LENT: EMBRACING THE WILDERNESS

Again and again in the Gospels we are told that Jesus withdrew to be alone, to be with God, to reflect, to pray. These times of reflection, prayer, and silence teach us something just as important as the words and actions of Jesus himself.

During this season of Lent we are encouraged to step outside the hustle and bustle of this world, and indeed the hustle and bustle of our own thoughts; so that we can open ourselves to God’s voice within our lives.

After all, the prophet Elijah did not find God in the great and powerful wind, nor in the earthquake, nor in the fire. God was found in the gentle whisper; the still small voice of calm.

Where better to encounter God, to reflect, to pray, to discern God’s call upon our lives and to wrestle with that call – than in the wilderness itself – the wilderness of this world, the wilderness of our lives, and the wilderness of our hearts.

Wilderness is not just about futile wandering – it is purposeful, it is about finding direction, it is about plotting and setting out on the right course – a course where we turn away from all that is behind and start afresh with a clear destination in mind.

Within all that the wilderness brings there is longing and desiring – a hopeful expectation. Wilderness encapsulates the very words of St Augustine: “Our hearts are restless until they find their rest in God.”

Entering into this kind of silence and the vulnerability of the wilderness, requires us to leave those places that are familiar, comfortable, and predictable.

If we are honest with ourselves, we try our best to avoid the wilderness. Things happen in the wilderness and we would rather not have things change. The wilderness is where we are forced to see ourselves as we are, without filter or finery. It is there through our purposeful wandering and waiting that we encounter the holy.

Like Jesus, we are sometimes driven against our will, by the Holy Spirit, to the wild places we would rather not go. But the wilderness is where we as individuals and as community must go, because out of the wild comes new life.

During this Lenten season of fasting and focus, of praying and preparing, we are tempted to simply go through the motions. We are tempted to skirt the wilderness, to turn away from encountering the wild places in our lives and in our world. But as followers of Christ, if we are to be renewed for new possibilities and prepared to hope once more, we must face those wild places.

Throughout the history of God’s people, we see our spiritual ancestors spending their time wrestling with the barren places. From the call of Abraham and Sarah to the wandering of the people of Israel, the wilderness has become a place of refining and self-discovery.

But our forbearers never faced the desert alone – God journeyed with Israel, God watched over Noah, God stood with Jesus. And for our time, God will stand with us.

If we are honest with ourselves, we know deep down inside that we need the wilderness. We know in our bones and deep within our souls that the desert calls, cajoles, and compels us even when we resist. The Church, faith communities, the world—now more than ever—needs the wilderness. We need to spend the time looking at ourselves in order to find new life, new ministry, and new ways of being the people of God.

We long for things to stay the same, for things to be frozen in time. We long for the way things were in the past; but God is calling us, like the people of Israel, to a new future. We cannot get to God’s future if we are not able to let go of the past.

We are called to be agents of change, to be part of God’s redemptive mission in the world and that involvement begins, like it did with Jesus, when we are driven to the wild places of discovery.

We go to the wilderness to discover anew the joy of being beloved. We go to learn once more what it means to be and live as beloved. We go to listen for the voice of God calling us again. We go to see Christ more clearly in the world around us. We go because that is where we encounter God. We go to the wilderness because we can no longer be as we have always been.

God’s work begins with a persistent Holy Spirit sometimes dragging, driving, and drawing us out into the wilderness. Jesus has been there. His footsteps can still be found. The angels are there. Out in the wilderness, we are faced with many temptations. But the biggest temptation is to not enter the wilderness at all.

The wilderness is calling – hear that call – earnestly and purposefully hear it; and then embrace it!

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PREPARING FOR LENT

The Christian Church is on the brink of another season. In a matter of days, with our traditional observance of Ash Wednesday, our 40-day journey through Lent will begin. It will be time when we are called as a People of God to foster a deeper spirituality nourished by fasting, prayer, quiet meditation and listening to God. It is therefore appropriate to reflect on the Transfiguration of Christ before commencing our Lenten journey.

This mountain-top experience is considered, by philosopher & theologian, Thomas Aquinas to be one of the greatest miracles. Not a miracle performed by Jesus on others but rather a miracle performed on Jesus himself. Christian theology assigns a great deal of significance to the Transfiguration. In Christian teachings, the Transfiguration is a pivotal moment and the setting on the mountain is presented as the point where human nature meets God: the meeting place for the temporal and the eternal, with Jesus himself as the connecting point, acting as the bridge between heaven and earth. This event complemented Christ’s baptism and showed the perfection of life in Heaven.

Jesus had asked the disciples who people said he was and then asked them, ‘Who do you say I am?’ Peter answered, ‘You are the Christ, the Son of God.’ And from that point on Scripture tells us, that Jesus began to teach them that the Christ, the Messiah, must suffer and be killed, and on the third day raised to new life. He told them, ‘If anyone wants to come after me, they must take up their cross.’ Jesus accepted Peter’s description that he was the Messiah, the Christ, God’s chosen, the Anointed One. But Jesus had reinterpreted Peter’s idea of what that meant. It was not about winning military victories; throwing out the Romans and re-establishing the Kingdom in the tradition of David and Solomon. Rather, it was about walking with the outcast, the exiled, the marginalised, the despised, the poor and the powerless; it was about the way of suffering; it was about overcoming the power of evil by subverting it through weakness.

Then, on that mountain-top, God the Father affirms that Jesus is the Messiah.

The Gospel writers tell us that, ‘While these followers watched, Jesus was changed. His clothes became dazzling white; then Elijah and Moses appeared to them, talking with Jesus.’

It was no coincidence that Moses and Elijah appeared. In the Old Testament, Moses was seen as standing for Law and Elijah as representative of the Prophets. The disciples would have remembered Jesus’ teaching from the Sermon on the Mount when he said, ‘Do not think I came to abolish the law or the prophets. I have not come to abolish them but to fulfil them.’

But was Law and Prophecy enough to get us into the Kingdom?

Humankind needed the Law. We tended to go off the rails most times and needed to be rescued from the mess we got ourselves into. The Law was God’s rules and regulations on how we should live. Yet we continued to fall short of God’s commands. We continued to fail to love both God and neighbour. When the Law was not enough we heard the inspirations of visionary Prophecy of what God intended life should be like, to encourage us and to inspire us.

But tough Law and inspiring Prophecy was not enough to get us into the Kingdom. We need the Transfiguration answer. We need Christ, the Messiah. The transfiguration is not just about Jesus, it is also about us. We cannot be pushed by rules and pulled by vision. What we need is Jesus, who offers to walk with us, every step of the way. We cannot do it on our own. We need that living relationship with him. Only Christ can bridge the gap between our human fallibility and the promise of heaven.

Within the Gospel narrative – God’s commandment is very clear, “This is my beloved Son, listen to Him.” “This is my beloved Son’ – here is the Word made flesh, here is the invisible God made visible in the form of Jesus, who dwelt among us. ‘Listen to Him” – here is our agenda. God has set our agenda. This is what He instructs all of us to do. ‘Listen to Him” – for this statement “listen to Him” identifies Jesus as the messenger, the mouth-piece of God. Listen to Jesus. Put your hand in his. Then you will be able to trust God and live as he wants you to. We have to be dependant on Christ, to trust him and to let him lead us one step at a time. He is the one who told his followers, ‘I am with you always, till the end of time.” Coming alongside us, he guides us to do what is right. Walking with him means that we will be on the right path.

In the confusion of everyday life – in the busyness of everyday life, we all need moments to pause for prayer and reflection and to listen to the gentle voice of God.

Just as Jesus reflected God’s glory on that mountain top, so we too, need to reflect Jesus more and more – not just in our words, but in our actions and attitudes, the whole of our lives.

We are to become a people of God, who “listen to Him” and who live with confidence in Christ, as we journey toward the heart of God.

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FROM THE CHAPLAIN’S BOOKSHELF

I commend the work of Thomas Cahill entitled, “A Saint on Death Row”.

[Cahill, T. 2010. A Saint on Death Row. USA: Anchor Books]

Thomas Cahill was so profoundly moved by Dominique’s life that he was compelled to tell the tragic story of his unjust death at the hands of the State. This book will make you angry, it will make you frustrated, it will make you cry as you encounter a young man who displayed a level of goodness, peace, and enlightenment that few human beings ever attain.

Dominique Green, a black African American, is one of three sons to Stephanie and Emmit Green. Growing up in an alcoholic household with Stephanie, a prostitute, who physically abused her boys and Emmit a drug addict; Dominique lived on the streets from the age of fifteen. Growing up in the midst of domestic violence, Dominique became very protective of his two brothers. Given the household he came from, he was hardly unfamiliar with drugs and began selling them to make money – but the taking of drugs held no allure for him. The selling of drugs was simply a business. On 18 October, 1992, Dominique Green was arrested by the Houston, Texas, police. With him in the car were two white male youths who were in possession of a large handgun. Ballistic testing confirmed that the gun was used in a murder just two days prior. The result of Dominique’s trial found him guilty of murder and sentenced to death by lethal injection. Dominique remained on Death Row until 26 October, 2004, when he was then executed.

As you work your way through this book, you will easily notice a very racist and deeply flawed legal system. You will discover that despite obvious errors in the legal procedures and the protests of the victim’s family, Dominique continued to spend the last twelve years of his life on Death Row. Since being convicted, Dominique had grown and matured dramatically, making one wonder just what the State will achieve by executing him. He had helped numerous other inmates to survive the torturous nature of Death Row and had submitted his engaging artwork and poetry in various exhibits around the country and the world.

Thomas Cahill sheds some light on the chosen title of his book: ‘In what way do I propose Dominique as a saint? Certainly in the common sense of the word – as a person of extraordinary kindness and patience.’(p.130) In the more theological sense, Cahill proposes Dominique a saint ‘as those among the dead who we know are with God and to whom it is therefore appropriate to speak and to ask that they pray with us whose earthly journeys are unfinished.’ (p.131) In light of this, Cahill makes mention of Dominique’s final promise before execution, ‘Where I am going, I am going to take care of everybody.’ (p.106)

A Saint on Death Row introduces you to a young man whose childhood, innate goodness, and final days you will not forget – nor will you want to put the book down until it is finished. If you are able to obtain a copy, please do so. Read it, reflect on it, and pray about it. The lessons, values, moral and ethical issues raised within this true story speak into areas such as the refugee crisis, racism, xenophobia, domestic violence, discrimination, and Islamophobia; just to name a few.

As we journey closer toward the heart of God may we contemplate ways to being more welcoming, loving, and affirming of those around us. St. John Chrysostom, one of the Early Church Fathers, reminds us by his words, “If you cannot find Christ in the beggar at the Church door, you will not find Christ in the chalice.”

May we be open to the working of God’s Spirit within us, so we can see Christ in ALL people.

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AN UNFORGETTABLE JOURNEY

It must have been quite a journey for the Magi. Their journey would have occurred at some great risk. There would have been plenty of danger along the way as they travelled through enemy territory. At first they went the wrong way, landing up in Jerusalem, thinking that a royal birth would take place in a palace. It was there that they encountered Herod and were subjected to his thirst for power which would result (as we know very well from Holy Scripture) in the spilling of innocent blood. And so, changing their route, they then followed the star south to Bethlehem. Arriving at the place where Jesus was born, they did not find a royal child pampered in luxury but rather an ordinary child, born into an ordinary family and yet with such a holy presence they could do no other than bow down, and worship, and present their gifts. What is interesting to note is that for their journey back they did not use the stars or their local knowledge to choose their route but instead relied on a warning they had received in a dream. And this, I believe, shows that the journey made was not just a physical one but also a spiritual one which led them to understand who Jesus is. And having discovered Jesus they also learnt to discern and obey the voice of the Lord calling to them.

Even though very different to the Magi, we have also been on a physical and spiritual journey. Our journey began that first week of Advent and for four weeks we waited with expectant joy and prepared our hearts and minds to celebrate the birth of our Saviour. We filled our places of worship with prayers and joyful singing, and come Christmas, we adored the Christ Child – the Word made Flesh – the Light that has come into the world.

For many people there is the belief that the Season of Christ’s Birth spans from Christmas Eve to Christmas Day and then it is all over! Out with the tree! And proceed to get on with life till next December. I hope you have managed to acknowledge and observe the twelve days of Christmas. That you were able to continue to listen to and sing those beautiful Carols.

The Lectionary readings, set for these past twelve days, are not always comforting and easy to read. But it is in these twelve days of Christmas that we try to see God in the picture of the infant Jesus. We try to hear God through the daily readings of Holy Scripture. We try to feel God in the beauty of Christian worship.

And this journey has brought us to the climax of the Advent and Christmas Season – to the Feast of the Epiphany. The term Epiphany means “to show”, or “to make known” and even “to reveal”. The Magi who brought gifts to the Christ Child were the first Gentiles to acknowledge Jesus as King and so were the first to “show” or “reveal” Jesus to the wider world as the incarnate Christ. This act of worship by the Magi corresponded with Simeon’s blessing that this child Jesus would be “a light for revelation to the Gentiles”. It is one of the first indications that Jesus came for all people, of all nations, of all races and that the work of God in the world would not be limited to just a few.

On this Feast of Epiphany we are called to focus on the mission of the church. We are called to focus on Christian community and fellowship. We are called to reach out to others and to show Jesus as the Saviour of all people.

Through our celebration of Christmas we were called to gather around the manger and to adore the Christ Child – the Light that has come into the world. Now we leave the manger behind and we focus on the Light that has been entrusted to us. This Light that has come into the world through the infant Jesus is now our responsibility to take to all people.

We are reminded at this time of those who are looking for spiritual answers and for those who have never really considered Jesus and our duty to seek out the lost. We are reminded to pray for the Lord to call some to look in our direction and discover more of the Christian faith. We are reminded that it is simply not enough to give people information about the Christian faith but to rather walk alongside them and to share in their lives. We are reminded of our duty to train and disciple those who have come to faith so that they can also walk in the ways of the Lord.

As members of one body – the Body of Christ – we are to reveal this Light to all whom we meet. We are to share this Light in our homes, in the communities where we live, in our places of learning and work.

This may all sound very daunting! We may, at times, feel too small and insignificant to accomplish great things but we draw our encouragement from Isaiah’s words, “Arise, shine, for your Light has come, and the glory of the Lord shines upon you.”

And so, it is with confidence and courage, that we step forward and do whatever the Lord asks of us, knowing that He can and will use even us, as small as we are, for His purposes and His glory.

As you begin a new calendar year, do not make unrealistic and idealistic resolutions but rather make a promise to rededicate your life, your abilities, gifts and talents, your time to God. Rededicate yourself to the service of others.

At the beginning of this new year, may the priestly benediction given to Aaron by God be your blessing also: “The Lord bless you and keep you; the Lord make his face to shine upon you and be gracious to you; the Lord lift up his countenance upon you and give you peace.”

I wish you all a very happy and blessed 2019.

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THE INCARNATION

In order to understand St John’s approach to the story of Jesus, we must recognize the centrality of the Incarnation to the Gospel. Two verses from the prologue of St John’s Gospel express this clearly:

In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. (John 1:1) and … (John 1:14) The Word became flesh and dwelt among us.

Jesus is the incarnate Word of God. No other New Testament witness places the Incarnation at the centre of its theological world in quite the same way as St John does. For the evangelist, Jesus provides unique and unprecedented access to God because Jesus shares in God’s character and identity, and it is as the Word made flesh that Jesus brings God fully to the world. Jesus does not simply speak God’s words and do God’s works; rather, he does those things because he is God’s word and work in the world. Jesus’ words and works, all of his life and death, make God known. From the beginning to the end, St John bears witness to the gift that God gives the world in the incarnate-Jesus. Therefore, the doctrine of the Incarnation is at the heart of Biblical Christianity.

According to theologian, Alister McGrath, “Incarnation is a central Christian doctrine, according to which the Son or Word of God, the second Person of the divine Trinity, assumed a fleshly human body in Jesus Christ and lived a historical existence on this planet, subject to all the constraints and limitations of such an existence”. (McGrath A, 1993. Modern Day Christian Thought, Oxford, United Kingdom: Blackwell Publishers Ltd, p.269.) Expressed more broadly, the Incarnation is the belief that Jesus was both human and divine.

McGrath goes on to explain that there were many controversies where attempts were made to clarify and render a more precise teaching on the divinity and humanity of Christ. The Arian controversy, at the beginning of the fourth century, was the best known of these disputes. Arius was believed to have taught the subordination of Christ to the Father, and this teaching was condemned by the Council of Nicaea in 325CE when the expression ‘homoousios’ (of the same being) was adopted to indicate that the Father and the Son share eternally the same nature. The Alexandrian School affirmed the presence of the divine nature within Christ. This divine nature assumed human nature within the Incarnation. The Patristic writers affirmed the reality of the union of divine and human substances in the Incarnation through designating Mary as the ‘theotokos’ or ‘bearer of God’. This was of vital importance to the Christian Church in its controversy with Gnosticism. Though the Council of Nicaea had proclaimed that Jesus was fully God, the Church had yet to understand his human nature. In 451CE a council convened in Chalcedon, near Constantinople. Its teaching was incorporated into a statement of faith known as the Chalcedon Definition, acknowledging that in Christ there are two natures, without confusion, without change, without division, and without separation – the characteristic of each nature being preserved and coming together to form one person. Chalcedon would be the last Council that both East and West would regard as official, in terms of defining correct teaching. (McGrath A, 1993. Modern Day Christian Thought, Oxford, United Kingdom: Blackwell Publishers Ltd, pp.270-285.)

In his book, An Introduction to Christian Doctrine, Jessop states that due to Jesus’ full divinity and humanity, the Incarnation can also be seen as an outward and visible sign of an inward and invisible grace in the form of Jesus Christ. Divine Love was the motive of Christ’s coming, living and dying. For the first time Divine Love is seen not simply as an arbitrary mood of God but rather an attribute in itself. It is through this Divine Love that Christ came to plead with humankind, to suffer with and for humankind; for Divine Love must not only reveal but also act. (Jessop T, 1960. An Introduction to Christian Doctrine, Toronto, USA: Thomas Nelson & Sons Ltd, pp.25-26.)

When God created the world he found it to be good. Despite human sin; the sun, moon and stars still shine, the earth remains fertile, flowers still bloom and even sinful humans still love their families, have relationships and do good to their fellow people.

Scholars of sacramental theology refer to Jesus as the supreme sacrament and that in this outward, historical life is expressed the highest purpose of goodness which all life and all nature are destined to fulfil. Therefore the life of Jesus has the capacity to reveal the universal purpose of God’s goodness. To say that Christ has the value of God is to say that Christ’s life manifests beauty, moral goodness, and truth. To this end the Incarnation implies the goodness of life. (Quick O, 1927. The Christian Sacraments, Great Britain: The Mayflower Press, p.60.)

When we, fallible humans, drain the goodness from life we work against God; we stand in the way of the ongoing Incarnation of Christ in the world.

Graffiti-artist and political activist, commonly known as Banksy, in 2005 painted a controversial nativity scene. Mary and Joseph making their way to Bethlehem, only to find their route blocked by the graffiti-covered apartheid wall between Israel and Palestine. To the left a shepherd tends his sheep, while in the distant sky a cross-shaped star lights up the heavens over the imposing concrete barrier. Shedding light on social issues such as injustice, corruption, and discrimination this image speaks multitudes into how barriers can drain the goodness from life and restrict the saving work of God.

