Monday, December 27, 2010

The First Martyr

Sermon: St Stephen's Day

In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit – Amen.

Today is St Stephen's Day ... also known as Boxing Day. No one is quite sure why it is called Boxing Day, though there is plenty of speculation! Some suggest it has something to do with Charity boxes set up in Churches on that day in olden times; others that the well to do made a habit of visiting poor neighbours with presents of food; still others that the nobility, in order to ensure that Christmas Day went smoothly in their own homes, gave the servants the next day off with a nice present to take home with them; and then there is the suggestion that the trades-folk got their Christmas bonuses or 'boxes' for good service all year on that day ... perhaps they waited until after Christmas to make sure they got the choicest foods and wines delivered for their celebrations!

In Ireland, it has never been all that common to call it Boxing Day ... a bit more common was to refer to it as Wren Day, as Hunting the Wren was very popular, especially in country areas ... and no doubt today in many parts of rural Ireland there are people dressed up as 'Wren boys' going round knocking on doors and raising money for charity (or themselves!) as they sing the song that begins: 'The wren, the wren, the king of all birds, on St Stephen's Day was caught in the furze.' Let us only hope that they are not doing what the custom originally called for, which was actually hunting and killing a wren first and then tying it to a pole and parading around with it! The origins of this custom are lost in the mists of time, but it seems to have pagan associations – perhaps something to do with the wren being seen as the bird of winter, and its sacrifice heralded the coming of the spring.

These different names for St Stephen's Day, both secular and pagan, make me think about what different names there might be for St Stephen himself. It is not uncommon to give saints descriptive titles to distinguish them from others with the same name – and there is in fact another St Stephen. He might, for example, be called St Stephen the Apostle. He was not one
of the 12 apostles, but there is a strong likelihood he was was of the 70 (or 72) we read about in Luke 10 who were sent out by our Lord – and of course the word apostle means one who is sent out. We could also call him St Stephen the Deacon; we know from Acts 6 he was one of the seven chosen by the Apostles to assist them in their work and make sure that the Gentile widows of the early church were looked after in the food distribution. In fact, he might even be called St Stephen the First Deacon, because not only does Acts name him first when listing the deacons, it distinguishes him from his fellows by describing him as a man full of faith and the Holy Spirit.

But it is, in fact, the title 'Protomartyr' that is used to distinguish him from the other Stephen – St Stephen, the first martyr. And we all know the story of that martyrdom. We heard how it
ended in our reading from Acts this morning, with Stephen being stoned to death. Earlier in Acts we are told how his opponents had tried to argue with him; but Stephen, filled with the Holy Spirit, was too wise for them. So then they brought false witnesses against him and accused this Holy man of blasphemy; Stephen's response to these charges is to remind them all how good God has been to them ... his words enrage the crowd and they drag Stephen out and kill him ...

Why do we celebrate St Stephen's day when we do, the day after Christmas? It seems rather a 'downer' to think about something like this so soon after the joys of Christmas morning, when most of us are still feeling a bit stuffed from our good meal from the day before, and perhaps wondering if there are any of those nice chocolates left or some other tasty treat? Well the tradition of the Church has always been to celebrate the feast day of martyrs around the anniversary of their death. So clearly the tradition was that it was at this time of year that Stephen died. The date that the early Church Fathers calculated as being the day of Christ's birth wasn't worked out until many years after that. So essentially it was by chance that the two days ended up following each other in the Church calendar. It was only an accident that we go from the celebratory liturgical colour of white for the birth of our Lord on Christmas day to the red for the blood of the martyred Stephen on the next.

Only an accident ... or is it one of those happy coincidences that actually make a profound theological point? We celebrate the birth of the Christ child one day and remember the death
of our first martyr the next ... even as we still feeling the warm glow of all that Christmas means ... and I don't just mean the mulled wine and the minced pies and everything else like that, but what it means for humanity that the incarnation took place ... and straight after that we are reminded that this is not just some kind of cheap grace that is on offer ... there is a price to be paid for being a Christian ... few, thank God, are called to pay the price of their life's blood ... but all are called to pay the price of their lives ... of leading a life that is changed utterly by the coming of the Christ Child into the world ... the word martyr means witness ... and we, like Stephen, are called to be martyrs ... witnesses ... to our faith in the one whose birth we celebrated yesterday ... the one to whom we were joined with in our baptisms ...

In the greater scheme of things, it matters little if we are unsure why it is we call Boxing Day Boxing Day ... or why the Wren boys used to tie a dead wren to a pole ... but we must never forget why it is that people like St Stephen died ... he died for us ... so that by his witness the faith that he had might be passed on to others ... might be passed on to us ... and so that we might have the courage to also be witnesses and in so doing, pass to the faith to others also ... Amen.

Bah Humbug!

Sermon: Christmas Day 2010

In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit – Amen.

The shepherds said to one another: 'Let us go to Bethlehem and see this thing which the Lord has made known to us!'

So here we are – Christmas Day! No doubt by now the stockings hung so carefully by the fire last night have been all but shredded ... some of the parcels and packages so beautifully wrapped have been reduced to recycling material ... and the makings of the Christmas feast are waiting in kitchens for their final preparations so that soon they may be enthusiastically devoured!

