The feast of St Cyril of Alexandria: reflections on St John

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Until fairly recently, St Cyril of Alexandria, whose feast day it is today, was a neglected figure in Patristics. Thanks to the works of the Rev Prof John McGuckin, and Norman Tanner (SJ) and others, this is changing.  This is all to the good, for he was one of the acutest theologians of the Patristic era, but he wrote not simply as a scholar, but as a bishop and also as an historian and the theologian.  As St. Cyril pointed out in a letter to Acacius of Beroea: ‘I have been nurtured at the hands of holy and orthodox fathers;’ [Russell, p. 4, note 18, which I have preferred to Fr. McGuckin’s version at p. 339 of his book.] and we see, in his use of Origen, St. Athanasius, St. Basil and St. Gregory Nazianzus, that far from possessing the arrogance attributed to him by his detractors, St. Cyril lies firmly in the best patristic tradition of adapting the insights of the past and adding, where appropriate, glosses of his own. He was steeped in the Holy Scriptures and in the writings of the Fathers; and it was the possession of this armoury which made him such a formidable opponent in the great Christological controversy with Nestorius.

Indeed, St. Cyril became involved in that dispute not because he was, by nature, a controversialist (although he was certainly of a combative turn of mind), but because it touched upon his main concerns as a pastor – and that was soteriology: how is man saved? Only if God truly became man, can man truly become one with God; any message that detracted from the full humanity and full divinity of the Incarnate Word threatened the salvation of his flock; what shepherd would hesitate to deal with such a threat?

This is hardly the place to do more than scratch the surface of this deep mystery, but some of St. Cyril’s comments on St. John’s Gospel give us an insight into the formation of his thought on this important issue.

To our way of thinking, St. Cyril’s Commentary on the Gospel of St. John is an odd one. We are used to commentaries which deal equally with all verses, but this is not the Patristic model. The first book, which when printed covers 168 pages, deals only with St. John 1:1:1-28; the second, which covers 293 printed pages, deal with St. John 1:29-5:34; John 5:35-6:37 are covered in the 116 pages of book 3, whilst book 4 takes 159 pages to comment on John 6:38-7:24; book 5 requires 171 pages to deal with John 7:25-8.43, and it takes him 12 books in all to cover the whole Gospel. So it can be seen that like many of the early exegete, it is the earlier part of the Gospel which commands most of his attention; he takes three chapters to examine John 1:1 alone, and then another hundred pages to get to verse 28. The Incarnation as described by St. John is at the centre of his thought. Although the modern Western practice is to separate Christology from Soteriology, such a distinction was not only unknown to St. Cyril, it would have run counter to his mode of thinking. The Holy Trinity is at the heart of our salvation, as it is of St. Cyril’s theology. [Farag]

A key Cyrilline text is St. John 16:15: ‘All that the Father has is mine, therefore I said that He will take what is mine and share it with you.’ In his writings on the Trinity, St. Gregory Nazianzus had used this verse to emphasise that there was nothing which was ‘peculiar’ to any one of the Persons of the Trinity: ‘For their being itself is common and equal, even though the Son receives it from the Father.’ [P. Schaff and H. Wace, A Select Library of Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers: Series 2, volume VII (Grand Rapids, 1996 edn.), St. Gregory Nazianzen, ‘The Fourth Theological Oration, XI, p. 313.]

This anti-Sebellian line is also emphasised by St. Cyril using the same verse, when he argues that it shows that the Spirit does not possess His wisdom by participation in the Son. If ‘He will take what is mine’, St. Cyril writes, it is because the Spirit ‘is consubstantial with the Son and proceeds through Him as befits God, who possesses in its perfection all the virtue and all the power of the Son.’ The Holy Spirit is like ‘a living and active fragrance from the substance of God, a fragrance which transmits to the creature that which comes from God and ensures participation in the substance which is above all substances.’ It is interesting that St. