Friday, November 28, 2014

Sermon for the Feast of St Catherine of Alexandria, preached 25 November at St Pancras Old Church

We’re in red tonight, a strong hint that something dramatic and possibly gory happened a long time ago, and St Catherine of Alexandria, who we now celebrate, does not disappoint. You may remember that her symbol is the broken wheel- the wheel on which she was to be tortured but which split asunder at her holy touch. Eventually beheaded (that’s the gory bit) St Catherine was much prayed to, especially during the middle ages, and she is counted among the most important of the Virgin Martyrs.

But what fascinates me most about St Catherine isn’t the exciting story of her martyrdom or the prominence of her cult. It’s her mystic marriage to Christ. I think the vision the young virgin Catherine had was probably as strange as it sounds. Having decided that she would only marry someone more beautiful, more intelligent, with greater wealth and dignity than she, Jesus appeared to her and, with the Blessed Virgin and other saints as witnesses, betrothed her soul to Himself. In her life, in her suffering and death, St Catherine came to be in perfect spiritual union with Jesus Christ. 

This idea of a mystic marriage to Christ might seem completely foreign to us. Saints like Catherine were unique figures, surpassing in virtue and piety. However, tonight I’d like us to take a moment to think about the idea of what it means to be one with Christ. St Paul uses the phrase ‘in Christ’ in almost all of his epistles. He writes to members of the Church- those who have claimed faith in Christ and been baptised- and tells them that they are in union with Christ.

St Paul teaches us that somehow, through the mysterious working of the Holy Spirit, we who believe are united to Christ in a mystical bond. We may not have had a vision of being wed to Christ before angels and saints but the reality of our lives is that we live as spouses of Christ.

This unique relationship, grounded in faith, means that everything we do is made holy by His presence. Just as in marriage there is a legal union of man and woman so that even debts become jointly held, by our union with Christ our debt of sin is wiped away and all of His perfections become ours. Our imperfect successes are made perfect in Him; our failures and our sins are resolved before God the Father in Him. Our life, our death, our resurrection is all in Christ. Our life is hid with Christ in God. When Christ appears we will appear with Him in glory.

On this feast of St Catherine, be encouraged. In union with Christ you are safe forever. No one can dissolve your mystical marriage to the Lord Jesus. Nothing can separate you from His love. Nothing you have done or will do will divorce you from His presence. With St Catherine, we are united to the most beautiful, the wisest, the most dignified and the wealthiest person in the universe. In all things we have the assurance that He will never leave us nor forsake us.

Let us thank and praise our heavenly spouse who gave His life for us and lives to intercede for us always. And let us thank God for St Catherine whose mystic vision opens for us a new window on the wondrous reality of our spiritual union with the Lord Jesus Christ.

The Mystic Marriage of St Catherine
Ridolfo Ghirlandaio
and Michele Tosini
(c. 1530)

Sunday, October 26, 2014

Sermon for Harvest Festival, preached 12 October at St Pancras Old Church

We’ve come together today to celebrate the great Church of England feast of Harvest. We’ve brought tinned food and socks for the homeless. As has been tradition for a long time now, Harvest is a time for giving and for thankfulness.

Yet today, the first day of the week, should always be for us Christians a day of giving thanks. When we come together to worship God, part of that worship is bringing to him ourselves and our lives in loving response to his great love for us.

I want us to deepen our understanding of this thankful worship by looking first at an idea that crops us- if you’ll forgive the pun- in our reading from Deuteronomy. There’s a very important idea related to giving thanks in that passage and it’s the idea of the first fruits.

In the reading we’re told that the Israelites were commanded to bring to God every year a sample of the first and best produce. This offering reminded them of God’s goodness, their deliverance from slavery in Egypt, and the fruitfulness of their new homeland.

The idea of first fruits as seen in Deuteronomy would have been a familiar one for the Israelites because it appeared in the book of Genesis- all the way back at the beginning of time.

You might remember the story of Cain and Abel- a story that ended in the first murder. But behind the resentment which led Cain to kill was an offering of first fruits. The story goes that both Cain and Abel brought God an offering. God was pleased with Abel’s gift, but not with Cain’s. So Cain became jealous and murdered his brother.

Why was God pleased with Abel’s offering and not with Cain’s? Well, the writer of Genesis tells us that while Abel brought the best of his flock to give to God, Cain brought just some of what he had grown- nothing special.

Behind these two offerings we can see two different ways of looking at God. Abel thought that God deserved the best; God was worth the sacrifice of his most precious lambs. Cain might have thought reasonably well of God, but God wasn’t worth the best. By bringing less than the best, Cain showed that he didn’t love God as much as Abel did.

The obvious thing is to ask whether we tend to be more like Cain or more like Abel. It’s a valid question, isn’t it? When we bring our offering to God, do we bring the best? This shouldn’t be an easy question to answer because there’s more to giving God our best than giving money or time. Those are just the ways we usually think about giving to God, but those are the easy things to bring. Even when we have little of either, they’re both easier to give than, say, our emotions, our words, our thoughts.

The scriptures teach that God wants our whole selves. And he doesn’t want us given begrudgingly, out of duty or fear. He wants us to give ourselves to him in love, because we want him to have us. 

Let’s go just a little deeper- beyond Cain and Abel to another story. This one we might be more familiar with. It’s the story of the alabaster jar. Remember when Jesus was in Bethany having supper and a woman came and poured perfume on his head? She brought the most expensive thing she had and wasted it all on Jesus. At least that’s what some of the disciples thought. They thought the perfume should have been sold and the money given to the poor.

They didn’t understand what was really going on. There were very sensible. But they were a little bit like Cain, thinking that Jesus was pretty good but maybe not worth all that fuss. The woman, like Abel, knew that Jesus deserved the very best she could give. This was her first fruits moment- the moment she brought to Jesus- God made man- her best offering.

Why do you think she did that? We’re not told a lot about her, but some say that she and Mary Magdalene were the same person. That’s why you’ll sometimes see Mary Magdalene depicted in sacred art holding a jar or a decorative box. If it was she who poured the perfume on Jesus, we can know why. It was because she’d been given much by Jesus- forgiven much, loved much. St Luke says seven demons had been cast out of her. Her thankfulness was so great that she sacrificed her most precious possession in an act that others thought was frivolous.

This is what true thankfulness means- giving like Abel because we know God is worthy, giving like the woman with the alabaster jar because God in the person of Jesus Christ has given us so much. What we celebrate at Harvest isn’t giving out of duty. We’re not gathered each Sunday to give God lip-service, obedience based on following the rules, or obedience based on fear of consequences. We gather to give God our selves- souls and bodies, to be a living sacrifice.

We give, we are thankful, because we know deep down that God deserves us- heart, soul, mind, and strength- completely devoted to him. We are thankful because God has loved us. In Jesus Christ he has given us his best- his only Son. He has provided his most perfect lamb for the offering. Willingly, Jesus has poured out his life, a fragrant perfume before the Father.

In Christ the sacrificial lamb and Christ the perfume poured out we see the heart of God’s love. What more could God do for us than what he has done in the cross of Jesus? Nothing we can give could ever add up to that gift. Our only response can be thankfulness and love. Let us pray that this week we may be led by the Spirit to meditate on God’s love, to give thanks for his goodness, and to give him in return the first fruits of our lives. Amen.

Tuesday, October 7, 2014

Is it nothing to you, all ye that pass by?

What follows are the Collects and Readings for the Mass of the Five Wounds. This Mass became very popular in the late 15th and early 16th centuries and it was claimed that if five Masses of the Wounds were said for the soul of the departed, that person's soul would be released from Purgatory. Therefore many testators specified such votive Masses in their wills.

The Five Wounds embroidered
on a late-medieval burse

O God, who by the passion of thine only-begotten Son, and the shedding of his blood through his five wounds, hast renewed the nature of man that was ruined through sin; grant to us, we beseech thee, that as we venerate on earth the wounds that he received, so we may deserve to obtain the fruit of the same precious blood in heaven. Through the same thy Son Jesus Christ who liveth and reigneth with thee and the Holy Ghost, ever one God, world without end. Amen.