Ah, we do enjoy Christmas ... but of course, as you'll know from listening to the radio and from a thousand newspaper articles, we have all but lost the true meaning of Christmas in all our hype and hoopla ... and our Christmas traditions only help to obscure that meaning ... or do they? Perhaps it would be no harm to look at a few of them and see:

Well first there's Christmas Cards ...purely secular ... except, that even if the card has no explicitly Christian message, always implicit is the message from the sender that it is Christmas time again & I am thinking of you ... it is reaching out to people with a message of good cheer ... which sounds a bit like what the angels were doing to the shepherds ... and remember the word 'angel' in Greek means messenger ... perhaps with every Christmas card you write you are, in a very small way, being God's messenger, reminding others of what happened so long ago in Bethlehem ...

Christmas Carols ... well, the angels may not have been singing their message, but they were praising God ... and I always think of the words attributed to St Augustine here: 'he who sings well prays twice' ... I think we may safely say that there are quite a few people who do a lot more praying through the medium of Christmas Carols than they do in other ways the rest of the year! And each Carol in some way rehearses a part of the Christmas story ... and John Wesley thought that one of the best ways to teach people the faith in a way that really became ingrained in them was through carol and hymn ...

Christmas lights ... well surely when the angels came down, the heavens were lit up ... a bit like when any town or city has their ceremonial switching on of the Christmas lights ... and how better to celebrate the coming of the Light of the World than by lights .. and lots of them! Scientists of the human mind tell us how important the visual is to us when it comes to making an impression ... well, every light in every window, on every tree, or roof, or wherever they may be shining is a powerful visual reminder of the time of year that it is ...

Of course, there are those that say that we shouldn't be celebrating Christmas at all ... that it's really a pagan festival that the early Church took over ... to which I say: and Bah Humbug to you too! Firstly, why should it matter which day we celebrate the birth of Our Lord and Saviour? And secondly, in any case, they are completely wrong! Yes there was a pagan festival celebrated on December 25th ... it was called the 'Birth of the Unconquered Sun' and it was established by the Roman Emperor Aurelian in the year 270 ... Aurelian was anti-Christian and he was trying to revive faith in the old religions by fighting against the increasing popularity of Christianity ... so he was trying to pull together a variety of pagan cults under the banner of Sun worship ... and he chose December 25th as their day of celebration for two reasons ... first, it was just after the winter solstice, the shortest day of the year, so the days would begin to lengthen and signify the re-birth of the Sun ... and secondly: it was the day that had been already been calculated as the date of the birth of Christ by the Church Fathers! Aurelian was deliberately picking a day important to Christians almost by way of an advertising campaign ... a bit like some of the modern ad campaigns run by aggressive secularist organisations which proclaim things like: you don't need Christ to enjoy Christmas!

But in fact the Emperor Aurelian's plan backfired on him ... because when Constantine made Christianity the official religion of the Empire, there was now already a day in place when people were used to having a big celebration just sitting there waiting for the new religion to reclaim as their own ... And just as Aurelian was wrong when he thought he could stamp out Christianity by hi-jacking the day of their Saviour's birth, so too I think those that fear that all the trappings of the season that have grown up around it over the centuries are in danger of obscuring its meaning and perhaps even destroying it's message are wrong ... because the message of Christmas has essentially been encoded into our DNA ... it has been written into the fabric of our being by every flashing light ... by every card we write or open ... by every carol we sing or hear ... they are reminding us of the Christmas story ... calling out to us ... and calling out to everyone in the world ... that something wonderful happened on this day ... and everyone is invited again to journey again in their hearts to that place ... to see in their minds' eye the heavens open and hear in their souls' the message of the angels ... and to understand that we all, like the shepherds, must go to Bethlehem to see this thing that the Lord has made known to us ... Amen.

Thursday, December 23, 2010

Silly Season

Ireland is in the grip of snow and ice. It's not something we're used to. We had a bad winter last year, but somehow expected we'd have the usual this time around. We didn't, and so are left 'dreaming of a mild Christmas, just like the ones we used to know.' Still it's not all bad. Ireland has been trying to catch up with the US for years, especially when it came to road building. We're not quite there yet ... however, at least we now have, if not free-ways, freeze-ways  ... and if the government gets its way and puts tolls all over the place we'll have fee-ways as well. This is the same government that thought it important to nationalise the banks' multi-billion euro gambling debts; the same ones that, despite all the reminders and warnings they were given didn't lay in an adequate supply of grit and salt to keep the roads passable.

Still, it's not as if the government are the only ones doing stupid things at the moment. I'm constantly amazed at what I see when I'm out and about on the countrywide skating rink that is now Ireland Inc. For example, one of the first things I said to my kids when it got slippery was: 'Keep your hands out of your pockets.' Makes sense, right? You need your hands free for balance if you start to slip a bit. It's one of the things my mother told me when I was a kid. I thought the world was going loony when I heard then actually announcing this on the radio as government advice - nanny state gone mad, right? Except, I see people everywhere, walking slowly, slipping and sliding ... with their hands in their pockets. Don't they listen to their mothers? Don't they listen to the radio? Don't they have a scrap of common sense? Makes you wonder.

Then there was the kid on the bike. Maybe sixteen. Icy road - bad enough. No helmet - well, maybe no brain to protect. Hands in pockets. I kid you not.

Of course then there are the people who drive like their hands are in their pockets. No no, you cry - it's just that the roads are slippery. Then maybe they could try, I don't know, slowing down? Or maybe getting off their mobile phones and putting both hands on the wheel? Yes indeedy, I've seen dozens of people, driving in the snow and ice, chattering away on their hand-held mobile phone. Illegal and silly enough when the roads are good. But now? Criminal carelessness and wantonly reckless disregard for their safety and the safety of others.

But at least they can see where they are going. Unlike one lady I met on the road only today. Coming straight down the center of the road with her hazard warning lights going. I couldn't figure out why she had them on ... until I realised her windscreen was frozen over. Completely covered in ice. She had her window open and was half hanging out. Where could she possibly have been going that was so urgent that she couldn't wait the five minutes it'd take for the heater to thaw out her windscreen? Nuts.

I've seen other stuff. But my blood pressure can't handle reliving any more of these moments. But what about you? Seen any insanity lately? Do share!

Joseph and the question of Mary's 'sin' 2



While I said in my previous post that I thought that, based on a close reading of the relevant verses in Mathew, Joseph didn't suspect Mary of sin, I am aware that this is not doctrine. In fact, in the idea that Joseph did suspect her and battled through his doubt is very useful for those dealing with their own doubts. In many ways it is a very powerful 'lens' for looking at the story through - especially as it 'humanises', in the sense of making them less inimitably holy.

The BBC has a new series out on the Nativity. I haven't seen it, but I have seen the trailer, which focuses largely on the doubts Joesph had over Mary's explanation as to how she came to be pregnant. I found it very moving & am putting watching the series on my 'to do list' - enjoy!

Monday, December 20, 2010

Joseph and the question of Mary's 'sin'

Being Advent, the theme of the nativity is very much a topic on several of the blogs I follow. One raised the question of did St Joseph suspect the Blessed Virgin of sin?

I must confess that this was not a question I had ever considered in depth before. Indeed, I had always rather presumed that he had. That, put simply, he had found out she was pregnant and knowing he wasn't the father planned to end the relationship. But being a nice guy, he didn't plan to disgrace her, but was going to divorce her quietly.

The blog post was interesting, and ran through a lot of the history of the thought on the issue, particularly that of the Church Fathers. I was interested to learn that it was far from a settled question. Some thought he did think she had sinned until he had learned otherwise; others thought that he did not, and the reason for his divorce plans was based on a feeling of his own unworthiness.

I didn't put too much thought into it, until I came across a comment on the post which suggested that Joseph could not be a just man if he didn't expose Mary to the full penalty of law if he suspected her of sin. Which rather bugged me. I've always liked the idea of Joseph being a just man because of the mercy he showed to Mary in these circumstances. So I got out my Greek New Testament and my thinking cap and this is what emerged ...

Is a just man one who insists on the letter of the law on all occasions; or is a just man one who can temper justice with mercy? Is the only kind of Jewish man who could be considered just  the former? I don't think so. There is much in the Old Testament that would suggest mercy as being a virtue.

In any event, Matthew's Gospel is a New Testament text and it is in the NT context we must consider whether St Joseph's actions are compatible with his being a just man if he suspected the BVM of sin. The word in Greek at Matthew 2.19 that is often translated as just is δικαιος, (dikaios) which also can be translated as righteous, holy (or even innocent ... thanks to Strong's Greek Dictionary for that info). We are told that as a man who was just/holy/righteous, his decision was to divorce her quietly and not expose her to public disgrace. If he did suspect her of sin, the text nonetheless regards his actions as δικαιος. If the interpretation is that St Joseph was being merciful and did not wish a young woman to be disgraced for her sin, it is not surprising that a Christian text would see this as an action that was δικαιος in character.

However, v2.18 says that the BVM had been found to with child by the Holy Spirit and in was in those circumstances that St Joseph decided to divorce her. The text does not state he suspected her of sin; but clearly if he had made a public display of divorcing her, the world at large might well have suspected her of sin and therefore he wished to divorce her quietly. A man who wished to avoid bringing scandal on the head of one he believes to be innocent of wrongdoing is also clearly a man who is δικαιος.

That would only leave the question of why, if he believed her to be innocent of sin, would he wish to divorce her? In v2.20 we hear he was told 'not to be afraid to take Mary' as his wife. Why should he be afraid? That some will know that the child is not his does not seem plausible, otherwise it would be pointless for him to attempt to spare her public disgrace. Equally, a man who is δικαιος would not be afraid of the whispers of gossips. The only thing left for him to afraid of then is the situation itself: that his bride is with child by the Holy Spirit. A man who is truly δικαιος must feel himself unworthy to be husband to a woman who has been so honoured by God.

Therefore, with no disrespect intended to the Church Fathers who take a different view, I believe the Scriptures best support the following interpretation: St Joseph knew and believed that the BVM was with child by the Holy Spirit; he never suspected her of sin, but rather felt himself unworthy of the honour of being husband to such a woman; however, obedient to the message of his vision, he changed his plans and humbly submitted himself to God's will, and thereby proved himself a worthy spouse of Our Lady.

I'm kind of sorry to have let go of my idea of Joseph being 'just' because he was being forgiving. On the other hand, I think I have a better insight into his character as a result of my pondering. Joseph was more than just a nice guy. Which is appropriate for the man who was going to be the step-father of Our Lord.

Monday, December 13, 2010

The Vatican & Wikileaks

When will the negative spin on all reporting connected with the Catholic Church end? For example, today's Irish Times had a opinion piece about some of the wikileak stuff and the Vatican (here). Apparently the Vatican are only interested in preserving its wealth and power & everything they do is organised towards that end. Oh come on - I know they screwed up royally in how they handled the abuse scandal, but that sounds a bit like something for the next Dan Brown book.

Now colour me sensitive, but my fairplay-ometer is starting to feel a little jiggle about how everything linked to the Vatican and the Catholic Church ends up taking a bit of an OTT battering in the media. Take the case at hand. The  paper describes the Vatican wikileaks as 'disclosures' which obscure 'the values it might be expected to espouse' (Comment, 13 December). I looked at these so called disclosures online at http://www.guardian.co.uk/world/us-embassy-cables-documents/251110.

Firstly they are old news, events that took place nearly ten years ago and were hardly a secret even then. It seems to be over-egging the pudding to call the info 'disclosures.' Secondly they are diplomats' impressions of the Vatican's reaction. Are diplomats infallible? Impressions can be mistaken. It's not the kind of stuff that would get very far in a court case. Unless it was a kangaroo court. And finally, what exactly is the issue? The Vatican wished the Murphy Commission to adhere to proper protocols - something they were perfectly entitled to do. They are a sovereign state. They wanted official communications from another country to come through diplomatic channels. Is that something deserving of censure? Apparently it is - but only if it involves the Catholic Church.

I am not a Roman Catholic and I have no axe to grind in this matter. Indeed, having being raised Catholic, and going 'lapsed' for a variety of reasons, before 'jumping ship' and getting ordained in a different denomination, some might consider me to be, if anything, 'anti-Catholic' - I'm quite sure I would risk that accusation if I started any kind of a diatribe against the Catholic Church! But I don't see this as an issue whether I'm being 'pro' or 'anti' the RCC. It's about whether the media is being fair.

 And, it seems to me that all reporting connected with the Catholic Church of late tends, ironically, to adopt a 'holier than thou' attitude. And I don't buy it. There seems to be a determination to not let the public forget that the Church made a very big mistake and leave no room for healing or reconcilliation. When the government screws up, attention wanes after a few weeks. It becomes old news and they move on. But not in this case. Here they want to keep the wound open and fresh. I simply can't believe that this is all about the pain of the victims of abuse. Lets face it - when there's a famine in a developing country it makes the news for a few weeks. Then it becomes old news and the mdeia moves on. People are dying. Our caring media should be pushing it for all they are worth. But no. Yesterday's News. But that's not how this story is playing out. To what purpose? All this kind of stuff can hope to achieve is that it might make the Irish people stay angry at the Church. So I think that must be the true agenda.

Maybe they don't even realise it. They resent the influence the Church used to have & they are afraid it's coming back. The final line of the piece is 'the days of genuflection are over.' That's the big worry - that the Church might return to being a secular power. Well  I don't think they need to worry. The Irish people have moved on. Whatever relationship they have in the future with the Church, it won't be a carbon copy of the one it had in the past. It'll be maturer, one that sees the Church's role as an enabler, an equipper, rather than a dictator. And I think that's what the Church wants too. Probably what it always wanted. But the way society used to be, that wasn't really possible then. An authoritarian, hierarchical society had an authoritarian, hierarchical church. What a surprise.

So this selling the same old stuff dressed up as new every chance it gets is pointless. It isn't going to stop the Catholic Church emerging from this in such a way that better meets the spiritual needs of its people. But it will add to the pain of the victims who suffering they purport to champion. It's time to let it go. It's old news. Move on to the next story. Enough is enough on this one.

Rejoice!



Today is the 3rd Sunday of Advent, also known as Gaudate Sunday in the Western Church & is celebrated as such by Anglicans, Catholics, Lutherans and others. It is called Gaudate because of the introit which was traditionally chanted at the beginning of Mass on this Sunday, which began:

Gaudéte in Dómino semper: íterum dico, gaudéte.

The Latin goes on quite a bit longer ... but I won't inflict that on you! The word 'Gaudete' means 'rejoice' and the words of the introit are taken from St Paul's letter to the Philippians, which reads: 'Rejoice in the Lord always. Again I say, rejoice; let your forbearance be known to all, for the Lord is near at hand; have no anxiety about anything, but in all things, by prayer and supplication, with thanksgiving, let your requests be known to God. '

Rejoice: but perhaps after the crushing budget the last thing anyone feels like doing is rejoicing. For many the budget seems inherently unjust – the poorest and weakest are having to 'share the pain' out of all proportion to what they had to begin with. The politicians who presided over the race to the bottom that brought us to this situation are all but untouched – and even though an election is coming, it is but cold comfort to think that even as many are voted out, most of them will walk away with fat pensions. The banks who, as the money men of Europe tell us, were reckless in their lending, continue to award themselves hefty bonuses. And meanwhile, the rest of us pick up a crippling level of national debt that will burden this country for generations to come.

But today we lit the Rose candle on our Advent Wreath to remind us that this is Gaudate Sunday and we must rejoice. And difficult though it may be to remember it, given all that we have lost of late, perhaps individually & certainly collectively, we still do have a lot to be thankful for. We don't have to look far to see how much worse people have it in other parts of the world. In Haiti typhoid rages in the wake of the devastating earthquakes that hit only month ago; in Africa there is hunger and the scourge of HIV/AIDS; in China, this year's Nobel peace-prize winner, Lee-ooh Zow-obo, languishes in jail, as his nation defiantly condemns the committee for insulting them by even daring to award him the prize.

