OCCASIONAL NEWSLETTER No.11 (31st MAY 2020)
I’ve never taken part in a pub quiz, not because I dislike pubs (I’m actually rather fond of the old-fashioned country kind) but because my knowledge of contemporary culture is almost non-existent, and my team would suffer as a result. I feel that if I did take part, I’d be regarded a bit like the judge who, after hearing a witness refer to the Beatles (this was when Beatle mania was at its height) is reported to have looked puzzled and to have asked “And who, pray, are the Beatles?”
In more abstruse quizzes, however, I sometimes do quite well. When asked the kind of question that stumps a lot of people – such as “Which is the only country in the world ever to have legally banned the celebration of Christmas” – I can often give the correct answer straight away.
The answer to that particular question is, oddly enough, England. The Puritan parliament of 1647 – with its Calvinist suspicion of anything not explicitly to be found in scripture - not only banned Christmas, but declared 25th December to be a day of fasting, and inspectors were appointed to go round checking that no-one was cooking a special Christmas dinner. Not until the restoration of CharlesII in 1660 was the ban removed, though in Scotland after 1688, when the Calvinists there once again got the upper hand, Christmas - while not actually banned - was effectively ignored by the bulk of the population. (This continued until almost within living memory. Christmas was regarded there as an ordinary working day, and those minority churches that celebrated Christmas put on services before dawn so that those of their people who would have to go to work later would be able to join one another for worship before doing so.)
It was, in fact, part of the genius of the ancient, undivided church to have an annual calendar that included feasts and fasts that were not explicitly to be found in scripture. That church had, in fact, a good sense of the realities of human psychology, and recognised the way in which an annual calendar of feasts and fasts fits in with the way in which human psychology – with its evolutionary roots in the seasons of the year – actually works. Of course, some of what the church Fathers decided was appropriate had roots in the OldTestament. The old weekly keeping of the Sabbath - on Saturday, though Scottish “sabbatarians” who call Sunday the sabbath don’t seem to realise this - was replaced by the Sunday keeping of the Lord’s day, the day of resurrection.The Fathers also naturally associated Christ’s death and resurrection with the old annual Passover feast, which had been understood largely in terms of the exodus from Egypt into the promised land, though it was originally a Spring agricultural festival. The resulting date for the Christian paschal feast was therefore tied to the old way of calculating the date of Passover. (This was linked to the first full moon after the Spring equinox, and this linkage remains for our calculation of the date of Pascha. This is why the date varies, though theWestern Christian calculation – based on better astronomical calculations – in fact reflects the intentions of the Fathers better than our own calculation does.)
The important thing, though, is that what has been called the calendar’s“sanctification of time” is an important aid to our spiritual life. This is especially the case at this time of year, since the period from the beginning ofHoly Week up to the feast of Pentecost (in a week’s time) actually allows us to live through the period from Christ’s entry to Jerusalem to the coming of theHoly Spirit in a way that reflects what Jesus’ disciples actually experienced from day to day over that period. Today - the Sunday after the Feast of theAscension - we are, at one level, living through exactly what they lived through after the ascension: waiting for the gift that was promised and rememberingChrist’s assurance that “it is to your advantage that I go away, for if I do not go away, the Comforter will not come to you” (John 16:7). At another level of our being, however, we are not “waiting” for that gift but are rejoicing in it as a permanent feature of our lives. That is the beauty of the sanctification of time that our calendar reflects. We live at two levels at once: in time and in eternity.In our eucharistic prayer we “remember” both the past (the life, death and resurrection of Christ) and the future (the fulfilment of all God’s purposes through his coming again.) In a similar way, by living through the sequence of all that God has done by following our calendar, the whole of what is commemorated on the different days and seasons of that calendar is made present to us simultaneously.
With love in Christ,
SERMON ON "When he had spoken thus, he knelt down and prayed with them all" (Acts 20:36)
Saint Paul spoke to the leaders of the church in Ephesus about the problems that would arise from false teaching coming both from outside the church and from within to lead people away from the truth revealed in Christ. When he had finished he prayed with those leaders. Praying together was as important as speaking to them. Prayer, opening ourselves to God, should provide the context and framework for all that we do.
The First Ecumenical Council, which we commemorate today, had a model in the meeting of Saint Paul and Saint Barnabas with the Apostles and leaders of the Church in Jerusalem, recorded in Acts 15. This meeting was to resolve a dispute about practical matters, but was rooted in prayer. The conclusion uses the phrase: «it has seemed good to the Holy Spirit and to us». From this we see that the meeting was conducted in prayer in order to find the will of God, rather than being conducted simply to find a majority or a consensus on a purely human basis.
Commenting on Acts 20:36, Saint John Chrysostom describes Saint Paul’s prayer in this context as being «with much feeling» (Homily 45 on the Acts of the Apostles). Our prayer should show the same feeling. We should pray with others and for others, rather than for ourselves. Through our prayer we show our love for one another and enable them to know God’s love for them. Praying for our leaders and with our leaders is an essential part of this to enable them to lead us in the way of God.
Our prayer should leave room for us to listen to God, rather than just talking at him. We need to find God’s will for us, to enable us to follow in the way of truth and to hear "the word of his grace" so that we may receive "the inheritance among all those who are sanctified" (Acts 20:32). The philosopher Kierkegaard reminds us that "the function of prayer is not to influence God, but rather to change the nature of the one who prays", (Purity of Heart is to Will One Thing, 1847). We pray that we may conform ourselves to God and be open to his guidance.
Saint Paul tells us to "pray without ceasing" (I Thes. 5:17). How we follow that instruction will vary, but we should all be moving along the path of making our whole life based in prayer. An anonymous author, writing of Saint Gregory Palamas, states: "Let no one think, my brother Christians, that it is the duty only of priests and monks to pray without ceasing, and not of laymen. No, no; it is the duty of all of us Christians to remain always in prayer". Making prayer the basis of our lives requires work and practice. If we persevere in it then we have a living experience of the presence of God with us and be able to resist those who seek to separate us from the truth. "I know that after my departure fierce wolves will come in among you, not sparing the flock; and from among your own selves will arise men speaking perverse things, to draw away the disciples after them" (Acts 20:29-30). Praying daily and continually with and for our leaders, as Saint Paul prayed with the leaders of the church in Ephesus, will help us to grow in faith, and enable us to receive the true teaching about God as proclaimed in Scripture and clarified in the works of the Fathers of the Church and in the decisions of the First and later Ecumenical Council.
OCCASIONAL NEWSLETTER No.10 (24th MAY 2020)
Since we shall commemorate the Ascension of Christ this coming Thursday, I have put an icon of that event at the top of this newsletter. The passage in which the event is described – in the Acts of the Apostles (1:6-11) –is of course one with which we are all familiar.
I first became particularly aware of Ascension Day as a seven year old schoolboy, when I moved to the second of the four primary schools that I attended. (No, I wasn’t expelled from three of them, but my father’s job meant that we had to move quite frequently.) This second school was a Church of England one, and on Ascension Day we had to arrive at school at the usual time but then were taken, not to lessons, but straight to the local parish church for a service in honour of the day. We then got the rest of the day off, which of course made Ascension Day a rather special one in the year. Quite how I understood the ascension at the age of seven I can’t really remember. I had certainly outgrown the notion that I’d had at the age of four: that God lived in Devon, where we could have a holiday so as to visit him. (After all, my bedtime prayers always included “Our Father, who art in …) I had probably not yet, however, outgrown the notion of heaven being – as the children’s hymn of that period put it - “above the bright blue sky,” so I imagine that I took the account in the Acts of the Apostles as a straightforward eye-witness account.
However, by the time I was nine or so, I had begun to think of heaven as I still do, not as a place but as a state of being that has nothing to do with the way in which our material universe is set up. By that age I had already begun to take a great interest in astronomy and the possibility of space exploration, so that I can still remember vividly being that age and hearing on the television news about Yuri Gagarin, the first man in space. I didn’t, however, think of my faith as conflicting with my knowledge of the solar system, so that although I don’t remember hearing at that time anything about Gagarin’s reported saying that he hadn’t seen God up there, even if I had it wouldn’t have worried me.
It was only quite a lot later that I started to ponder the story of the ascension in the Acts of the Apostles, and wondered why - if heaven wasn’t a place “up there” – the narrative spoke of the disciples “looking intently into the sky as he was going” (Acts 1:10). Surely, I thought, this couldn’t be based on an eyewitness account when the “place” of heaven was so evidently a culturally-influenced mistake. (Certainly, those of Jesus’ time thought of heaven as “up there” but we couldn’t think like that now, could we?) I was tempted to go along with those modernist biblical commentators who saw this passage, not as being based on eyewitness testimony, but as a kind of theological commentary.
Much later still, however, I changed my mind about this. The reason was thatI came to see more deeply into how God communicates truth to us, and how he uses our imagination and expectations to reveal this truth. I knew that the idea of ascension was actually an important one in Jewish thinking at the time ofJesus, and began to realise that the ceasing of Christ being with the disciples in the way that he had since the day of resurrection – a cessation which was necessary for the coming of the Holy Spirit very shortly afterwards - could only be conveyed to those disciples by a visionary experience of him “ascending”into heaven. For that reason, I now believe that they truly did experience – in a visionary rather than a literal way - what is reported in the Acts of the Apostles.
It is sometimes said that we can think of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit in terms of God being “for us”, “with us” and “in us.” Like all short formulae it can be used badly, but nevertheless it does point to something important, which is reflected in Jesus saying, according to the fourth gospel, that “it is to your advantage that I go away, for if I do not go away, the Comforter will not come to you” (John 16:7). Only once God had ceased to be“with us” in the way that he had been - in Jesus’ life before the crucifixion and for a short period after his resurrection - could God be truly “in us” through theHoly Spirit. And as St. Seraphim of Sarov once said, “the true aim of ourChristian life is the acquisition of the Holy Spirit of God.” This means that the ascension is to be seen as the essential bridge between the stages of history in which we experience “God with us” and “God in us.” Without it, the true aim of the Christian life would not have been possible.