O Lord Jesus Christ, who camest down to earth from the bosom of thy heavenly Father, and hast washed away our sins by shedding thy precious blood and enduring the five wounds on the tree of the Cross; we beseech thee, that on the day of judgment, we may be found worthy to hear those words, Come, you blessed, Who with the Father and the Holy Ghost liveth and reigneth, one God, world without end. Amen.

The Epistle: Zechariah 13:1-6

In that day there shall be a fountain opened to the house of David and to the inhabitants of Jerusalem for sin and for uncleanness. And it shall come to pass in that day, saith the Lord of hosts, that I will cut off the names of the idols out of the land, and they shall no more be remembered: and also I will cause the prophets and the unclean spirit to pass out of the land. And it shall come to pass, that when any shall yet prophesy, then his father and his mother that begat him shall say unto him, Thou shalt not live; for thou speakest lies in the name of the Lord: and his father and his mother that begat him shall thrust him through when he prophesieth. And it shall come to pass in that day, that the prophets shall be ashamed every one of his vision, when he hath prophesied; neither shall they wear a rough garment to deceive: But he shall say, I am no prophet, I am an husbandman; for man taught me to keep cattle from my youth. And one shall say unto him, What are these wounds in thine hands? Then he shall answer, Those with which I was wounded in the house of my friends.

The Gospel: John 19:28-37

After this, Jesus knowing that all things were now accomplished, that the scripture might be fulfilled, saith, I thirst. Now there was set a vessel full of vinegar: and they filled a spunge with vinegar, and put it upon hyssop, and put it to his mouth. When Jesus therefore had received the vinegar, he said, It is finished: and he bowed his head, and gave up the ghost. The Jews therefore, because it was the preparation, that the bodies should not remain upon the cross on the sabbath day, (for that sabbath day was an high day,) besought Pilate that their legs might be broken, and that they might be taken away. Then came the soldiers, and brake the legs of the first, and of the other which was crucified with him. But when they came to Jesus, and saw that he was dead already, they brake not his legs: But one of the soldiers with a spear pierced his side, and forthwith came there out blood and water. And he that saw it bare record, and his record is true: and he knoweth that he saith true, that ye might believe. For these things were done, that the scripture should be fulfilled, A bone of him shall not be broken. And again another scripture saith, They shall look on him whom they pierced.

The Imago Pietatis
15th century

It was the Roose of the bloody feeld,
Roose of Iericho that greuh in Beedlem:
The five Roosys portrayed in the sheeld,
Splayed in the baneer at Ierusalem.
The sonne was clips and dirk in euery rem
Whan Christ Ihesu five wellys lyst vncloose
Toward Paradys, callyd the rede strem,
Of whos five woundys prent in your hert a roos.

It was the Rose of the bloody field,
Rose of Jericho that grew in Bethlehem:
The five Roses portrayed in the shield,
Splayed in the banner at Jerusalem.
The sun was eclipsed in every realm
When Christ Jesus' five wells last unclosed,
Towards Paradise, called the red stream,
Of whose five wounds print in your heart a Rose.

--- John Lydgate, from 'The Mydsomer Rose'

Friday, September 26, 2014

My Song Is Love Unknown, Samuel Crossman (1664)

My song is love unknown,
My Saviour’s love to me;
Love to the loveless shown,
That they might lovely be.
O who am I,
That for my sake
My Lord should take
Frail flesh and die?

He came from His blest throne
Salvation to bestow;
But men made strange, and none
The longed-for Christ would know:
But O! my Friend,
My Friend indeed,
Who at my need
His life did spend.

Sometimes they strew His way,
And His sweet praises sing;
Resounding all the day
Hosannas to their King:
Then “Crucify!”
Is all their breath,
And for His death
They thirst and cry.

Why, what hath my Lord done?
What makes this rage and spite?
He made the lame to run,
He gave the blind their sight,
Sweet injuries!
Yet they at these
Themselves displease,
And ’gainst Him rise.

They rise and needs will have
My dear Lord made away;
A murderer they save,
The Prince of life they slay,
Yet cheerful He
To suffering goes,
That He His foes
From thence might free.

In life no house, no home,
My Lord on earth might have;
In death no friendly tomb,
But what a stranger gave.
What may I say?
Heav'n was his home;
But mine the tomb
Wherein he lay.

Here might I stay and sing,
No story so divine;
Never was love, dear King!
Never was grief like Thine.
This is my Friend,
In Whose sweet praise
I all my days
Could gladly spend.

Christ of Pity
supported by a
cherub and a seraph
Andrea Mantegna

Tuesday, September 16, 2014

Homily for Holy Cross Day, preached at St Paul's, Camden Square, London

Christ humbled himself that he might be lifted up- and we with him.

This is the lesson of today’s feast, the Exaltation of the Holy Cross. Let’s keep hold of it as we trace the story of God’s redemption through today’s readings. In our first lesson, we find ourselves in the wilderness with the Israelites. Tired and thirsty and hungry, they grumble against God and against Moses. As punishment they are tormented by poisonous serpents.

It was the serpent who tempted Eve in the garden and led her and Adam to sin against God. The serpents in the wilderness recall that time; they remind us of our first parents questioning God and grumbling against him. The serpents also remind us of the darkness in our own hearts, the fears and the pain, those things which make life so very hard. But notice- God hears the cries of his people. He provides a remedy for pain and protection against death.

Moses is told to make a bronze serpent. Isn’t that a strange thing? Yet all who look on it live. The painful bites are healed; those who would have died are saved.

The Israelites didn’t know it but St John says that the bronze serpent was a type of Christ. The healing that came from looking at it, believing that it could heal, foreshadowed the healing and saving power of Jesus Christ. Just as Moses lifted up the serpent, so must the Son of Man be lifted up.

What’s the connection between the bronze serpent and Jesus? What does it mean when two things are alike? The bronze serpent was like the living serpents. It looked similar. However it was made of different stuff and it had a different purpose. Those hissing, slithering serpents brought death; the shining bronze serpent brought life. Here’s what St John means: Even though Jesus looked just like the rest of us there was more to him than his humanity.

In our second lesson St Paul brings it all together. Jesus Christ, equal with God the Father, humbled himself. He came down from heaven and took on the form of a servant. He became man. Jesus, God born of Mary earth, had a true human nature- Deity made in human likeness.

We see in one lesson a bronze serpent made to heal the wounds of living serpents. In the other, we see Jesus Christ, fully man and fully God, born to heal our wounds. Though equal with God, Jesus made himself nothing by becoming like us. Lifted up on the cross, Jesus’ shining divine nature brings life to us when we look on him with faith. One man being made in the likeness- in the image- of others, but with a different purpose.

Jesus walked and talked and ate. He was hungry. He experienced pain. He was angry. Sometimes he was deeply sad. He left his heavenly glory and took up our poverty, our realness, our mess. And with his perfect divinity, he lifted us up with him high on that holy cross in the wilderness outside Jerusalem.

Our pain, our death, remedied in the perfect suffering body of the Son of Man. Our weakness, our guilt, healed and washed away in the glistening sweat of the heavenly human Lord. Our sweet Jesus suffered all that we have suffered and ever will suffer so that we might be healed. He was lifted up in death so that we might be lifted up to new life.

On this feast of the Holy Cross we celebrate the humble Jesus lifted high, like the bronze serpent in the wilderness. Made in our likeness, he has reconciled us to God through his blood. Let us turn in faith to him, worship and adore him and receive at his bleeding hands pardon and peace. ‘We adore you, O Christ, and we bless You, because by Your holy cross, You have redeemed the world.’ Amen.