Bad as things may seem here, we have much to be thankful for. Especially as we remember that it was into just such a world – a world where terrible things could and did happen – that the Christ-child entered into ... and Matthew's gospel today reminds us powerfully just how unwelcome he was in it ... Herod has cast John into prison – John the one who 'prepares the way' for Jesus … those who oppose the system are never welcome … and of course Herod's role in the Gospel is not limited to that of gaoler … he plays a large role in Matthew's telling of the nativity …. he wants us to understand that, even from the beginning, what was happening by Jesus coming into the world was a threat to the powers of this world ... Herod, a man who is not really a king but a tetrarch, a person who rules over only part of a kingdom, and even that under the sufferance of his Roman overlords, is shown as feeling threatened at the thought of this other king, afraid to lose even his little portion of power ... he conspires to find out where the child is ... and we know what happens: the wise men are wise to Herod and don't report back; Herod in his desperation to maintain his hold on power orders what we call the slaughter of innocents; Jesus and his parents escape, but have to live for many years as refugees in a foreign land ...
Matthew wants us to understand that the opposition to Jesus wasn't just at the end when they nailed him to a cross ... not just when during his brief time of ministry when he preached and taught his radically challenging message that threatened those in opposition to him ... it was always ... from the beginning ... and think about what Herod is doing: he has been told by the wise men that the child who is to be King has been born, and told by his own priests and scribes that this child is the promised Messiah ... God's long promised plan is coming into being ... and what does Herod do? He tries to stop it. Herod, knowing full well that this is God's plan for the world, tries to prevent it from happening.

Now, we make tut-tut and shake our heads; we may boo and hiss as if he were some kind of pantomime villain; but the truth is that what Matthew is portraying here goes far deeper than the actions of any one man. Herod here plays a metaphorical role – he serves as both the harbinger of all the opposition that Jesus will face in his life, opposition to the point of death; and to remind us of how we are all, to various degrees, complicit in that opposition ... our current economic crisis speaks to that ... Mammon had very much taken pride of place in our society ... and now that that false god has crumbled to dust, how are we reacting? With a budget, as I said earlier, that 'shares the pain' most with those who can least afford it ...

This is the world the Christ-child came to ... a world of flawed and foolish humanity ... a world that didn't really want him to come ... didn't pay much attention to him while he was here except to brutally execute him ... and hasn't done a great job of living up to his message in the years since ...

And so I say to you: Rejoice! Why? For two reasons. The first is that the word 'Gaudate' – rejoice – is a plural imperative – it is an order – to phrase it very clumsily, it is saying: all of you are ordered to rejoice – being ordered to be joyful might sound strange, but it is what St Paul is saying in Philippians ... and the second reason is also given to us by Paul: Because the Lord is near at hand – we must rejoice because he came into the world ... knowing how weak and frail we are, he came. Knowing that one of our greatest talent's is for making his Father's good creation a pretty miserable place to live, he came. Knowing that we would kill him, he came. He came to share this broken world with us; he came to invite us to be one with him through our baptism; he came to bring us the help we need to live as God wants us to ... and so his message of hope and joy was born into the world ... and through his Church he reminds us in this Holy Season of Advent to remember what he did and remind ourselves of what we need to do to make ourselves worthy of it ... so how can I not say to you Rejoice! Rejoice in the Lord always – again, I say to you – Rejoice! Amen.

 Sermon 12 December 2010

Saturday, December 11, 2010

Blessing the Bus

I helped bless a bus today.

It was somewhat of a surprise to me. I had been invited to the launch of a new local endeavour, a community bus, down at the local community centre. I had been asked to events there before, to be the 'face' of the Church of Ireland, so the invite didn't surprise me. I almost didn't go. Today was my day off and this close to Christmas it's not as if I don't have a million family things to do. But I thought it important to show willing so off I went (having juggled schedules with my wife so as to inflict minimal damage on family time).

They had a nice bun fight laid on, and I had hardly laid teeth into my very tasty mince pie when the organiser came up to me and introduced himself. 'So glad you could make it Reverend. Fr Michael's coming too - we'd like you both to bless the bus for us.' Well, I'm too much of a professional to choke on my mince pie, but if I hadn't been so busy chewing my jaw probably would have hit the floor. Bless the bus?

'I'd be delighted,' I said. And off he went. Well, no big deal I thought. Fr Michael will have done a thousand of such blessings. No doubt he'll have a few appropriate prayers ready and some holy water. My role would doubtless be to stand nearby and look pretty.

I got chatting with a couple of the community workers.  I said to one:
'Any sign of Fr Michael?' She shook her head.
'He's got a big funeral on this morning. I hope he makes it.'
So do I, I didn't say.

I started to mentally prepare in case he didn't make it. The prayers I could deal with: a congregational 'Our Father', some extemporaneous intercessions (God bless this bus and all who sail in her, or words to that effect) ... but what about the holy water? In a mainly Catholic gathering, they wouldn't consider it 'done well' without plenty of holy water. I was casting my eye about for something suitable to fill and then discreetly bless, but all I could see were cups and mugs.

Then I remembered my handy 'emergency kit' that I usually keep in my pocket - a small stainless steel vial with two chambers; the bottom one filled with Holy Oil for an unexpected anointing, and the other with Holy Water. I had been carrying it around for almost a year now but never had any call to use it. I patted through my pockets and found it. Then I remembered it had leaked one time ... things get pretty banged about in a coat pocket - so did it have any water in it? I opened it up and checked - fully charged. Excellent. It was small, but a lot more dignified than using a tea cup.