With love in Christ,
SERMON ON JOHN 9:1-38
Man was created by the Word of God in His image and likeness, to share in the life of God. He was initially given dominion over all plants and animals of the earth, “everything that has the breath of life,” (Gen. 1:30) and the paradise, in which God walked and talked with Adam. This plan was thwarted by the disobedience of Adam and Eve, and the image and likeness to God in them was marred by sin.
The Word of God being conceived and born of the Theotokos, becoming a real man in our historical time; the Son of Man Who shows the image and likeness of God in Himself. And it is this reality which the three gospel readings of the last two Sundays, and today’s Gospel reading, put before us. Note that it is before His Passion and Resurrection, that the Lord heals the Paralytic and speaks to the Samaritan woman. The first had been sick 38 years but had “no man to help him.’ After he was cured and met Jesus again, the Lord admonished him “do not sin again, lest something worse happen to you.” And to the Jews who objected about His healing on the Sabbath He answered: “My Father is working until now, and I am working.”
When the Samaritan woman affirmed “that the Messiah is coming who will teach us all things,” Jesus simply replied “I Who speak to you, am He.”
And today, this poor man who was blind from birth, was healed by the hands of the Lord forming clay from the dust of the earth and His spittle. This repeated the action of creation of Adam (Gen. 2:7) It was the obedience of the blind man, manifesting his faith in this Man he could not see - Who ordered him to the pool of Siloam to wash his eyes - which gave him his sight.
Most of us possess all the normal physical faculties, as did most of the Jews in Jesus’ day. The Gospel is read to us in church; our Christian way of life and thinking is explained further in the Letters of St Paul and other Apostles, also read in church, along with prophecies and lessons from the Old Testament. If we deliberately come late to the Liturgy, and always miss the readings and sermon, what do we know of Christ? Are we obedient to the Church He founded to bring us to life? Do we know more of the Christ than the Jews who interrogated the Blind
Man and his parents after he was given sight by Jesus?
Which of us would not try to appease and evade the real malice of those in authority who had fixed Christ and His followers as the target to be punished, to be shunned by all, like publicans or lepers? The parents answer truthfully, but prudently avoid embroilment in the trouble that threatens. We have every indication, from cumulative signals small and great, that being a Christian today in many parts of the world invites persecution, even to death. So we keep a low profile to avoid trouble. But when it comes, what defence can we give of our faith,
or reason for our hope in Christ?
This man, who knows nothing at all having been blind from birth, sticks firmly to the truth of his story, and resists attempts to make him abjure His Saviour from blindness. He sees the Truth clearly and confesses it. Let us no longer neglect the Christian practice of regular daily prayer, study, and attending church services, so that we too, seeing the Light of the World like the man born blind, may fall down before Him, in grateful worship rather than fearful despair, when we meet the Him at the end of our life.
OCCASIONAL NEWSLETTER No.9 (17th MAY 2020)
Since the archdiocese has been kind enough to give us a document each week that contains not only the Sunday readings but also a short sermon related to them, I have felt free in these newsletters to avoid a sermon of this kind and instead to share with you some of my musings over the week since the last newsletter. This week, like many of us in this lockdown period, I have been doing quite a lot of gardening, and my musings have had a gardening theme.
One of the things that has struck me over the past few days is just how fast weeds can grow, and seem suddenly to appear only a very short time after we think we have carefully weeded the area in which they’re now to be found.Perhaps I’m too inclined to think in theological terms, but I’m struck by how this reflects the way in which we find old, habitual sins reappearing when we think we have got rid of them. Some have wondered whether the Church puts too much emphasis on formal, sacramental confession, and it’s true that theRussian tradition – perhaps under those Western influences that affected it a few centuries ago – tends to put more emphasis on it than do other parts of ourOrthodox Church. Nevertheless, it always strikes me that the practice of regular confession has the same effect as regular hoe-ing or hand-weeding has in the garden: it stops the new growth of unwanted things becoming too rampant, and allows the plants we want – the Christian virtues in this analogy – to grow unimpeded.
This is one of the reasons that - even if we don’t use sacramental confession as regularly as we perhaps ought to – informal confession, as part of our regular private prayer, is certainly something that is necessary. No matter how short the time we feel able to put aside for private prayer each day, we need to reflect regularly on how we have recently fallen short and offer these shortcomings toGod for healing. Once that is done, the adoration, thanksgiving and intercession that should form the other parts of our prayer can go forward, free of the weeds that can impede them. If we confess and repent, then Christ says to us, as he says to the Samaritan woman in today’s gospel: “I do not condemn you; go and sin no more” (John 8:11).
Another of the thoughts that has arisen from my gardening relates to the eternal life for which we hope. Like most gardeners, I look forward to each part of the year because it has its special joys. The daffodils of early April give way to the flowering cherries later that month, which in turn give way to the lilac that is such a delight in early May. That lilac is itself now fading, but the wild guelder rose – which I like even more than the “snowball” kind, of which I have one or two – is just coming into flower in my hedges as I write, and the old-fashioned roses that give me so much pleasure are in bud and will be in their full glory in only a few weeks’ time. Just occasionally, however, I do wish that I could have all these delights at once. However, if I could have everything at once then much of the joy would be lost, since anticipation is an important part of our existence in a world of time. What about the “world to come” though?
We tend to think of eternal life as time going on forever, but another way of looking at it is to see it as reflecting God’s existence outside of time, in whichHe sees all events throughout time “at a glance” (as a medieval writer put it.) If it is the case that nothing that has been good in our earthly life will be lost to us in our eternal life, then perhaps we too will, in eternity, be able to see all those good things “at a glance.” And if there have been things in our life that have not been good, either through our own fault, or the fault of others, or through simple happenstance, then perhaps in eternity we shall see those things too - through God’s forgiveness and through the way in which even evil can be turned to good through His providence - as things in which we can rejoice. When, in theLiturgy, we have the part of the prayer of consecration called the anamnesis –the “remembering” – what we “remember” is not only the past - the life, death and resurrection of Christ - but also the future: his second coming. We“remember” both the past and the future in the sense that both are “made present” to us. Perhaps our eternal life too will involve remembrance in this sense – not a recalling of something that lies in the past but a making present -“at a glance” - of all that we can rejoice in. So perhaps my daffodils, flowering cherries, lilac, wild guelder rose, and old-fashioned roses will, in heaven, flower for me “all at the same time.” And perhaps for all of us, everything that has been good in our lives will be present to us in the same way.
With love in Christ,
SERMON ON John 4:5-42
The Gospel for today is the well known and loved passage concerning the Samaritan woman, who Tradition remembers as St Photini. St John’s Gospel is very carefully crafted with often several layers of meaning and this passage is an excellent example of this.
In the first place we are told that the action takes place at Jacob’s well. Jacob is of immense importance to Jews as he was their universal ancestor, and his name was changed by God to “Israel” after which the whole Nation became known as Israelites. However in this passage we are to think also of two encounters that Jacob had with God. The first was when he dreamed of the ladder going up to heaven with the angels coming and going (Gen. 28:11-15) , and then the time when he wrestled with God after which his name was changed. (Gen. 32:24-29). Therefore by the very name of the place, St John is preparing us for an encounter with God.
At first the woman, a Samaritan, is entirely concerned about material things. Initially with water and then how Christ is to get water out of the well. The Lord however, uses these material ideas to teach about spiritual realities: the water becomes the water of eternal life, so we think immediately of Baptism and then how we are to be sustained eternally by the Holy Spirit. The woman however is not as materially bound as at first appears. When the conversation starts she calls Christ “Lord” which could be merely good manners, but also suggests that she, even at this stage, realises that there is much more to the person she is speaking to, than at first appears.
Following the revelation that Christ knows how many husbands she has, she concludes that Christ must be a prophet. This is an opportunity not to be missed! So she starts to ask all the questions that she would like the answer to, and starts with the issue that divided the Jews and the Samaritans: which temple was the true temple? Where is it that God actually dwells? – In the temple on Mt Zion in Jerusalem or the Samaritan temple on Mt Gerizim in Samaria? Once again the Lord’s answer takes the woman to a new level, a new kind of worship when God will be worshipped everywhere “In Spirit and in Truth”. And here the very word “Truth” reminds us that Christ is Himself the Truth: “I am the Way, the Truth and the Life”. A concept that is finally revealed at the Lord’s trial, when Pontius Pilate standing face to face with the answer, asks the question “What is Truth?”
Finally St John uses the passage to tell us quite explicitly who the Lord is. The woman says “I know that the Messiah is coming.... He will announce to us all things.” Jesus said to her “I am (ego eimi) the One, that now speaks to you.” (This reflects the question that Moses asked God out of the Burning Bush and Rwas told “ego eimi own” – “I am the One who is”). However she is not yet quite convinced for when she goes into the city, she tells the people to go and see Jesus and asks them the question “This one is not the Christ is he?” The Greek uses the word Μητι which implies uncertainty. But after they have met the Lord, they say to her “We no longer believe because of what you said: for we ourselves have heard, and we know that this one is truly the Saviour of the World, the Christ”.
Thus the Fathers giving us this reading today demonstrate the Truth of our Faith. Jesus is Christ God, the one who saves. Christ is Risen!
OCCASIONAL NEWSLETTER No.8 (10th MAY 2020)
The fact that this is the eighth of our weekly “coronavirus newsletters” is a reminder of the way in which the pandemic has already affected our lives over a long period, and is likely to affect it for some considerable time to come. Might this long period of deprivation have good effects as well as bad, I wonder? In an article on Friday’s commemoration ofV.E. day, Joan Bakewell - once described by Frank Muir, you may remember, as “the thinking man’s crumpet” – reminded us that the war led to what was effectively a new and more compassionate kind of society, deliberately organised to put that compassion into action. Might it be, she wondered, that our present situation might lead to real change in our organisation of society?
It would be wonderful if this turned out to be the case. I suspect, however, that this hope may be over-optimistic, since what happened in the war allowed people to see their neighbours more clearly, as people like themselves. Our present isolation from one another has not had that effect to anything like the same degree, however, and our inherent self-centredness – what in theological terms we Orthodox refer to as our “ancestral sin,” and Western Christians call“original sin” – is likely, sadly, to reassert itself all too quickly once normality has returned. Nevertheless, this question is something worth thinking about.One of the important inputs to the post-war consensus was a book by WilliamTemple, published in the year in which he became Archbishop of Canterbury,1942. This book – Christianity and the Social Order - had a significant effect on the setting up of the welfare state in the decades immediately after the war, and while it was later seen by some as far too left-wing, my own copy – a later paperback edition - has a forward by a conservative prime minister. It is still worth reading.
My own thoughts this week have, however, been largely on something rather different. This is related to something that I talked about in the first of these newsletters: the way in which, in “normal” times, we often fail to appreciate things fully because we simply take them for granted. When we pray, I said in that newsletter, we are aware that there are things to confess and situations that require intercession with God, but the aspect of prayer that focuses on thanksgiving to Him is often forgotten by us, or at least put on the back burner.And yet, I went on, one of the terms we use of our Liturgy – the word Eucharist– is simply an Anglicised version of the Greek term for thanksgiving, and the central prayer of that service is quite explicitly a thanksgiving to God theFather, not only for what we have all received through the life, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ, but also (as the Liturgy of St. John Chrysostom puts it) for all the blessings we have received, whether “known or unknown, manifest or hidden.”
The thing that has come to me with particular force this week is the way in which this is related to something that may at first seem rather morbid: the remembrance of death. This remembrance is something that is often recommended to us by the great teachers of our church, usually with a stress on how it allows our present circumstances and desires to be seen more clearly in terms of God’s ultimate will for us, so that our tendency to fall short of what He requires of us will be modified in a good way. What I’ve been struck by, however, is something slightly different. This is that while the coronavirus pandemic can make us more than usually aware that our chances of being herein a few months’ time are less than they would otherwise be, this can have the good effect of making us more than usually aware of what one famous RomanCatholic writer has called “the sacrament of the present moment.” Instead of living in the past or the future as we so often do in our thoughts, we can, through this particular kind of “remembrance of death,” become more vividly aware of the present, and part of this awareness is a sense of how much there is to give thanks for. The beauties of the Springtime, for example, are all the more vivid when we’re not quite so sure as we usually are that we’ll experience a repeat performance next year. If this can lead to genuine thanksgiving to God, then it can surely be seen as an important opportunity for us.
With love in Christ, Father Christopher
SERMON ON John 5:1-15
All too often as Christians, we are accustomed to think of healing (and of raising the dead) as belonging to the words and actions of Christ Himself as we read in today’s Gospel. It is easy to gloss over the idea that others can also perform these miracles, yet in the Epistle appointed for this day we encounter Peter, with his profound faith in Christ, calling upon the same Lord to restore the paralytic Ǽneas to health and then to raise up the much loved Tabitha from death. But are such miracles confined to the pages of the Bible? Is there something wrong with the faith of the Christian that these things no longer happen? Surely not! For we have many examples to be found in the pages of history. Let us take just two examples from our own times Saint Luke of Simferopol and Crimea and Saint Iakovos of Evia.
In both cases their faith was profound yet utterly different; the one highly educated, a surgeon and latterly a bishop; the other a simple priest-monk. Both trusted that God would hear their petition and complete the miracle. Saint Luke expected God to guide his hands in surgery and his patients were restored to health when other surgeons would have admitted failure. On the other hand, Saint Iakovos with his simple faith knew what was needed, called upon his much-loved saints, John the Russian and David of Evia, to go and work with whichever surgeon or doctor was performing the healing and guide their hands to a successful outcome. In both cases it was their utter faith in Christ that brought happy conclusions to otherwise impossible situations. We are reminded that if we have faith even as small as a grain of mustard (about 1mm diameter) we too can move the sycamore tree to the sea (Luk. 17:6). Such power is to be found in this tiny thing! So too, our faith: if it is genuine, if it be Apostolic in nature, no matter how tiny it may be, it will grow and become stronger so that the bearer will be capable of performing the most extraordinary miracles. It is there in all of us – if only we would reach out to Christ and let Him into our hearts as did the Apostles and as do the Saints.
Where is our faith? Do we keep it tucked up in a corner of our brains to be brought out on special occasions – or do we let it live and grow in our hearts so that our whole life revolves around Christ Himself. Perhaps we need to take that mustard seed off the shelf of our mind and plant it in our hearts where, watered with blood, sweat, tears; and above all love, it will grow and blossom. Then, when we have cast out the last vestiges of pride and acquired a measure of humility our faith grows to the extent that miracles are possible – even for us!
Then, just maybe, when the time is right, our prayer is most fervent and our need is greatest, the miraculous may occur for us also. It may not be earth-shattering, indeed, quite the opposite, it may be something that only we will ever know about, but miracle it will be, none-the-less, for Christ has heard our prayer and seen into the depth of our heart and what He sees is good. Thus the ‘saint’ which lies dormant within us, comes to life and we become one with the Apostles and Saints and all the company of Heaven.
OCCASIONAL NEWSLETTER No. 7 (3rd May 2020)
A few years ago, I was involved in a discussion at the Institute for Orthodox ChristianStudies in Cambridge about who should be the Institute’s patron saint. It seemed a good idea to those involved in the discussion to have a woman saint, and someone made the suggestion that we should choose the myrrh-bearing women. “That’s no good” said someone, “no one outside the Orthodox world will have any idea who we mean.” We all agreed and that this might be the case, and St.Catherine was chosen instead.Even if this phrase – “the myrrh-bearing women” – is one that might not be recognised by many of our fellow-Christians, they do of course know who is meant when it is explained to them. The term refers to the women coming to the tomb to anoint Jesus’ body, who were the first witnesses of the resurrection. The different gospels give slightly different accounts of who was involved, but in our tradition eight women are named: Mary Magdalen, Mary the Mother of God, Joanna, Salome, Mary the wife of Cleopas, Susanna, Mary of Bethany, and Martha of Bethany. This Sunday it is these myrrh-bearing women who are commemorated by the Church, together with those who obtainedJesus’ body for burial: Nicodemus and Joseph of Arimathea - the latter being the “Noble Joseph” of the wonderful Good Friday troparion, who is also commemorated in the same words at the end of each Liturgy’s Great Entrance. If you want to remember what the Good Friday singing of this is like in a small, English-speaking church -– see the YouTube video:
(This recording comes from a church in Mechanicsburg, Pennsylvania, which sounds unlikely but it does really exist. I rather like it because neither the singing nor the liturgical action is quite perfect –in this sense it reminds me of the Holy Transfiguration, where I always feel a wonderful “homely”quality in what we do in our worship. This is not to say, of course, that we should not try – as we do –to make that worship as technically perfect as possible. All the same, I feel that our way of doing things gives a strong sense – as all Orthodox worship should – that we are children in our Father’s house rather than troops on the parade ground.). YouTube is, in fact quite good for listening to Orthodox music, and can be a happy reminder of the riches of the Orthodox musical tradition in all its forms when we’re unable to get to church to listen to it (and pray with it) “live.” For some reason I’m particularly struck at the moment by a Greek chant to the Mother of God – actually not a liturgical hymn but something composed by Saint Nektarios ofAegina in the late nineteenth century – which can be found on
I’m aware, however, that for many of us, who are more used to the Russian musical tradition, this might seem a bit “Eastern.” (Personally, I love the Greek musical tradition but some Greek churches in this country now use Russian chant because it is easier on Western ears.)One of the things that I ponder on as we commemorate the myrrh-bearing women is the fact that the original witnesses to the resurrection were women and not men. Does this tell us something, I wonder? We live in an age in which it is fashionable to pretend that the differences between men and women are insignificant, but the apostles – all men – were actually unable to believe what the women reported, at least initially. Was there perhaps some kind of spiritual receptiveness that the women possessed but the men didn’t? And is this difference in receptiveness something that is actually built into what it is to be male or female? I don’t claim any great insight into this, but it does seem to me possible that while only men are called by the Church to the ordained ministry, there may be specific vocations to which only women are called – less public ones but no less important – precisely because of this spiritual receptiveness.Whether or not this distinction is a valid one, we are aware, at any rate, that no distinction based on biology or societal position makes one person superior to another in the eyes of God. As St. Paul puts it: “there is neither Jew nor Gentile, neither slave nor free, nor is there male and female, for you are all one in Jesus Christ” (Galatians 3:28). This doesn’t, of course, mean that these distinctions have no meaning whatsoever, but it tells us that such distinctions make no difference to our ultimate value in the eyes of God. When some see one of these distinctions as making one person superior to another, they are simply manifesting prejudice and failing to see that each of us, because we are made in the image of God, is of infinite value. If there are hierarchies – as there are in the Church – this is not a matter of superiority but of good order. We each have particular gifts. Some of these are public ones, necessary for building up the Church, but some are known to God alone. The public ones are evident in the way in which Christ “gave some to be apostles, some to be prophets, some to be evangelists and some pastors and teachers” (Ephesians 4:11). The less evident gifts are the ones that few, if any, know about, which are worked out in various “hidden” vocations, such as those of being a mother or a hermit, which are no less important in the eyes of God.Among the hermits of the Egyptian desert of the fourth century, for example, there are many of whom we know little or nothing. Some of these were women, and these “ammas” (or mothers) were comparable to the “abbas” (or fathers), of whom much more was written. The ancient Sayings of theDesert Fathers included twenty-seven sayings of Amma Syncletica of Alexandria, together with twenty more from women such as Amma Theodora of Alexandria and Amma Sarah of the Desert.Amma Theodora, in particular, was sought out by many of the Desert Fathers – and reportedly also byBishop Theophilus of Alexandria - for advice, and one can perhaps think of women of the present day who have similar vocations of giving counsel. In our own deanery, for example, we had - until her recent death - Wendy Robinson, who often carried out this sort of “hidden” ministry. (At the level of formal philosophical thinking, too, women have not been without importance. For example, two of the three great “Cappadocian Fathers” – the brothers, St. Basil and St. Gregory of Nyssa – are among the greatest theologians of our church, but reading between the lines one can sometimes get the impression that the real theological powerhouse in the family was their sister, St. Macrina.)One of the things that our commemoration of the myrrh-bearers should perhaps do for each of us islead us – whether we are men or women - to think about what our gifts and our vocations may be. Justas it is important to recognise that our most grievous sins may not be ones of commission but ones of omission, it may also be we are called to pursue vocations – whether public or hidden – that we have hitherto ignored but should not fail to recognise.
With love in Christ, Father Christopher
SERMON Mark 15: 43-42 - 16:1-8
Today we keep the commemoration of the Myrrh-bearing women: those women who went to the tomb of Christ very early in the morning and found it empty. The Gospel set for today is from St Mark, but in fact all four Gospels record the event. The basic story is as follows. Several women disciples of Christ believed that he had been buried in a hurry and that more needed to be done for the burial to conform to the Jewish tradition for burials. So they decided to go to the tomb very early in the morning. Yet, when they arrived at the tomb they found that the stone that would have been rolled in front of the tomb had been rolled back and that the tomb was empty. The accounts differ slightly in the gospel from this point onwards. In St Mark the women find a young man dressed in white who tell them that the Lord is Risen. In St Matthew they find an “angel in garments as white as snow”. In St Luke there are two men in dazzling clothes: while in St John’s Gospel they do not find anybody in the tomb but St Mary Magdalene who stays behind finds the Saviour himself in the Garden and recognises him.
These differences should not worry us but should in fact encourage us because whenever several people are witnesses to an event they will all tell the story in a slightly different way. And here the basic story is the same even if the details are not quite the same. Then we are told that the women run away “because they were afraid”. There are a number of other details that we should note. First of all the stone rolled in front of the tomb is evidently a problem. All the Gospels mention it in the light of astonishment that the stone was not in its place but had been rolled back. Secondly, some of the gospels emphasise that the tomb was empty as the women are told to look at the place where He laid Jesus.
St John’s Gospel goes further and mentions the grave clothes and tells us that it was St Peter himself who noted that the grave clothes were separated, the “sheets” (othonia οθόνια) lying in one place and the “napkin” (soudarion σουδάριον) in a different place by itself. This latter detail is important because it gives rise to the question – What does someone want to take a naked corpse away for? Finally there is the issue of the guard set to ensure that nothing happened to the body of Jesus. In fact this is only mentioned by St Matthew. So, what conclusion can we draw from these stories? Quite a simple one really! Each evangelist was recording details of a story told to them or remembered by them. That the details are slightly different is proof that the essence of the story is true and that the fundamental point was that Christ was no longer in the tomb but had risen from the dead. Subsequent stories tell us that Christ appeared in a number of different ways to his disciples. So the Sunday of the Myrrh-bearers is given to us by the Church so that we may reflect on the truth of the Gospel and its main point: Christ is Risen! And all the rest of our Faith derives from that point. Christ is Risen!
OCCASIONAL NEWSLETTER No. 6 (26th April 2020)
In normal times, this time of year is one to which I particularly look forward. One highlight usually occurs this coming Tuesday, nine days after Pascha. This is Radonitsa, which is sometimes called the “joyful visitation of the graves” or “day of rejoicing.” This is when the clergy (and any who wish to join them) visit each of the known graves of local Orthodox believers and sing, at each of them, a very shortened version of the panikhida service, in which we pray for the departed. There are a few such graves in the Fakenham municipal cemetery, one in North Barsham churchyard, and several in the churchyard of St. Peter’s in Great Walsingham. This year, because of the coronavirus I cannot go out, but I shall be serving a Panikhida at home instead, remembering all our former parishioners who are now “asleep in the Lord.” It may seem odd to speak about a “joyful” visitation to the graves of those whom we have loved and still miss, because of course there is always a sense in which our mourning and sorrow at their loss will never end in this life. All the same, what makes Radonitsa different to any other visitation of their graves is that it takes place in the Paschal season, when we are more than usually aware that “Christ is risen from the dead, trampling down death by death, and on those in the tombs bestowing life.” (This is, of course, something that is sung throughout the Paschal season, and it is added to the usual Panikhida at Radonitsa.)
This Radonitsa practice had its origins in pre-Christian times, when in Russia it was customary for people to visit the graves of loved ones in Spring to feast with them. In its Christianised form, it is a custom which – like some others – represents what has been called a “baptising” of pagan practice, recognising that what existed in that practice can often be seen as a kind of instinctive recognition of spiritual reality and therefore – provided it is shorn of anything objectionable – something that can be used and given its full value in the light of the Christian revelation. (We are particularly aware of this in England because St. Augustine of Canterbury, when he arrived here in A.D. 597, wrote to the Pope in Rome in part to ask advice about this issue of pagan customs. The Pope of that time – known in the West as St. Gregory the Great but among us as St. Gregory of the Dialogues – wrote back explicitly advising this kind of baptism of such customs. (The exact wording of the letters between them are still known because they were copied out by St. Bede in his “History of the English Church and People.”) In its Christianised version, the feasting that in pagan Russia took place at the graveside now takes place after the visitation, when we partake (if possible) of foods that have been blessed at Pascha itself. One rather nice Radonitsa custom related to this is that some Orthodox give gifts to their “in laws”, referring to those who receive these gifts in more kindly way than is often the case when we make “mother in law” jokes. We speak of them in the Orthodox world as “God-given” members of our family, and that is surely the right way to see them.
Two days before Radonitsa is the Sunday we call Thomas Sunday because its readings and hymns focus on St. Thomas, who was not present when Christ first appeared to the rest of the apostles. On hearing that they had experienced the risen Christ, he could not believe. (We still today talk about people who doubt in this way as “doubting Thomases.”) Thomas is an interesting character, though, because, even before this, his enquiring mind had at least once caused a real clarification of belief among the apostles and, when he finally experienced the risen Christ, he was the first who was able to say, not only “my Lord” but “my Lord and my God” (John 20:28). For those of us who have the kind of enquiring mind that can sometimes find difficulties in accepting what we’re told to believe, this role that Thomas seemed to play is not only a great comfort, but also an indication that our difficulties can sometimes be important for us in the sense that they can allow us to go deeper into the realities of our faith.
The proper reaction to any difficulties that occur to us is summed up well, I think, in some comments by Metropolitan Anthony of Sourozh, who as a young man trained as a medical doctor and later used the experience of science obtained in that training to explain his perceptions about our fear that something we believed in the past is now becoming difficult for us to believe. When a scientific model is first developed, says Metropolitan Anthony, a good scientist’s reaction “will be to go round and round his model in all directions, examining and trying to find where the flaw is, what the problems are that are generated by the model he has built, by the theory he has proposed, by the hypothesis he has now offered for the consideration of others. At the root of the scientist’s activity is the certainty that what he is doubting is the model he has invented – that is, by the way he has projected his intellectual structures on the world around him and on the facts, the way in which his intelligence has grouped things. But what he is absolutely certain of is that the the reality that is beyond his model is in no danger if his model collapses. The reality is stable; it is there, the model is an inadequate expression of it, but the reality doesn’t alter because the model shakes.” Because this distinction is fully understood in scientific work, says Metropolitan Anthony, the scientist’s doubt “is hopeful, it is joyful, it is destructive of what he has done himself because he believes in the reality that is beyond and not in the model he has constructed.” This, he goes on, is something “we must learn as believers for our spiritual life both in the highest forms of theology and in the small simple concrete experience of being a Christian.” He then goes on to say this: “Whenever we are confronted with a crossroads, whenever we are in doubt, whenever our mind sees two alternatives, instead of saying ‘Oh God make me blind, Oh God help me not to see, Oh God give me loyalty to what I now know to be untrue,’ we should say ‘God is casting a ray of light on something I have outgrown – the smallness of my original vision. I have come to the point where I can see more and deeper, thanks be to God.”
I want to finish this newsletter by quoting something that sums up much of what I have been saying. It is from the Mattins for this Sunday, and it was written during the early centuries of our faith. It goes like this:
Today is the springtime of souls, for Christ – shining forth from the grave like a three-day sun – has driven away the gloomy winter of our sin. Let us praise Him that he may be glorified. The queen of seasons, brightly attended by the light-bringing day, even the queen of days, gladdens the chosen people of the Church, who without ceasing praise the resurrection of Christ. Neither the gates of death nor the seals of the gravestone nor the bars upon the doors could withstand Thee O Christ; but having arisen Thou didst appear, granting to thy friends, O Master, that peace which surpasses all understanding.
With love in Christ, Fr. Christopher
SERMON ON John 20:19-21
Christ is risen! But Thomas does not believe it. Christ is risen! He has appeared to Maria and the women. Christ is risen! He has appeared to the friends going to Emmaus. Christ is risen! He has appeared to the ten disciples and has given them the Holy Spirit to forgive. Christ is risen, but Thomas does not believe. At last, the risen Christ demands of Thomas to look, to touch, to put his fingers into His wounds and his hand in His Heart, and to come out of his disbelief. Christ is risen! He also demands of me, a Christian, to be full of faith. Yes, the victorious risen Christ demands of me a life of faith. He gave me this power of faith on the day of my Baptism. By Chrismation, I was branded with the gift of the Holy Spirit, as the Apostles were. Through Holy Communion, I am nourished and energised, as the Apostles were. Through Holy Confession of my sins, I am restored and protected, as the Apostles were. By Holy Marriage, the self preservation of my temporal life is elevated to the harmony of the economy of the Trinity of God, as some of the Apostles were. The Power and Judgement of God is deposited in the hand of Man thanks to and through the Priesthood, because the Apostles received it from the risen Christ. By the Holy Unction, I am healed and revitalised for my last steps towards the Eternal Life, as the Apostles taught. All these Mysteries, or Sacraments, are the pledge for the promise that, at my temporal life’s death, I shall pass-over (Pascha) to the Eternal Life, the Kingdom of the One God, the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit. What a great mercy, what an everlasting life is granted to us, for Christ is risen! Therefore the risen Christ demands of me, a Christian, a follower of Him and His disciple, like Thomas was, to be full of faith. This means that all my thoughts, all my words, all my actions be transformed by the force, the power, of faith in Christ. The Apostles did not stay sitting down at home but went out to transmit to the world what Christ had commanded: doing wonders, signs, healing the sick, those bed-redden, those afflicted with unclean spirits. They were all healed. How did the Apostles do these signs and wonders? They were among the people in the Temple, in the Portico of Solomon, where the principle activity was to pray, giving glory to God, the Creator of all. Another activity in the Temple was to teach the Law, the Torah of God given to Moses. That is, to learn how to organise the thoughts, words and actions of every day according to the Commandments of God. I, the Christian full of faith, come to the Church, among the people of Christ, to pray and to learn how to live the Commandments of God as taught by the Son of God, the risen Christ. How does the Church teach us? This is done at the Divine Liturgy, with the reading of two passages from the New Testament. These passages are selected for me to learn how to live the life of faith according to Christ. On Pascha Night we begin reading the Gospel of John, up to Pentecost; then we shall do so with the Gospel of Mathew, followed by Luke and so Mark. Similarly on Pascha Night we begin the book of the Acts of the Apostles; and so, from Pentecost it is put to us to read Romans, Corinthians, etc., and the rest of the letters of the Apostles. Therefore, at the arriving of next Pascha we have read, with the exception of the Apocalypse, all of the the New Testament. The passages of the Gospel and the Apostle readings are very much inter-twined, that each day we may learn a particular practical point. In this way we, imitating the Apostles’ presence in the Temple of Jerusalem, are present every day in the temple of the Holy Trinity, listening the Word of God. We do not need to be in Church every day, but we read the selected passages every day in our homes, in the loneliness of our hearts with God and our holy Guardian Angel. This is the life of faith, of prayer, receiving the Son of God, transforming us into Himself, for He has risen and gone to prepare a place for you and me in His Eternal Life.
OCCASIONAL NEWSLETTER No. 5 (19th April 2020)
Christ is risen! On this feast of Pascha, I send you all my greetings. As I was doing the Vespers of Good Friday with Cathie and Rupert in our icon corner, I was very aware that you were not there, since for some reason I always find that particular service, not only moving in itself, but also one in which I feel a greater togetherness among those present than at any other service of the year. I do miss you all.
Usually, in these occasional newsletters during the coronavirus outbreak (this is number 5,
though I also mistakenly labelled last week’s as 5) I give you a few thoughts as a kind of mini-sermon. One of the lovely things about Pascha, however, is that in our church, as in every other church of our Orthodox tradition, we always have the same sermon in the Paschal matins of Saturday evening: a sermon traditionally attributed to St. John Chrysostom. It comes from the early centuries of our faith, and whether or not it actually came from the saint’s own mouth, it is evidently from the mouth of a very gifted preacher. (Chrysostom means golden-mouthed, so it is hardly surprising that people thought it could only have come from him, and perhaps it did.) So instead of giving you my own thoughts, here are his as we hear them every year (in a slightly different translation to the usual one):
Are there any who are devout lovers of God?
Let them enjoy this beautiful bright festival!
Are there any who are grateful servants?
Let them rejoice and enter into the joy of their Lord!
Are there any weary with fasting?
Let them now receive their wages!
If any have toiled from the first hour,
let them receive their due reward;
If any have come after the third hour,
let him with gratitude join in the Feast!
And he that arrived after the sixth hour,
let him not doubt; for he too shall sustain no loss.
And if any delayed until the ninth hour,
let him not hesitate; but let him come too.
And he who arrived only at the eleventh hour,
let him not be afraid by reason of his delay.
For the Lord is gracious and receives the last even as the first.
He gives rest to him that comes at the eleventh hour,
as well as to him that toiled from the first.
To this one He gives, and upon another He bestows.
He accepts the works as He greets the endeavour.
The deed He honours and the intention He commends.
Let us all enter into the joy of the Lord!
First and last alike receive your reward;
rich and poor, rejoice together!
Sober and slothful, celebrate the day!
You that have kept the fast, and you that have not,
rejoice today for the Table is richly laden!
Feast royally on it, the calf is a fatted one.
Let no one go away hungry. Partake, all, of the cup of faith.
Enjoy all the riches of His goodness!
Let no one grieve at his poverty,
for the universal kingdom has been revealed.
Let no one mourn that he has fallen again and again;
for forgiveness has risen from the grave.
Let no one fear death, for the Death of our Saviour has set us free.
He has destroyed it by enduring it.
He destroyed Hell when He descended into it.
He put it into an uproar even as it tasted of His flesh.
Isaiah foretold this when he said,
"You, O Hell, have been troubled by encountering Him below."
Hell was in an uproar because it was done away with.
It was in an uproar because it is mocked.
It was in an uproar, for it is destroyed.
It is in an uproar, for it is annihilated.
It is in an uproar, for it is now made captive.
Hell took a body, and discovered God.
It took earth, and encountered Heaven.
It took what it saw, and was overcome by what it did not see.
O death, where is thy sting?
O Hell, where is thy victory?
Christ is Risen, and you, o death, are annihilated!
Christ is Risen, and the evil ones are cast down!
Christ is Risen, and the angels rejoice!
Christ is Risen, and life is liberated!
Christ is Risen, and the tomb is emptied of its dead;
for Christ having risen from the dead,
is become the first-fruits of those who have fallen asleep.
To Him be Glory and Power forever and ever. Amen!
With love in Christ,
FOR HOLY PASCHA
Prot. No. 270
† B A R T H O L O M E W BY GOD’S MERCY ARCHBISHOP OF CONSTANTINOPLE-NEW ROME AND ECUMENICAL PATRIARCH TO THE PLENITUDE OF THE CHURCH: MAY THE GRACE, PEACE AND MERCY OF CHRIST RISEN IN GLORY BE WITH YOU ALL
* * *
Dearest brother Hierarchs and beloved children in the Lord,
Having arrived at Holy Pascha and becoming partakers of the joy of the Resurrection, we praise the Lord of glory, who trampled down death by death and resurrected with Him the entire race of Adam, opening for us all the gates of paradise. The splendid Resurrection of Christ is the confirmation that what prevails in the life of the world is not death, but the Saviour who abolished the dominion of death.
Formerly known to us as the Word without flesh and subsequently as the Word who assumed flesh for us on account of love for humankind, who died as man and was risen with might as God, He is the Saviour who will come again in glory to fulfil the Divine Economy. The mystery and experience of the Resurrection constitutes the core of the ecclesiastical life. The radiant worship, the sacred mysteries, the life of prayer, fasting
and ascesis, pastoral ministry and good witness in the world – all of these emanate the fragrance of Paschal joy. The life of the faithful in the Church is a daily Pascha, “a joy from above,” “the joy of salvation,” as well as the “salvation as joy.”
1 This is why the services of Holy and Great Week are not gloomy but filled with the victorious power of the Resurrection. There, we discover that the Cross does not have the last word in the plan for the salvation of humankind and the world. This is foreshadowed already on the Saturday of Lazarus. The raising from the dead of Christ’s intimate friend is a prefigurement of the “common resurrection.” The hymn “Today is hung upon the wood [of the Cross]” comes to a climax in the invocation “Show us, too, your glorious Resurrection.” Before the Epitaphios, we chant “I magnify your Passion, I praise your burial, together with your Resurrection.” And during the Paschal service, we resoundingly declare the true meaning of the Cross: “For behold, through the Cross, joy has come into the whole world.” The “chosen and holy day” of Pascha is the dawn of the “eighth day,” the first- fruit of the “new creation.” The experience of our own resurrection, the great “miracle of my salvation.”
2 It is the lived affirmation that the Lord suffered and was led to death for our sake and that He rose from the dead for us “foreshadowing for us the resurrection 1 The Journals of Father Alexander Schmemann 1973-1983 (Crestwood, NY: St. Vladimir’s Seminary Press, 2000), 137.2 Gregory the Theologian, On the Holy Pascha, PG 36.664. 2 for boundless ages.”
3 Throughout the Paschal period, we hymn with unparalleled poetry the anthropological meaning of the resplendent Resurrection of Christ, the Passover of humankind from slavery to genuine freedom, “the progression and ascension from below to the above and to the promised land.”
4 This salvific renewal in Christ is realised in the Church as a dynamic extension of the Eucharistic ethos in the world, as “speaking the truth in love,” as synergy with God for the transfiguration of the world, so that the world may be rendered an image of the fullness of the final revelation of the divine love in the Kingdom of the last times. Living in the risen Lord means proclaiming the Gospel “to the ends of the earth,” in the manner of the Apostles; it is the witness in practice of the grace that has appeared and the expectation of the “new creation,” where “death shall be no more, neither shall there be mourning nor crying nor pain any more.” (Rev.21.4) Faith in the Resurrection of Christ and in our own co-resurrection does not deny the painful presence of death, pain and the cross in the life of the world. We do not suppress the harsh reality or secure for ourselves, through faith, a psychological assurance before death. However, we know that the present life is not life in its entirety, that here we are “sojourners,” that we belong to Christ and that we are journeying to His eternal Kingdom. The presence of pain and death, no matter how tangible these may be, does not constitute the ultimate reality. That lies in the definitive abolition of death. In the Kingdom of God there is neither pain nor death, but never-ending life. “Before your precious Cross,” we chant, “death is terrifying for human beings; but after your glorious Passion, humankind is terrifying for death.”
5 Faith in Christ grants us power, perseverance and patience to endure trials. Christ is the one who “heals us from every illness and delivers us from death.” He is the one who has suffered for us and has revealed to us that God is “always for us” and that God’s love for us belongs intrinsically to God’s truth. This hopeful voice of divine love is echoed in Christ’s words to the paralytic “take courage, my child” (Matt. 9.2) and to the woman with the issue of blood “take courage, daughter” (Matt. 9.22), in His words “take courage; I have overcome the world” (John 16.33) before the Passion, and to the imprisoned Apostle of the Gentiles, threatened by death, “take courage, Paul” (Acts 23.11). The present pandemic of the novel coronavirus has demonstrated how fragile we are as human beings, how easily we are dominated by fear and despondency, how frail our knowledge and self-confidence appear, how antiquated the notion is that death comprises an event at the end of life and that forgetting or suppressing death is the proper way of dealing with it. Limit situations prove that we are incapable of handling our existence resolutely, when we believe that death is an invincible reality and insurmountable boundary. It is difficult to remain human without the hope of eternity. This hope lives in the hearts of all doctors, nurses, volunteers, donors and all those generously supporting their suffering brothers and sisters in a spirit of sacrifice, offering and love. In this indescribable crisis, they radiate resurrection and hope. They are the “Good Samaritans” that, at the risk of their own lives, pour oil and wine on wounds; they are the modern-day “Cyrenaeans” on the Golgotha of those lying in illness. 3 Gregory Palamas, On the Holy Ascension, PG 151.277. 4 Gregory the Theologian, op. cit., 636. 5 Doxastikon of the Vespers of September 27.3
With these thoughts, most honourable Hierarchs and dearest children in the Lord, we glorify the name of the Risen Lord which is above all names, the source of life from His own light, who illumines the universe with the light of the Resurrection. And we pray to Him, the physician of our souls and bodies, who grants life and resurrection, that in His ineffable loving-kindness He may condescend to the human race, in order to grant us the precious gift of health and direct our steps on the straight ways, to vouchsafe the divine gift of our freedom in the world, foreshadowing its perfection in the heavenly Kingdom of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.
