not shape and determine it.

For they are met by grace and forgiveness.

They become the background to the awe and wonder, the beauty and joy of the Paschal Mystery, the cross and resurrection of Jesus.

Today is the Friday before Lent.

Just over seven weeks from now, as the church gathers in the darkness of Easter Eve, we will hear the ancient words of the hymn of praise called the Exsultet:

"This is the night that gave us back what we had lost:
beyond our deepest dreams
you even made our sin a happy fault" [3].

The grace of God in the Crucified and Risen One makes our sin "a happy fault" ...

The occasion of love, mercy and peace poured out to heal, save, renew.

As so as we prepare for the Lenten fast and the celebration of the Easter mysteries ...

We are reminded by Sirach's account of David, that our sins do not get to write the stories of our lives ...

For through baptism and eucharist, we are incorporated into God's Story of grace and glory.

In the weeks that now lie before us, let us enter afresh into this grace and glory.


[1] Sirach 47:11.

[2] From the OT reading at the Eucharist on Wednesday of this week - 2 Samuel 24:10.

[3] From the text used in Common Worship: Times and Seasons.

Thursday, 4 February 2016

Facing Mamre: old churches, thin places

The OT reading at Matins today in the CofI lectionary was Genesis 23, the account of Sarah's burial.  Quite striking is Abraham's desire for a specific place for Sarah's burial:

... hear me, and entreat for me Ephron son of Zohar, so that he may give me the cave of Machpelah, which he owns; it is at the end of his field. For the full price let him give it to me in your presence as a possession for a burying-place.

Why this location?  The conclusion of the chapter is suggestive:

Abraham buried Sarah his wife in the cave of the field of Machpelah facing Mamre (that is, Hebron) in the land of Canaan.

Abraham buried Sarah "facing Mamre", the place of encounter.  What is more, mindful of Paul's comparison between Abraham's faith in the promise of Mamre and faith in the resurrection of Jesus - "those who share the faith of Abraham" in the God "who gives life to the dead" (Romans 4:16-25) - Mamre was also the place of resurrection.

Mamre was for Abraham a 'thin place'.  The reading brings to mind two recent reflections on ancient churches and the gift of place.  Michael Sadgrove, Dean Emeritus of Durham, points to a recent experience of worship in Haydon Old Church in Northumberland:

I believe Haydon Old Church is one of those 'thin places' that increasingly draws pilgrims in search of spiritual meaning and sense of direction. It responds to Larkin's 'hunger to be more serious.' It isn't famous like Cuthbert's Holy Island, or mighty Durham Cathedral, or the Saxon church at Escomb, or Bede's historic churches at Wearmouth and Jarrow, or Wilfred's marvellous crypt half a dozen miles downstream at Hexham Abbey. But what it shares with all these sites is its profoundly numinous quality. Here you feel you are on holy ground. In its loneliness and simplicity, it takes you on a journey both beyond yourself, and at the same time more deeply into yourself, so that you begin to see reality in new ways, and glimpse God.

And here's where it has the potential to offer so much to our spiritually impoverished century. Holding services regularly is important, but it's just the beginning. A church like this holds so many possibilities for welcoming visitors to this lovely part of Northumberland, for heritage and arts activities, and above all, for promoting reflectiveness and spirituality through pilgrimages and opportunities for guided prayer and meditation. These are stones that speak of history, of the varying fortunes of a village community over a thousand years and more. This by itself is endlessly fascinating to anyone with a sense of place. But more important even than this, they speak of faith: the faith of those who first planted Christianity in this Northumbrian soil; the faith of those who watered it and kept it alive across the centuries; the faith of their successors today who like them live by hope in the Word made Flesh, Christ crucified and risen.

Niall Gooch has also addressed the significance of the "ancient church building":

... they act as a powerful reminder that Christianity is an ancient faith that draws on powerful springs, what CS Lewis allegorises in the Narnia books as the “deeper magic from before the dawn of time” ... To occupy the same space in which people far distant from us in time and language and experience have heard the same prayers, the same chants, the same hymns is a way of placing ourselves back into the great tradition.

Gooch concludes by drawing attention to the most recent figures on those visiting churches in England:

People seem to be drawn to God-haunted places ... Although attendance at Christian services is in decline—the number of regular Anglican worshippers, for example, has apparently fallen below a million for the first time, from a peak of more than 3.5 million c.1930—cathedrals still draw large numbers of visitors, as noted above (C of E figures state that nearly 10 million people visit cathedrals each year).

In a culture characterised by what the Dean of Southwark has termed "a strange secularism" - in which the public truth of secularism coexists with "a latent, often hidden, often denied spirituality deep in the hearts of so many" - church buildings, if used imaginatively and intentionally, can be a means of offering a connection between this latent spirituality and the Church's faith.  Places of deep quiet, of beauty, of 'thinness', places where prayer is natural and accepted, where stillness is (or should be) tangible - such a place can be the arena in which "a strange secularism" becomes porous, open to the transcendent.

Of course, this requires us to abandon the notion that church buildings are obstacles to evangelisation, that 'maintenance' is somehow opposed to 'mission', that the strangeness of the church building - so different to the leisure centre or the open plan office - needs to be done away with.  It is the very strangeness of these "God-haunted places" - these places of encounter and resurrection - which set them apart in the midst of the flattened, disenchanted culture of postmodernity.

We need to be like Abraham, facing Mamre, discerning the power of the thin places.

(The painting is Robert Littleford, 'Oldham Parish Church and beyond'.)