I relaxed and a few minutes later Fr Michael showed up, properly equipped. He and I did the blessing together, pretty much as I would have done had I been left to my own devices (except he had a much more plentiful supply of Holy Water).

I enjoyed the experience. Blessing a bus might sound a bit silly, but it isn't really. Asking the clergy along to the launch to do something like that introduces a spiritual dimension to the occasion; and it serves to show that, whatever some people think, religion is far from dead. It is, in fact, still very important to most people. And my being asked was very important too. In that particular area there aren't more than a handful of Church of Ireland members and I don't think any were present at the event. Yet all concerned thought it was important to ask me along and to invite me to take part. In a way it's a kind of prophetic gesture. It says: the body of Christ may be divided, but there are many ways we can come together, many ways to stand shoulder to shoulder and show the world we are One Church.

Even if it is to bless a bus.

Friday, December 10, 2010

I was only following orders

Apologies - a very bad pun for the title of this post which is on the topic of Holy Orders. Or is it? Well, tio an extent it is. What I've thinking about is the Anglican Communion and whether or not it really exists. Bear with me on this. On the various blogs and sites I follow, the Anglican Covenant is a bit of a hot topic. Generally, it must be said against it. I started out thinking it was a good idea, but now I'm not so sure. Poor confused me, now I'm not even sure about the whole Anglican Communion.

One of the things pointed out in the blogosphere was that the Covenant has the potential to put a couple of the instruments of unity in the Communion into impaired relationship with the Communion. (Read that last sentance slowly a couple of times.) For example, if enough of the member churches decided the CofE was up to no good on an issue, they could put the CofE on hold, Communion wise. Bang! Archbishop of C in impaired relations and Bang!that sign of unity goes with it. And then, since the Lambeth Conference, another one of those instruments is at the invitation of +Canterbury ... Bang! that's gone too.

What kind of a Communion, in order to firm up it's unity, introduces a new instrument of unity with the potential to shred the old ones? Is it a Communion at all?

Another thing I came across was the fact that it is up to the individual member churches to recognise the orders of the other member churches. That wasn't something I'd ever thought about before, but once I started reading about it, I realised it was true. The churches that don't ordain women don't recognise the orders of women priests of the churches that do. Ditto for women bishops. Again, nothing in writing about that anywhere, but just let a woman bishop try applying for a vacant bishopric in England. The presiding bishop of TEC was asked not to wear her mitre in Southwark Cathedral - rather telling.

Let's face it - even within the same church there is a lack of recognition of orders. Some parishes in England will not accept women priests. The diocese of Sydney won't ordain women priests or appoint those ordained elsewhere to a benefice. And then there's the issue of openly sexually active clergy ... are Gene Robinson's orders recognised? And what of those he has ordained? I don't have an answer to thoses questions, as I've seen nothing official ... but I suspect that in many constiuent churches the answer would be no.

Imagine if the Orthodox Churches claimed to be in communion with each other, while at the same time refusing to accept the validity of the orders of some priests ... it would be thought a nonsense.

So that brings us back to the question - is there really such a thing as the Anglican Communion? Or is there only a loose collection of individual churches who call themselves a communion? I don't know, but I find it worrying. It's not a great situation for part of the Body of Christ to be in.

Thursday, December 9, 2010

Abortion

Forgive the bluntness of the title of this post. I don't think it's a topic that lends itself to jokey titles. I read an article today on the subject and it's been on my mind since. It was on a Catholic website, so naturally enough it was anti-abortion. Nonetheless I found it balanced enough within its given parameters.

I've always found the subject deeply troubling (& by 'subject' I mean abortion on demand, as opposed to abortion for various other reasons), ever since it was a 'hot-topic' in Ireland over the abortion referendum. I was a teenager then and that's over thirty years ago. The titles of the groups involved in the debate aren't helpful. Pro-choice - well, you don't want to say you're anti-choice do you. Pro-life - ditto. It's a bit like the question: have you stopped beating your wife, sir, yes or no? No matter what you answer, you are wrong.

And of course, hard cases are always thrown up by both sides to defend their position. Pro-choice points to victims of rape & incest, or the horrors of back-street clinics. Pro-life shoves photos of dead foetuses in your face & reminds you of the horror of partial birth abortions. Great. Well that makes it all so much easier to figure out, doesn't it? But as my old Constitutional Law professor used to say: hard cases make bad law.

Perhaps the two sides can never find agreement. Pro-life sees life beginning at conception and therefore anything that is done to end that life by a human being is essentially murder. Pro-choice sees it as only a potential life up until a certain stage & a woman's right to choose whether to allow that potential to develop is paramount. There's not a lot of common ground there.

Personally, I've never found anything much either side has to say to be a lot of help in helping me make up my mind. I do think there are other issues of the debate that might be highlighted more. For example, I don't think abortion should be seen as a form of birth control. Birth control is conception prevention. Once you've gotten to the point where abortion is being discussed you're into a whole different area.

The second is, forget all this stuff about trying to decide when a life begins and at what point you're talking about a person or a potential person. The only thing I think that matters here is the golden mean: do unto others as you would have them do unto you. We were all at whatever stage a person deems it appropriate to terminate that 'potential' life. Do we truly believe that our own mother had the right to end our potential then? It is, of course, a logically impossible question - a person cannot retrospectively legitimise their own abortion. But it is not impossible, for me at least, to empathise with the situation of what for some is an unborn child and for others a potential human being.

If you can't empathise, and honestly feel you had no right to be born, then of course abortion is ok with you. But if you can, then I think your course if far less clear. Because I think the person who declares themselves to be pro-life has a job that only begins with that declaration, not ends with it  ... & waving a placard outside a clinic is not what I mean.

What I do mean is that anyone who declares themselves to be pro-life has to then start asking the hard questions about why it is that women have abortions and then setting out to make those reasons go away. Anything less, and you are not really pro-life - you're anti-choice. And as far as the pro-choice side goes, well if what you're really concerned about is giving a woman a choice, then you should be working towards a world where she has a variety of choices and not just one - termination - if she's to lead a fulfilled life. Not getting pregnant in the first place should be a real choice. And being able to keep the baby should be a real choice. If you're not working towards making all choices equally available and attractive then you're not pro-choice, you're pro-abortion.

You see, just as I thought the original article was balanced, I think I'm pretty balanced too. I say a plague on both their houses - they need to be taken outside and have some sense knocked into them. They both claim to want what's best for women. They should be able to work together for a better world for women and the children they choose to have.

Wednesday, December 8, 2010

You handsome devil!

At a recent parish lunch, as people were filing out, a grandmotherly lady came up to me at the end and said: 'Merry Christmas, you handsome devil.'
I of course, modest individual that I am, looked over my shoulder before saying 'I'm sorry - who were you talking to?'
She smiled and said 'You, you handsome devil.' And off she went.

Now of course it seems to be a universal law that the maturer ladies of the parish consider the curate to be a good-looking young fellow, no matter how old and decrepit he may be. And you've seen the blog 'image' of me (a picture that I think looks quite like me, and indeed flatters me) ... so you can imagine I took what she had to say with a large shovel-full of salt. But later on I took a little time to reflect on it - not my being handsome (or not) but the whole idea of handsome - being good looking 

So many in society are obsessed with appearance. Many almost treat what they consider 'ugliness' as a moral failing, and conversely seem to consider attractiveness as some kind of a virtue. And it isn't. How could it be - it isn't like it's something we have any control over. Yes, some can and do put a huge effort into their appearance. But once that goes beyond being respectable or presentable surely they have only strayed into vanity. Which is certainly not a virtue. And even those who are putting a huge effort in - their efforts are pretty much determined by the raw material they have to start with. Their 'original' appearance. So to vanity is added futility, pointlessness. A shallow attempt to conform to society's shallow demands.

Our society has taken a huge hammering of late because of people concentrating on shallow things, instead of working on things they can be proud of. So we should all forget about being handsome or gorgeous - and put our efforts into things that really improve ourselves and the world we live in. Read a book; take a course; help a friend; volunteer. As my mother used to say: handsome is is handsome does.

Sunday, December 5, 2010

Advent: The Season of Tension


Repent: for the kingdom of Heaven has come near
Matthew 3:2

Those words of St John the Baptist's, from the passage of the Gospels which was deliberately chosen as being appropriate for this season in the Church Calendar, serve to remind us that Advent is a time of tension. And it is a time of tension in several different ways. There's the tension that comes as part of the run up to Christmas, of trying to make sure that it is as perfect a Christmas as it can be – that the presents are right, that the tree & decorations are just so, that the meal will be delicious and plentiful. In these tough economic times, that of course brings another tension for many – where is the money going to come from to pay for all this? In a lot of homes, even if Christmas day is perfect, there remains the concern about the days before and after – will there be food enough to put on the table on those days; or money enough to be pay the bills for the necessities of life, whatever about the frills? And of course, there are those who dread this season in any case – perhaps because they are alone; perhaps because relationships have broken down with family members or loved ones, and this time when so many focus on spending time with their families only serves to remind them how much as gone wrong with theirs; or perhaps they find this time tough because it reminds them a a loved one who has now departed this life … especially hard for those for whom the loss is fresh, but it is also a time when old griefs may be brought back to the surface and the old wounds of loss can re-open and the pain be felt just as keenly as when it was new …

There is also a tension in Advent that comes from the disconnect that comes between the reality that all the world is singing jolly songs and hymns, and throwing up decorations to beat the band, and there are parties everywhere … and yet this is a penitential season in the Church Calendar! I'm sure a lot of people have trouble with understanding why Advent should be penitential – Lent, is easier for most, I think … yes there is the glorious resurrection, but there is also Christ's trial, passion, & death … knowing that we are working up to a reliving of what Christ suffered for us makes sense of the idea of Lent being penitential … even the name Lent is filled with penitential connotations for most … but Advent? For most that has too many associations with the joys of Christmas to be penitential … and yet, think about what is happening: the Word is about to be made flesh, to use the words of John's Gospel; the word that was with God in the beginning, the Word that was God is about to become human … during Advent we are reliving the time when God became Man for us … when he made a sacrifice of cosmic proportions … and of course, without that coming into the world of the Christ-child, then there could be no Agony of Christ in the Garden of Gethsemane … no trial before the Sanhedrin or Pontius Pilate … no mocking or scourging by the soldiers … no agonising dragging of the cross from Jerusalem to Golgotha … no being nailed to the cross … no slow, incredibly painful death by crucifixion …

Advent is a penitential season because the shadow of the cross hangs over it just as much as it does over Lent … perhaps even more so: because without Advent & Christmas there could most certainly be no Lent or Easter … before the suffering servant that was Jesus on the cross, there was his all encompassing, divine humility: the humility that allowed the Word of God, Christ Jesus, to accept this fundamental change in his cosmic status: as we read in the letter to the Phillippians, 'though he was in the form of God, did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped, but made himself nothing, taking the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of men. And being found in human form, he humbled himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross.'