Christ is Risen!
At the Phanar, Holy Pascha 2020
† Bartholomew of Constantinople
Your fervent supplicant to the Risen Lord
SERMON ON THE HOLY PASCHA
Jesus is risen from the dead! He is God, he is glorified! His light and his warmth give life to the whole universe, and not only mortal life, because he shares his imperishable life with his entire creation. Saint John’s Gospel calls Jesus the word. Today’s Gospel starts with the phrase we all know, In the beginning was the word. When we were small children, we heard the words our parents spoke, and their words became our words. We began to think, to speak and to relate to people, thanks to the words we inherited from others. In an even more powerful way, Jesus is the word in our lives. Deep inside the heart of each person Jesus is the source of our ability to think and speak to others. Jesus makes persons of all of us.
Jesus is the Word of God because he is the full revelation of God to us. He is also the Giver of our ability to think and speak and relate to one another. This is the image of God in us. Jesus also enables us to see every human being as the image of God. Left to our own devices, we see the limitations of people. Our faith in Jesus makes us hope fervently that one day every human being will be joyfully transfigured by the glory of God. Jesus takes the scales off our eyes if we make the effort to obey him. Learning about God through doing his will started long before Jesus was born. When God was giving his commandments to the Jewish people at Mount Sinai, in the days of Moses, the people exclaimed, ‘we will do the commandments so that we may hear them’ (Exod. 24: 7). We can only understand God’s commandments by doing his will. The Apostle James, the Brother of the Lord teaches this clearly, ‘be doers of the word, and not merely hearers who deceive themselves’ (Jam. 1: 22). The Saviour himself tells us, ‘Why do you not do what I tell you? I will show you what someone is like who comes to me, hears my words, and acts on them. That one is like a man building a house, who dug deeply and laid the foundation on rock; when a flood arose, the river burst against that house but could not shake it, because it had been well built. But the one who hears and does not act is like a man who built a house on the ground without a foundation. When the river burst against it, immediately it fell, and great was the ruin of that house’ (Luke. 6: 46-49)
Let me give two examples from the Gospel. In the parable of the Good Samaritan, Jesus pointed out to us that we are not to label people. God sees how each person lives, he alone can judge a person. Someone’s religious label might not be a safe understanding of who they really are. In the Sermon on the Mount, the Lord commands us not to pray or help others so as to be seen and admired, but do it secretly, and always forgive others, because it is the condition for our being forgiven. In the parable of the rich man and Lazarus, Jesus is telling us that wealth and power mean nothing, and that someone who is deprived of all good things in life may well be on his way to the greatest glory in God’s Kingdom. God has huge surprises in store for everyone. Being a Christian is never achieved by conforming to fashionable ideas. Only the truth of Christ is eternal.
The Kingdom of God is always a contrast, a joyful shock, when compared with the latest popular enthusiasm. God will surprise and astound us when we arrive in heaven. He will go on surprising us and astounding us every day throughout eternity. Amen.
PARISH OF THE HOLY TRANSFIGURATION, GREAT WALSINGHAM
OCCASIONAL NEWSLETTER No. 5 (12th April 2020)
On this Palm Sunday – when we celebrate Our Lord’s triumphal entry into Jerusalem – I usually urge you to attend at least some of the Holy Week services as part of your spiritual reparation for the great feast of Pascha that is to occur in only a week’s time. Sadly, in this period of coronavirus lockdown, it will not be possible for us to gather together in the usual way. (I shall be doing some of the services at home but our local internet quality is too poor to “stream” these online.) There are, however, ways in which we can be together in a different way, not only with our fellow parishioners but with the whole Church. One way of doing this is to use some of the Holy Week prayers of the Church in our own private prayers, and you can get the text of these prayers online by clicking on the following link:
Perhaps easier, however, is simply to listen to the week’s services online, and Fr. Stephen Platt, of the Sourozh diocese church in Oxford (where the internet quality is good) is doing various services with his family, which can be heard online on your computer by clicking onto either:
They anticipate being able to do the following services (mostly or wholly in English) during the coming week:
Sun 12th April: Holy Liturgy (10.30); Mattins of the Bridegroom (18.00)
Mon 13th April and Tues 14th April: Liturgy of Presanctified (9.00); Mattins of the Bridegroom (18.00)
Wed 15th April: Liturgy of Presanctified (9.00)
Thurs 16th April: Vespers and Liturgy of St. Basil (9.00);
Mattins of the Passion (12 Gospels) (18.00)
Fri 17th April: Vespers and Procession of the Holy Shroud (14.00);
Mattins and Burial of the Lord (18.00)
Sat 18th April: Vespers and Liturgy of St. Basil (9.00);
Midnight Office and Paschal Mattins (23.00)
Sun 19th April (PASCHA): Divine Liturgy (10.30); Paschal Vespers (18.00)
I do recommend that you listen to some of these services online and use them as an opportunity for prayer during this, the most important week of the Christian year.
As you live through these final few days of Our Lord’s life, do – as well as reflecting on the events of these days - pray for those who are sick, not only with the coronavirus, but also with other ailments. (Several of our own parishioners and their families fall into this latter category, and Sylvia, Fr. David’s daughter, Lydia, and Rose’s daughter, Anne, have all been in hospital during this difficult period.) Let us also give thanks to God for all those working in hospitals and GP surgeries, who are taking grave risks in order to care for others. A particular feature of our Orthodox veneration of the saints is our remembrance of the “holy unmercenary physicians” who didn’t charge the poor for their services. Among these, eight are always commemorated in the preparation service before each liturgy: Cosmas, Damien, Cyrus, John, Panteleimon, Hermolaos, Mocius, and Anecitas. The tradition began, however, with three women: Zenaida, Philonella and Hermione. In this difficult time, it is particularly appropriate that should pray that, through the prayers of all the holy unmercenary physicians, God will have mercy on the sick.
With love in Christ,
Sermon John 12: 1-18
How strange it seems to be celebrating a joyful feast before this evening when the church will be plunged into gloom as we bring out the icon of the Bridegroom with the divine head surrounded by thorns! We chanted at Friday Vespers: We have completed the forty days which profit our souls. Now let us beg the Lover of the human race, “Enable us to see the holy week of your passion so that we may glorify your mighty work.” The Great Forty Days have passed; we celebrate the raising of Lazaros as a foretaste of the Resurrection and wave our palms in spirit with the children as we proclaim, “Hosanna in the Highest! Blessed is the one who come in the name of the Lord.”
We do well to muse on the apolytíkion, “O Christ God, you confirmed the universal resurrection by raising Lazarus from the dead before your passion. O Vanquisher of Death, we cry out to you like the children with their palms of victory, “Hosanna in the highest! Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord.” Even in the midst of sorrow for our sins and the contemplation of the Divine Passion there is joy in the ultimate victory of Christ over the powers of darkness.
We may have worried about our besetting sins over the last forty days. We may have despaired about the state of the world. We may have been overwhelmed by a family problem. The words of the Apostle Paul in today’s apóstolos give us a way of coping. “Have no anxiety about anything, but in everything let your requests be made known to God through prayer and pleas with thanksgiving.” We pour out our hearts before an icon at home, we tearfully light our candles in church and we make our penitential requests to God. But we make them with thanksgiving, realising with the Apostle Paul, “No trial has overtaken you that is not common to man. God is faithful, and he will not let you be tried beyond your strength, but with the trial will also provide the way of escape so that you may be able to endure it.” (1 Cor. 10) Let us with the children greet the Saviour, “Hosanna in the Highest!”
Holy Week Statement from British and Irish Church Leaders
God’s world is in the midst of an unprecedented crisis. In the nations that make up Britain and Ireland the Covid-19 virus continues to affect people at an alarming rate, health services along with many of our institutions and organisations, both local and national, are under extreme pressure and people are getting used to living in a very different way, many in extreme isolation. As with all such crises, there is a danger that the most vulnerable in society will be most badly affected.
Christians the world over are entering an important time in the church year as we look to the events of Jesus Christ’s death and resurrection. At the centre of our common faith are both the depths of despair and the heights of joy. In the Bible and in the songs and liturgies of the Church, we see Jesus entering fully into human suffering. In His rising again, that suffering is redeemed and transformed into hope and joy. After Jesus’ death his disciples were afraid and all seemed lost and hopeless, but the risen Christ met them in their despair and restored hope through his victory over death. We pray that the world today might know this hope in place of despair.
In the Book of Daniel we read about God’s people being taken into exile in Babylon. Daniel could not pray in the Temple in Jerusalem, but he continued to pray in exile – opening his window to face Jerusalem. Though he was on his own he joined with the prayers of the people wherever they were. Now we too are separated from each other physically, but when we pray in our homes we join in with this ancient tradition of our home as a place of prayer. Wherever we are, whenever we pray, when we speak and think of Christ, there he is in the midst of us. We join our prayers with all those who pray in our own churches and communities and around the world.
As church leaders from across the many and varied churches of these Islands we urge all people to join us in prayer this Holy Week and Easter; to pray for those who suffer, those who face untimely death and all those who care for them; to celebrate our common faith at a difficult time; to help and support our neighbours in need; and to observe all the safeguards in place to slow the spread of disease.
Our Prayer Loving God, in Jesus Christ, who died and rose again for our salvation, cast out the darkness of our anxiety, fear and mourning, enfold us in your love and give us joy and hope this Easter. Amen.
His Eminence Archbishop Nikitas Archbishop of Thyateira and Great Britain
His Eminence Archbishop Angaelos Coptic Archbishop of London
Archbishop Justin Welby Archbishop of Canterbury
Very Rev Dr William Henry Moderator General Assembly Presbyterian Church of Ireland
Archbishop Eamon Martin Archbishop of Armagh
Revd Nigel Uden Moderator of General Assembly United Reformed Church
Bishop Hugh Gilbert Bishop of Aberdeen
Bishop Mark Strange Primus, Scottish Episcopal Church
Mr Rheinallt Thomas President Free Church Council Wales
Revd Brian Anderson President Irish Council of Churches
Gavin Calver CEO Evangelical Alliance
Cardinal Vincent Nichols Archbishop of Westminster
Rt. Revd Colin Sinclair Moderator General Assembly Church of Scotland
Commissioner Anthony Cotterill The Salvation Army
Archbishop-elect John McDowell Archbishop of Armagh
Revd Dr Barbara Glasson President Methodist Church of Great Britain
Revd Lynn Green General Secretary Baptist Union of Great Britain
Archbishop John Davies Archbishop of Wales
Pastor Agu Irukwu Redeemed Christian Church of God
Revd Hugh Osgood Moderator Free Church Federal Council
Revd Sam McGuffin President Methodist Church in Ireland
Paul Parker Religious Society of Friends
PARISH OF THE HOLY TRANSFIGURATION, WALSINGHAM
OCCASIONAL NEWSLETTER No.3 (5th April 2020)
As I told you in the last newsletter, the archdiocese has had the good sense to provide a short document for each Sunday, containing the epistle and gospel readings of the day, together with a short sermon about the biblical readings. The first of these was sent with the last newsletter, and the one for this Sunday will be sent with this newsletter. As I said last week, I very much hope you will use it in your Sunday morning prayers. If we are all able to do some kind of prayer at the time we usually begin our Liturgy – 10.30 a.m. – then we can have a sense of being spiritually together even when we are physically separated.
In the first of these newsletters I spoke about the way in which our everyday parish life - as it is in more normal times - has been possible for us only because of the sacrificial giving, whether in time or money, of those who, more than thirty years ago, bought and converted our lovely church building. It has been made possible in more recent years also because of a substantial legacy left to us by Anna Heaton, whose anniversary occurs on Monday. (I shall be singing the Panikhida for her that day, so please remember her also in your own prayers.) Anna was in some ways a rather eccentric lady; her habit of moving house regularly (always taking her beloved Aga with her) was legendary in the parish, and for a time she even lived in what is now our parish room (which was then less than half the size that it is now.) She had spent time, when younger, working for one of the Anglican missionary societies in Africa, and on her return found that only Orthodoxy seemed to have something of the joy that she had experienced among Christians in Africa.
Joy is something that is at the heart of our faith. Indeed, it has been said thatChristianity is essentially an “explosion of joy” brought about by the disciples’ experience of the risen Christ. As we near the end of Lent, and in particular when, in a week’s time, we enter into our commemoration of the last few days of Our Lord’s life, we always have a sense - as we journey through those last few days and the mood darkens as we approach the day of his crucifixion - that we have the joy of his resurrection to look forward to. There are a number of occasions during the Orthodox Christian year when we focus on the cross - not least the third Sunday of Lent and the Veneration of the Cross on14th September- but it is, of course, on Good Friday itself that we focus most clearly onChrist’s suffering. Even then, however, there is a sense that the crucifixion is never to be separated in our minds from the resurrection on the third day. As we sing when we venerate the cross: “We venerate thy cross, O Master, and we glorify thy holy resurrection.”
We may seem to be living through dark days at the moment in a different way. To the best of my knowledge, none of us has yet succumbed to the coronavirus, but it is now sufficiently widespread for most of us to know someone who has. Some of us may wonder where God is in all this, and certainly what is sometimes known as the “problem of natural evil” is one that has challenged the faith of many over the centuries. When the Fathers of theChurch thought about this issue, the conclusion that they came to was that God does not directly will natural evil but nevertheless permits it because it is only in this particular kind of world that we can be led towards the end for which we were made, which is eternal life as “partakers of the divine nature” (2 Peter 1:4).The world as we experience it, they often said, is not the world as God originally intended it and ultimately wills it to be, but in some sense it reflects our own disordered and self-centred state (hence the story of the expulsion fromParadise in the Book of Genesis.) Nevertheless, as one modern scholar has putit, following the teachings of St. Irenaeus, our present world, with all its sufferings, should be seen as a “vale of soul making.” Or as another modern scholar has put it - following the teachings of St. Maximos the Confessor - what can seem to be a kind of punishment is actually a “second blessing” from God, since our present state is one that is the best one possible for self-centred humanity to be able to “realise its original goal in Christ.” There is, of course, a mystery in all this that we are unlikely to be able to comprehend in this life except as a matter of faith. Nevertheless, our way of linking the cross and the resurrection of Christ points towards how we can reinforce that faith. The disciples, immediately after the crucifixion, must have been in utter despair. And yet, on the third day, their despair was turned to joy. We, in our own lives, may well have already experienced this kind of transformation in all sorts of small ways, and we must have faith that whatever assails us in these difficult times, “no eye has seen, nor ear heard, nor heart imagined, what God has in store for those who love Him.”(1 Corinthians 2:9)With love in Christ,
Sermon Hebrews 9:11-14
We are now well past the halfway point of Lent, and one week away from the triumphal entry of our Lord into Jerusalem. In only a few short days the cries of the crowd will turn from exaltation and jubilation to derision and humiliation. Yet it is within this climate of anticipation that we are asked to revisit a key concept of our Christian lives, that is the concept of repentance. At the start of our preparation for Lent we listened to the parable of the Publican and the Pharisee; now we are presented with the life of the great ascetic St. Mary of Egypt as a model of a real-life conversion experience.
In St. Mary, we «discern true repentance which raises the sinner from the depths of corruption to angelic heights.» Crucially, we are presented with a very real and deeply profound truth: firstly, that the Saint came to realise that the life that she had been living up to that point was a far cry from the life that God had called her to live, and secondly, that she was the only one who could take the decision to turn back to God. Here we can recall the words of the Prodigal Son: "Father I have sinned against heaven and before you; I am no longer worthy to be called your son." We listened to this in the beginning of our journey into Lent. Now we are called to ask ourselves how much of this has truly been made ours? How far have we come along the path of repentance?
Truly, repentance is difficult for us in our modern lives! We try to make a small effort and are then put off by the slightest mishap. We must remember though that the saints, even when they sinned, had the strength to get up again with simplicity and well-being. If they sinned, they repented from the depths of their heart, even unto death; however, they were not melancholic. By contrast, if we sin we start asking ‘but why? Why did I do it? Why did I think that?’ As if it were the strangest thing for us to sin... And who do we think we are? Are we so special, so infallible that there would never be a chance for us to sin?
Brothers and sisters, the road is long, and more often than not we will struggle and we will fall. Yet we must get back up, try again and not become despondent. We remember that God is always there, with and for us. It is folly to say «God will never give you more than you can handle.» Rather, it is only by the grace of God that we are able to overcome the struggles that we face, ultimately to transform us, just as he transformed St. Mary. After all, God cannot love us any less than he already does, even when we may feel that our own love for Him is lacking.
In the wondrous life of St. Mary we see the passion of lust transfigured into the godly passion of love. Let us renew our own repentance and let this thought guide the rest of our Lenten journey, so that we may offer up a worthy repentance before the dread judgement seat of Christ.
PARISH OF THE HOLY TRANSFIGURATION, WALSINGHAM OCCASIONAL NEWSLETTER No.2 (29th March 2020)
Dear Friends,The archdiocese has had the good sense to provide a short document for each Sunday, containing the epistle and gospel readings of the day, together with a short sermon about the gospel reading. This will be sent to you each week during the period in which we are unable to gather in our parish church, and I very much hope you will use it in your Sunday morning prayers. If we are all able to do some kind of prayer at the time we usually begin our Liturgy – 10.30 a.m. – then we can have a sense of being spiritually together even when we are physically separated.I have managed to speak with most of you on the telephone over the last day or two, and you all seem to be coping well with the conditions in which we find ourselves. We all still seem to be in good health and to have found ways to keep our store cupboards filled. We are fortunate that the telephone, email, and modern social media enable us to keep in touch with our loved ones, and some of you have told me how much you have appreciated this kind of contact with other members of our parish.My own reflections on our situation over the past few days have been focused on Our Lord’s instruction to “take no thought for the morrow” (Matthew 6:34). What can this mean for us, I have wondered, in a situation in which we would have been better prepared for what has happened if we had planned for a major epidemic in the way that many health scientists have been urging for some considerable time. My conclusion has been that we need to make a proper distinction between prudence – especially when it is prudence that is not self-centred, but is focused on our neighbours’ needs – and anxiety of the self-centred kind. It is surely this self-centred anxiety that Jesus is speaking of when he reminds us that no anxiety can add a cubit to our stature. Of course, he says, we do have genuine needs, and these needs are known by our heavenly Father. What is important, he says, is that we should “seek first the kingdom of God, and his righteousness, and all these things will be added.” Prudence that is not self-centred is, then, something different to the anxiety of which Jesus speaks. This kind of prudence is a way in which we can – as we are commanded - love our neighbours as ourselves, since it involves foreseeing how our neighbour may be harmed in certain circumstances and then acting to avoid that harm.