Saturday, September 6, 2014

John Owen on the Loveliness of Christ

Christ and the Two Marys
William Holman Hunt

'When the spouse hath gone thus far in the description of him, she concludes all in this general assertion: "He is wholly desirable,—altogether to be desired or beloved." As if she should have said,—"I have thus reckoned up some of the perfections of the creatures (things of most value, price, usefulness, beauty, glory, here below), and compared some of the excellencies of my Beloved unto them. In this way of allegory I can carry things no higher; I find nothing better or more desirable to shadow out and to present his loveliness and desirableness: but, alas! all this comes short of his perfections, beauty, and comeliness; he is all wholly to be desired, to be beloved;" —

Lovely in his person,—in the glorious all-sufficiency of his Deity, gracious purity and holiness of his humanity, authority and majesty, love and power.

Lovely in his birth and incarnation; when he was rich, for our sakes becoming poor,—taking part of flesh and blood, because we partook of the same; being made of a woman, that for us he might be made under the law, even for our sakes.

Lovely in the whole course of his life, and the more than angelical holiness and obedience which, in the depth of poverty and persecution, he exercised therein;—doing good, receiving evil; blessing, and being cursed, reviled, reproached, all his days.

Lovely in his death; yea, therein most lovely to sinners;—never more glorious and desirable than when he came broken, dead, from the cross. Then had he carried all our sins into a land of forgetfulness; then had he made peace and reconciliation for us; then had he procured life and immortality for us.

Lovely in his whole employment, in his great undertaking,—in his life, death, resurrection, ascension; being a mediator between God and us, to recover the glory of God’s justice, and to save our souls,—to bring us to an enjoyment of God, who were set at such an infinite distance from him by sin.

Lovely in the glory and majesty wherewith he is crowned. Now he is set down at the right hand of the Majesty on high; where, though he be terrible to his enemies, yet he is full of mercy, love, and compassion, towards his beloved ones.

Lovely in all those supplies of grace and consolations, in all the dispensations of his Holy Spirit, whereof his saints are made partakers.

Lovely in all the tender care, power, and wisdom, which he exercises in the protection, safe-guarding, and delivery of his church and people, in the midst of all the oppositions and persecutions whereunto they are exposed.

Lovely in all his ordinances, and the whole of that spiritually glorious worship which he hath appointed to his people, whereby they draw nigh and have communion with him and his Father. 

Lovely and glorious in the vengeance he taketh, and will finally execute, upon the stubborn enemies of himself and his people.

Lovely in the pardon he hath purchased and doth dispense,—in the reconciliation he hath established,—in the grace he communicates,—in the consolations he doth administer,—in the peace and joy he gives his saints,—in his assured preservation of them unto glory.

What shall I say? there is no end of his excellencies and desirableness;—"He is altogether lovely. This is our beloved, and this is our friend, O daughters of Jerusalem."'

Sunday, August 10, 2014

East window, Peterhouse College Chapel, Cambridge

The east window of Peterhouse College Chapel, Cambridge is a rare survival from the Chapel’s original 17th-century glazing scheme.

The window depicts a scene of Christ’s Crucifixion- the moment that a Roman solider on horseback, pierced Jesus’ body with a spear bringing a sudden flow of blood and water. The design is taken from a painting by Peter Paul Rubens entitled Le Coup de Lance (1620).

Peterhouse College Chapel was built whilst Matthew Wren was College Master, 1625–1634. In order to fund the new chapel Wren appealed to Friends of the Colleges, past members and personal acquaintances. An astonishing £2,365 was collected, although the actual cost of building exceeded this amount. The seven chapel windows were glazed in 1632 'Ornatus fenestrarum sacris histories depingendae' and cost £118. The work began in 1628 and the Chapel was finished in time for its dedication on 17 March 1632.

Under William Dowsing, the carved wooden angels on the Chapel roof and the statues were destroyed along with the six side stained glass windows, also glazed in 1632. Some fragments of old glass remained in the windows after the Civil War.

The Flemish stained glass which filled the east window is thought to have been removed and hidden during the Civil War, thus surviving until the present day.

--- text adapted from Stained Glass, Laudians and Puritans: The Case of Peterhouse College Chapel, Cambridge

Peterhouse Chapel
showing the window
in context