The theological term is 'kenosis' – a Greek word meaning 'emptying' … before the Word of God could become the man Jesus, there had to be a letting go of the Divine attributes of God … while remaining fully divine, Jesus in order to be fully human had to empty himself of the omnipotence and omniscience that was his from the beginning … and he also had to empty himself, as a human being, of that tendency that we have of placing our will before that of God's … the Word of God, having humbled himself to be human, also humbled himself through his obedience to the Divine will … obedience to the point of death … even to death on a cross.

As followers of Jesus, we are called to a similar self-emptying of our will … a letting go of what it is that we want & a committing or ourselves to the life long process of attempting to discern what is God's will for our lives and sincerely trying to live in accordance with that will … not an easy thing - and something that I freely confess that I do not find easy.

But remember the words of St John the Baptist: repent for the kingdom of God has come near. The word we translate as repent is metanoia which means to completely change one's outlook, to turn away from one's former way; and the word we translate as kingdom is basileia, which can also mean royalty … so another way of translating John's words would be: change yourself utterly, for the royal person of heaven has come near … in Advent we remind ourselves of our need to change ourselves utterly … but also are reminded, that difficult as that task seems, we are not alone in it … we have help … the royalty of heaven has come near … the word of God was made flesh … he has come into the world to save it and us … and he has also come to help us with the task of changing ourselves utterly.
Amen.

(Sermon for the 2nd Sunday of Advent 2010)

Friday, December 3, 2010

Colour me confused?

I have to admit I am confused. Regular readers of this blog (both of them!) might think this is to state the glaringly obvious. I am indeed confused about many things. In fact, one of the reasons for this blog is to help me to tease out and attain some minimal degree of clarity of thought on the many subjects which puzzle me to varying degrees.

Today I am puzzled by a very specific topic: that of re-ordination. Or perhaps that is to state the topic confusingly. I am puzzled by the issue of a priest of one Christian denomination who wishes to serve as priest in another Christian denomination having to be ordained again in order to be considered a priest in that denomination. I am particularly perturbed by the fact that those priests of the Anglican Communion who will be joining the Ordinariates of the Catholic Church will be required to be ordained. Again.

Perhaps it is understandable. Apostolicae Curae stated unequivocally over a century ago that the Catholic Church regarded Anglican Orders as invalid. So clearly for the Catholic Church there is no issue of re-ordination here. The person was never previously ordained as far as she was concerned.

Problematically, for me at least, there are other concerns here. What does it mean for the priest involved to accept this re-ordination? Is he saying that his previous ordination was invalid? Also, it is open to the Catholic Church to invoke Can 845 S2 and conditionally ordain such a priest. This has been done at least once previously, in the case of Fr Leonard, a former CofE bishop, who was conditionally ordained by Cardinal Basil Hume in 1994. He had to make a case regarding the catholicity of his beliefs, but presumably any Anglican priest wishing to convert to Rome could make such a case ... and should at least be afforded the opportunity of doing so.

However, it is also true to say that Rome has generally treated those Anglican priests who they accepted for conversion with particular courtesy. Those who are married are allowed to forgo the usual commitment for celibacy. The time between acceptance and ordination is far shorter than for the typical candidate for the priesthood. Essentially there seems to be a disconnect between the formal position of regarding the candidate's previous orders as invalid and the practice of treating such candidates as if their previous orders entitled them to special treatment. It almost seems arguable that while de jure these (re)ordinations are unconditional, de facto they are conditional. The events in the penumbra of such ordinations seem to speak eloquently of that.

You might wonder why I am bothered by this at all. The ordinariates issue seems to be essentially a non-issue in the Church of Ireland, so why concern myself about how a few priests who are planning to 'cross the Thames to the Tiber' are being treated in relation to their orders?' Well mainly because I am concerned, as all Christians should be, with the issue of Church unity. Jesus, in John 17.21 Gospel, prayed that we might all be one. As a priest of the Church of God that is something that I take very seriously. And I look upon what is happening in the build up to the creation of the ordinariates as something of a 'test case.' These priests involved are highly motivated and committed to being in full communion with the See of St Peter. For them to accept (re)ordination is not a step too far. But for a great many others in the Anglcian Communion it certainly would be. And if that were the price required for Church unity then they most certainly would not be prepared to pay it. In which case any hope of unity would be badly damaged.

Perhaps I am worrying over nothing. Those in the ordinariates are essentially converting to Roman Catholicism. Unity in the wider church at some future date would almost certainly not involve a piece-meal re-integration or subsuming of the various denominations into the Catholic Church. But it would absolutely involve the varying denominations entering into communion with Rome. And that would have to involve a recognition of each others orders. With the ordinariate proposal, Rome could have, indirectly, extended the hand of friendship to those for whom the ordinariates have little appeal in and of themselves by offering conditional ordination to those priests who joined - thereby at least admitting to the possible validity of their orders. That she has not done so may perhaps be consistent with past pronoucnements. But it is worrisome for future inter-denominational relations. And I remain puzzled - how can so many Christians consistently fail to do as Jesus wanted?