An example of this need for prudence is something that has been happening for some time,and the consequences of which will very probably make our present coronavirus scare seem almost trivial by comparison. This is the phenomenon of global warming, which is almost certainly at least partially the result of human activity. For some years, we have had a good idea of what this warming will mean for us (or at least for our grandchildren), but as a society we have treated the whole issue as requiring a far less urgent response than the one we have felt forced to take in response to the coronavirus. Perhaps our present experience can help us to change this irresponsible lack of urgency? It is sometimes said that the Old Testament prophets should not be seen primarily as people who “foretold” events that would happen inthe future, but rather as people who “forth-told” – that is, they expressed what was wrong in the present and warned of where present tendencies were leading. Can the coronavirus helpus to be prophetic in this latter sense, so that, in the face of global warming we can behave responsibly as stewards of God’s creation, avoiding both denial of what is happening and the attitude that, even without our active stewardship, “something is bound to turn up”?In the last newsletter, I quoted a poem from Fr. Patrick Radley, and some of you expressed appreciation for his poem. At the same time as Fr. Patrick was our parish priest, we also had another poet in the parish, Andrew Cowling, whom I visited many times in Spalding after he became, in old age, unable to join us for the Liturgy in Walsingham. Andrew was one of those who could see beyond all doom-mongering of the purely negative kind, and point towards the hope that is at the heart of our faith. An example of this is the following poem,which he wrote for a couple whose newborn child had caused an acquaintance to complain about over-population. It is, I think, very pertinent to all that I have said, since it points towards the reality of what it is to be human in a world that is ultimately God’s world, andyet remains a world for which we must care, co-operating with God’s grace for the good of all. Andrew writes it as a reflection by the two parents on their newborn child, and it is addressed to that child.
Dear child, you recapitulate
In this your newly infant state
All ages past: star dust whirling
Into worlds; a young sun shining
Water into life’s spiral chain,
Single cell to complex brain:
Adam’s new self-consciousness,
Messiah’s loyal faithfulness,
Athens, Rome, Jerusalem,
The mysteries of Byzantium,
The probing spirit’s teeming mind,
All the long history of mankind:
All this – our past and present too
Is concentrated now in you.
Child, what do you anticipate
In your potential infant state?
What earthly beauty shall we see
Coiled in your crinkled symmetry?
What intricacy shall we find
Hidden in your nascent mind?
Will your strong heart incline to good,
Embrace the poor and gaze on God?
Will your bright eyes be blinded by
The darkness of iniquity,
Or see in every crucifixion
Hidden seeds of resurrection?
Will your small hands grow to caress
Lover and earth with gentleness?
What endless possibility
Lies dormant in your infancy?
Dear child, what is it you indicate
By your ambiguous infant state?
That you are one, unique, alone,
Whom we may cherish, never own:
Love, but in the end let be,
Respecting your integrity.
Yet you are ours, yes, ours alone,
Blood of our blood, bone of our bone,
Our fact of faith, our hope to prove,
Our own dear sacrament of love.
With love in Christ,
Sermon on Mark 9 17-31
St John of the Ladder, whose memory the Church honours today, tells us that ‘faith is the wing of prayer’, without which prayer falls back to earth and cannot fly out beyond us to God. And today’s Gospel extract is read at this time of Lent because of its reference to the need for prayer and fasting as a means of allowing the power of God to heal us. We are therefore challenged to ask ourselves where we stand in the matter of faith as the basis of prayer and fasting. Is our faith much stronger than that of the poor father of the sick boy who struggled between belief and unbelief? Do we pray with half our mind or with our whole heart? Do we believe with half of our heart and doubt with most of our mind? We see how the faith even of the apostles of Christ sometimes fell short, and Christ’s exclamation ‘O faithless generation!’ can apply to us all. True faith is not a vague theoretical belief inferior to scientific proof, but a much more certain, spiritual knowledge which is deeper and higher than any reasoning, since rational understanding is limited to things perceptible to the senses or conceivable to the mind, whereas God is beyond all human understanding. Scientific knowledge, confined to the sphere of thinking, will always examine whether something is materially possible, and so it contains doubt. But real faith in God, rooted in the humbled spiritual heart, is enabled by the grace of the Holy Spirit to soar above earthly limitations and search into hidden mysteries beyond; through strong faith, God comes to meet us and we understand things beyond understanding because we come to know that God, who created us and the universe from nothing, understands us more than we could ever understand ourselves. Thus, through simple faith and prayer, we are enabled to go beyond ourselves in the complete surrender of trusting, fervent love of God, and to open ourselves to spiritual enlightenment which is not of this world. Modern secular society on the other hand, with its mind scattered and distracted in ever-increasing masses of worldly ‘data’ and ‘information’, departs from God and, from trying to create its own ‘truths’ begins to doubt the nature of truth itself, and in its fear of the unpredictable, enslaves itself to the impersonal mechanical ‘solutions’ of technology; but these do not heal the underlying misery and despair which come from sin and the fear of death. Good and simple Christian faith sets us free by the assurance that the way, the truth and the life are Christ God Himself, against whom no destructive power can prevail. Our power of reasoning comes from God, but when we use it with pride and unbelief, it is corrupted and becomes demonic; as St Paisios of the Holy Mountain said, ‘logic full of egoism is logic that harbours demons’. And so the predicament of the demonised child and the unbelieving father in today’s Gospel speaks to our age, where secular rationalism seeks to replace belief in God, rejects divine Providence and denies the possibility of miracles. Faith, on the other hand, does not reject science or rational knowledge; rather it completes what is lacking, and through prayer and fasting, it transforms it into spiritual knowledge. Strong faith does not come simply by an effort of the human mind, but is ultimately the gift and visitation of God Himself, and so we need to pray for increase of faith; when we thus humble ourselves, God can come, sanctifying what is merely human, purifying and healing what is corrupted by the demons of pride, greed and selfishness, and raising it out of its own limitations into the life of God Himself, with whom everything is indeed possible for those who believe.
Fr Mark Mitchell
PARISH OF THE HOLY TRANSFIGURATION, WALSINGHAM
OCCASIONAL NEWSLETTER No.1 (22nd March 2020)
During this difficult period - in which, because of the coronavirus, we are unable to come together for worship or for anything else - it seems appropriate to send out a kind of weekly newsletter, which will allow us to keep in touch with one another and to reflect on the faith that we share. This newsletter idea was something that I was already thinking about when Jeremy recently contacted me to suggest something of the sort, and I was very amused by his version of what the first one might look like. (Those of you who know Jeremy well can perhaps imagine that his version was not the same as this one, being both extremely funny and unprintable.)
I have also recently heard from Richard, who says in his email to me that it is “a really strange feeling not being able to go anywhere, although the garden is getting a good workout.” He also mentions in his message a group that has just started up via Whatsapp. Within minutes of joining the group, he tells me, he “had 8 different offers of help from various people in the village.” (If, as they sometimes say, there is a silver lining to every cloud, then maybe, in the case of our present situation, these offers of help indicate what that silver lining may be: a new kind of solidarity and willingness to support others.) Richard is working, he goes on, not only on his garden but also on a musical project for our church that he began some time ago, providing choir music for some of the changeable parts of the service. He has already finished the Menaion - a project he started just before he handed the choir over to Cathie some years ago - and is now hard at work on the Octeochos. (For those of you who don’t know what those terms mean, don’t worry – there are lots of technical terms that only the clergy and those leading choirs need to understand. The important thing is that this understanding is what enables our wonderful tradition of worship to be put into practice for the benefit of all.)If any of you have news of the kind that Richard has sent me, and which you’d like to share with others via this newsletter, simply contact me via email (email@example.com).We’ve always been the sort of parish in which news of one another’s lives has been of general interest, and my reporting of what you tell me will be one way of allowing the building up our common life to continue during a period in which our normal lives have been disrupted.
My own thoughts this week have been on a different aspect of our normal lives being disrupted. This is the way in which, in “normal” times, we often fail to appreciate things fully because we simply take them for granted. When we pray, we are aware that there are things to confess and situations that require intercession with God, but the aspect of prayer that focuses on thanksgiving to Him is often forgotten by us, or at least put on the back burner.And yet one of the terms we use of our Liturgy – the word Eucharist – is simply an Anglicized version of the Greek term for thanksgiving, and the central prayer of that service is quite explicitly a thanksgiving to God the Father, not only for what we have all received through the life, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ, but also (as the Liturgy of St. John Chrysostom puts it) for all the blessings we have received, whether “known or unknown,manifest or hidden.”In practice, many of the blessings we have received are indeed hidden from us. Much that was important for our development in childhood, for example, is hidden from us because it happened in the first couple of years of our lives - a time of which we have no memories.
Moreover, much that has worked for good in our later lives may seem to us simply to have“happened,” so that, even though it is part of our memory, we fail to see the hand of God init. (The psychologist, C. G. Jung, used to speak of “meaningful coincidence” or“synchronicity” as part of our experience of life, but all too often, when things “just happen”in the way we need them to happen, we simply shrug our shoulders and fail to see their true origin.) There are, in addition, other things to give thanks for but which we tend to take for granted– everyday things like the beauty of the natural world, which is always with us. In times like these, however, some of these everyday things become more obvious to us precisely because they have been withdrawn from us for a while. One of these things is our life as a parish and our ability – in normal times - to meet for worship, Sunday by Sunday. This everyday parish life has been possible for us, however, only because of something we should certainly give thanks for: the sacrificial giving – whether in time or money – of those who, more than 30 years ago, bought and converted our lovely church building. This parish life has been possible also, we should remember, because of the work and effort of people who - whether as clergy, readers, churchwardens, trustees, treasurers, or choir leaders - have “kept the showrunning” over the years. One of these people was Fr. Patrick Radley, who died almost 12 years ago, and whose anniversary occurs this coming Saturday (28th of this month.) Cathie and I will be singing a Panikhida at his grave in St. Peter’s churchyard at 10 a.m. on that day and – since this is outdoors – any of you who remember him and wish to join us there can doso without danger of infection. Fr. Patrick, as well as being a much-loved parish priest, was a poet, and it is with one of his poems of thanksgiving – The World is a Wedding - that I now finish this newsletter:
There are mornings When, from the hill,
We look down on mists, white and still,
Where, below, are
People and sheep
But we, as if
On a new earth,
A world breathless
At its re-birth,
By a brightness
Of the first day In its freshness.
All now is at The beginning,
Still wet with dew,
Untouched the stones,
The bracken and
The streams untouched.
The new-born land
To be licked dry
By the sunlight’s Intensity.In us is drawn
Up such gladness
Within our hearts,
Of thanks for the
And our holy Inheritance,
That our love is
Thus made one in
The marriage of Earth and heaven.
Man and woman,With renewed eyes
We enter here
With love in Christ,