When the actions of those in authority have little or no regard for the people, their customs, culture, and religious beliefs – barriers are formed. When presidents and governments make declarations that unravel tireless efforts towards peace and reconciliation – barriers are formed. When the Church becomes so inward looking that it sees not the needs of those in the community, and fails to understand its mission within the world, despite sacrifice and financial cost – barriers are formed. When we close our hearts to the promptings of the Holy Spirit, and place emphasis on our own desires instead of the will of God – barriers are formed. Only when we work to turn barriers into bridges of transformation, can God’s saving-work be done and the ongoing Incarnation of Christ in the world take place.

We are God’s hands, feet, mouth and heart.

The Incarnation is not only about what happened in a stable two thousand years ago. It is also about us in the present day. It has huge implications for how we live our everyday lives today. We are the ongoing Incarnation of Christ in the world. As Christians our challenge and calling is to be Christ to others – to bring his hope to those who feel hopeless; to show compassion to those who feel helpless; to fight for peace where there is conflict.

As St Paul writes: “It is no longer I who live, it is Christ who lives in me”. (Galatians 2:20)

The early Christians believed that by converting to Christianity, they had followed Jesus in becoming sons of God. Baptism was seen as a symbol of death to their own lives and a rebirth into a new life in Christ. They were told that they had, quite literally, become ‘christoi’ (“Christs”). The Eastern Orthodox Church still refers to us becoming deified like Christ in our lives. In other words, what Christ did for the world two thousand years ago, we should be doing now for today’s world.

Spiritual writer Ronald Rolheiser tells the story of a four-year old girl who wakes up in the middle of the night and finds herself afraid that there might be ghosts and monsters hiding in the dark. So she runs through to her parent’s bedroom. Her mother comforts her, reassuring her that she is safe, as God is in her bedroom with her. The little girl replies: “I know that God is there, but I need someone in my room who has some skin”. (Rolheiser R, 2011. Our One Great Act of Fidelity: Waiting for Christ in the Eucharist, New York: Random House LLC)

The Incarnation reassures us, as people who rely so much on our senses, that God still, quite literally, has some skin and that he is here on earth in the shape of us. Through our words, actions, our everyday living we are called to live in the way that Christ would have done, to continue his ministry, to think his thoughts, to repeat his compassionate and loving actions; to break down the barriers that obstruct God’s saving-work in the world so that Christ can become real to others, so that the light can shine through the darkness, so that the Word that became flesh can penetrate the hearts of every human being.

As we approach once again the manger, let us commit ourselves to take to heart the message of love, forgiveness, peace, goodwill and hope that God shares with us through Christ; and let us, with utmost determination, put that message into action.

Never forget that you are God’s hands, God’s feet, God’s mouth, and God’s heart in the world.

I wish you and your loved ones a very Blessed Christmas.

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THE ECHO WITHIN

Robert Benson writes a very easy to read book of a somewhat contemplative nature. He is a writer and retreat leader and places great importance on the power of prayer. He places a lot of emphasis on our vulnerability and our brokenness. Through his writings he stresses that we are to listen deeply for the gentle voice of God through humility and prayer.

The book, ‘The Echo Within’, focuses on the acts of listening, hearing, waiting, choosing and acting. Listening is not always easy and if you are not naturally contemplative, it can be even harder. However, going on a retreat or simply taking time out to be quiet before God is vitally important for our growth and our edification. As a People of God, we are called to foster a deeper spirituality – one that can be nourished by prayer, fasting, self-examination and quiet meditation.

Benson shares a story of when he was leading a retreat and someone asked him, “How do we tell the difference between God’s voice and our own voice?” “I cannot tell if it is God telling me this or if I am just talking to myself.” He is bold enough to suggest that maybe God’s voice sounds just like our voice and wonders if that really is such a bad thing.

I was interested, in his book, to learn the Hebrew word Dabhar. Dabhar simply means God spoke. It is the word used in Genesis – most often rendered as the word created in our English translations. Throughout his book, Benson suggests that in the beginning God spoke, God breathed everything into being and continues to do so. He boldly refers to us as the incarnate word of God – through us (our words, our actions, our lives) the word of God comes alive and we reveal a part of God’s nature to the world.

In the confusion of everyday life, we all need moments to pause for prayer, quiet reflection and to listen for the gentle voice of God. The 21st Century culture does not place much emphasis on listening and waiting. We live in a time of instant gratification. We want the end result but not really prepared to endure the process to get there. Spiritually we want God’s blessings instantaneously – in our time and not God’s time.

This book needs to be read prayerfully and not academically. I found it useful to work through it chapter-by-chapter and at the end of each chapter to spend a few days reflecting on the words before moving on – allowing God to speak through those words and the thoughts they provoked.

We are all called to some form of ministry. Vocation is not only about ordination. The Church needs both – lay ministry and those called to Holy Orders.  Through our baptism we are all partakers in building God’s Kingdom – we just need to find the part we are to play – the part that God wants us to play!

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LIVING AS EUCHARISTIC PEOPLE

In the course of Christian history, a number of influential theories have developed regarding the Eucharist. Despite the many debates it can be agreed upon that the sacraments (of which the Eucharist is one) are real instruments of grace. It is important to recognize the continuous experience of the Christian church from the first Easter morning to now; namely that Christ is present when the Church gathers to “do this in remembrance” of him and to make Eucharist – in other words to give thanks.

The Eucharistic Prayer is a summary of the basic beliefs which bring individuals into the common Eucharistic action. The transforming power of the Holy Spirit which the prayer proclaims is witness to the Spirit’s same transforming power in the lives of the faithful. And so, the Eucharist is both a fulfilment and a promise: a fulfilment of the Lord’s assurance that he will be with his Church to the end of the ages; a promise of a coming and final consummation in the heavenly banquet of which the Eucharist is a foretaste.

As we recover a sense of the Eucharist as the great sign of the unity of God’s people we find that in its awesome simplicity – the sharing of broken bread and a common cup – it is a meeting place for persons of widely different temperaments and spiritual needs. What is crucial for all is the common affirmation which unites us in Christ, that this is the bread of life and that this is the cup of salvation.

According to Stephen Cottrell, who writes for Pilgrim Course, “when we meet in worship we are reminded of God’s continuing welcome to his people and of all that God has done to make that welcome possible. We retell the story of our faith. We remind ourselves of all the ways God has met with us. We bring to God our hopes and needs, our joys and fears. God is our gracious host. He does not just welcome everyone. He welcomes everything about us! Christian worship is an encounter with the risen Lord. God calls us into a future that is already his and we offer ourselves to be transformed. The Eucharist, perhaps more than any other form of Christian worship, makes this transformation vivid and real. This is because it brings us directly into Christ’s presence, not only through Scripture, but by a special kind of remembering that makes his Easter victory present to us.” (Pilgrim: A Course for the Christian Journey – The Eucharist. The Church of England)

There is that lovely Gospel narrative about the walk to Emmaus.

Luke 24 vs 32: “Were not our hearts burning within us while he was talking to us on the road, while he was opening the Scriptures to us?”

The disciples are living with unmet hopes and deep grief. They meet a stranger on the road who walks alongside them. They find they are able to tell their story and express their sorrows and regret. Jesus listens to all that they have to say and then responds to them, opening the Scriptures and helping them to see that his death has not been the end of everything, but the moment of true liberation and transformation. At the meal that they share together, he breaks bread – and they see him as he really is. The risen Christ meets them in the breaking of the bread. They cannot sustain the vision – Christ vanishes from their sight. But they are changed – their hunger for hope, meaning, and restoration is satisfied.

As with all Christian worship – we come as ourselves, with our particular strengths and weaknesses, virtues and frailties. We bring with us the whole network of relationships in which we live and work and struggle and dream. All this is raw material for transformation and is symbolized by the bread and wine, the work of human hands. But we are not present merely as individuals. Like the disciples on the Emmaus road, we come in company with one another, with shared memories and doubts and hopes. Together we praise God, confessing our need of God’s goodness and grace in our lives. The risen Christ draws near to us as he did on the Emmaus road and we hear his promise to us in the Gospel. We see and hear how Jesus took the bread, blessed it, broke it and gave it to his disciples. The ordinary fabric of our lives is taken up into Christ’s risen life and given back to us, charged with the hope and joy that comes from God’s future. The Eucharist transforms us into kingdom people, who are called to share our bread with the hungry and bring life and hope to the world. It is in and through the Eucharist that we are always being made new.

At the heart of the Christian faith is the belief that we are made for community in God. When we worship we become the people who find their rest and fulfilment in God. We become who we are meant to be. We enter into community with the God who, in Jesus, is revealed as a community of persons: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. This is the community that we are part of through our baptism. The Church is the community of persons who have been gathered together by Christ and have access to God. And worship is what we do. “Worship changes us, it makes us a people who are thankful and adoring. And because we are made for heaven, we are made for worship. It should be our joyful duty to be part of the worshiping community. Unless worship is changing us so that our concerns and priorities are shaped by the concerns and priorities of God, and unless we are seeking God’s justice and righteousness for the world, then our worship is worthless.” (Angela Tilby. Pilgrim: A Course for the Christian Journey – The Eucharist. The Church of England)

“If we can consider anew the structure of the Eucharist, we find a symbolic action. In the liturgy of the Word, in the proclamation of Holy Scripture. we have the continual challenge to hear the Word – to truly hear it. The liturgy of the Word always offers us a choice: to live as God yearns us to be or to return to the complacency of our lives. There is that revelation, again and again that even now, in all that is most painfully human, God is with us and that we are his instruments for the transformation of the whole fabric of life. It is no coincidence that the Liturgy of the Word involves both ordained and lay people. This shared liturgical ministry is an outward expression in the gathered Church of the shared ministry of the people of God as they go about their work in the world, in obedience to Christ.” (John Pritchard. Pilgrim: A Course for the Christian Journey – The Eucharist. The Church of England)

Our common life in Christ is proclaimed in our eating and drinking the holy gifts together. Just as the Word is proclaimed to all who will listen, so the Eucharistic feast is offered to all who will receive it. Within the Eucharist we are all equally members of the Body of Christ. No matter who we are, no matter our status, race, nationality, sexual orientation; no matter our shortcomings and failures – we all receive the same gifts. As we receive in the Eucharist, so we in our turn offer ourselves as a living sacrifice to God. Our Lord takes us and blesses us; he breaks us in renewed surrender and gives us as food for others.

There is within every Eucharist a twofold movement: the call to come (draw near and receive) and the summons to move out into a needy world (go in peace to love and to serve the Lord). These are the hallmarks of any given Eucharist community – of those who are kingdom people: receiving and giving

By the grace of God may we be Eucharistic people – drawing near to the altar and receiving Christ in the bread and wine, and then going out to love and serve all of God’s creation.

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FROM THE CHAPLAIN’S BOOKSHELF

In this review I commend the work of Jessie Zink, entitled “Backpacking through the Anglican Communion”.

[Jessie Zink, 2014. Backpacking through the Anglican Communion. New York: Morehouse Publishing.]

Current debates and events have brought the Anglican Communion into headline news; especially the debates around human sexuality. There are those who believe that the only way forward is for the Communion to split into fractions. However, many remain optimistic, despite theological differences, that the Anglican Communion can find unity within its diversity.

The Anglican Communion is a collection of independent provinces and churches that have authority over their own doctrine and church order, as well as their daily affairs. Each has its own Canon Law, which is the body of rules and laws imposed by each church on its clergy and laity in matters of faith, morals, and discipline.

Jessi Zink is an Anglican (Episcopalian) priest, author, and principal of Montreal Diocesan Theological College. He also has experience of working as a missionary in Mthatha, South Africa, where he developed an interest in critiquing, challenging, and expanding notions of Christian mission and evangelism.

His inspiration to write this book is based on an earlier work by Revd. Howard Johnson (then canon theologian of the Cathedral of St John the Divine, New York) entitled: Global Odyssey – An Episcopalian’s Encounter with the Anglican Communion in Eighty Countries. Between 1959 and 1961, Howard set out on one long trip to visit every province of the Anglican Communion; including 200 000 miles, 730 days, and 294 beds to sleep in. As the Anglican Communion has both increased in size and changed in diversity, Jessie Zink decided to revisit Howard’s research between the period January 2010 and July 2011. His extensive travels covered provinces and dioceses in the United States, Great Britain, Europe, Nigeria, South Sudan, South Africa, and China.

Throughout his novel Zink shows that when conversations about power, history, and sexuality are undertaken in a spirit of mutuality and trust, they can strengthen, not weaken, the Anglican Communion.

Many believe that his book is already shaping debates about the future of the Anglican Communion.

Focusing on the theme, A Search for Unity, this interesting and well-written book presents vivid slices of Anglican life around the world, argues convincingly that unity is central to the Communion’s mission, and presents a credible path to achieving that unity in a global Church.

All this now begs the question, “So what is the way forward from here?”

Anglicans need to begin from a point of what they have and not from a point of what they desire. The richness of Anglican theology, both the understanding of it and identity in it, is enriched through the lens of scripture, tradition, and reason. It is here that both Catholic and Protestant can co-exist in bonds of affection, and hold in tension their theological differences. The Instruments of Unity (Archbishop of Canterbury, Lambeth Conference, Primates Meeting, Anglican Consultative Council) are in themselves a unifying factor. Even though they hold no legal and executive power within the Communion, what they represent is far greater – a shared goal and identity.

If Anglican history has taught anything it is that ways of being Church are never static but always evolving as people grow and develop. Anglicans need to agree to go on talking to each other about matters that divide them and to do so honourably and straightforwardly. They are to help one another to live toward their common need of God, and their joint search for God in the myriad ways they can walk together, talk together, discern together, discover together, and celebrate together. It is in this diversity and comprehensiveness that the Anglican Communion can begin to find its unity.

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CELEBRATING MARY MAGDALENE

As we celebrate the Feast of Mary Magdalene we give thanks for her life and witness. She is a Gospel role-model who exercised bravery and leadership in challenging circumstances.

So who was Mary Magdalene? There has been much controversy and debate around her and as a result we have failed to appreciate her unique role in the Gospels. The root of this controversy can be traced back to 591AD when Pope Gregory the Great preached his homily on St Luke’s Gospel in which he labels Mary Magdalene as a prostitute and an unworthy sinner. Only in 1969 (1378 years later) did the Vatican, under the leader of Pope Paul VI, reject this claim to Mary’s character. Even so, this unnecessary tainted image remained with her into the 21st Century.

I suppose Mary did have an undesirable past before encountering Jesus. But is that not true for all of us! We all have a past! We all have those moments in our lives we wish not to revisit.

There are no biblical references to Mary Magdalene as been a person with a promiscuous nature. Through the words of one individual a stigma and a form of discrimination had been created. But stigmatisation and discrimination extends far beyond just Mary Magdalene. South Africa, my country of birth and where I grew up, has a violent history due to discrimination. White people were seen as the superior race. We belittled and oppressed those whose skin colour was different to ours. We created a stigma around those who society thought did not fit into the box labelled “normal”. We laughed at the physically and mentally challenged. We rejected the gay and lesbian neighbour. We ignored the HIV+ sufferer. Why? Because through ignorance we saw them as unworthy. We marred and tainted the image of each and every one of them and yet in Genesis 1: 26 ‘God said, “Let us make human beings in our image and likeness”‘.

If we are to truly function as the body of Christ then this verse needs to shape our thoughts, words, and actions. All people are created in the image of God. All people are equal in God’s eyes; and God loves and cares for all His creation; despite gender, race, religion, or sexual orientation. God loves and calls each and every person by name.

So back to the question: Who was Mary Magdalene? Mary was a constant companion of Jesus during his ministry in Galilee and one of his earliest followers. She was loyal to the last. Present at the crucifixion and the interment of Jesus’ body in the tomb, and also the first recorded witness of the resurrection. According to St John’s Gospel, the Resurrected Jesus singles Mary out from all the others, charging her alone with the task of bringing news of his transcendence over death to his disciples. Mary went on to counsel others in Jesus’ teaching and she inspired many to join her in the Christian faith. St Augustine, in the 4th Century, said that ‘the Holy Spirit made Mary Magdalene the Apostle to the Apostles’. As we read in the Gospel, she did not recognise the Risen Lord; thinking that he was the gardener. Only when Jesus called her by name – when he engaged with her on a personal level – was she able to respond “Rabouni” – Teacher.

It is vitally important for the Church – for us as the body of Christ to affirm all people and to call them by name in an act of love. There are so many who have been hurt and wounded by the words and actions of others, of the Church, of society. The Church, as a mighty institution, cannot be complacent and silent! We, as followers of Christ, cannot be complacent and silent individuals! We must step out of our comfort zones and engage with people on a personal level – meeting them where they are at in life. And as we engage with them – calling them by name – we must truly believe that they are created in the image of God – that they are loved, and cared for, and accepted by God. This is part of our discipleship – to be agents of change – to be actively involved in eradicating stigmatisation and discrimination. If the Church is truly to have a prophetic voice in the lives of individuals – in the life of a community – then we, as a people of God – must become passionate about transformation and liberation – empowering and uplifting God’s people.

Day in and day out it is Mary Magdalene’s message – the message of the Risen Christ – that we are challenged to proclaim with as much bravery, boldness, and integrity as she did. May we proclaim that message! May that message shape our thoughts, words, and actions. By the grace of God, by His strength, guidance and wisdom, may we be the voice of hope, love, compassion, forgiveness, and acceptance in a very broken, divided, and struggling world.

 

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EMBRACING ORDINARY TIME

The special seasons of the Church such as Advent, Christmas, Lent, and Easter have passed and we find ourselves in what is known as Ordinary Time; or named after its liturgical colour – the “Green Season”.

Ordinary Time is the liturgical season of the Church year when we are encouraged to grow and mature in daily expressions of our faith outside the great seasons of celebration of Christmas and Easter; and the great periods of expectant waiting and penance of Advent and Lent. Ordinary Time is a time to deepen our prayer life and to study, more intently, the Holy Scriptures. Ordinary Time is a period when we strive to become extraordinary messengers of the Gospel through our thoughts, words, and deeds. During Ordinary Time we read through one of the Gospels; alternating the reading of the Synoptic Gospels over a three-year cycle. Combining this with readings from the Hebrew Scriptures (Old Testament) and the Epistle; we read and relive the events of salvation history. Against the backdrop of Christ’s birth, death, and resurrection we are given the chance to reflect more deeply on the life of Jesus and what it means to be a follower of Christ.

Hopefully you are beginning to see that there is nothing “ordinary” about Ordinary Time.

Barbara Brown-Taylor, in her book An Altar in the World, reveals meaningful ways to discover the sacred in the small things we do and see. As we incorporate these meaningful ways into our daily lives, we begin to discover altars everywhere we go. We learn to live with purpose, pay attention, slow down and practice reverence. In a world of too much information about everything we are encouraged to engage with the most ordinary physical activities – becoming more fully human requires a trust that there is no way to God apart from real life in the real world. Brown-Taylor’s book focuses on practices such as waking up to God, paying attention, encountering others, living with purpose, feeling pain, being present with God, and being a blessing in the lives of others. There is the emphasis that “God does not come to us beyond the flesh but in the flesh” (pg.44) – in other words, we need the practice of Incarnation. The more we pay attention to our surroundings, to people, to the small and ordinary things in life, the more we begin to see the revelation of God’s presence, God’s power,  God’s goodness, God’s love and compassion. These revelations are important to our spiritual journey as we continue along this earthly pilgrimage; always drawing closer to the heart of God.

As we embrace this season of Ordinary Time, encountering the Almighty in new and exciting ways, we are invited to see Him more clearly, to love Him more dearly, and to follow Him more nearly, day by day.  (Richard, Bishop of Chichester)

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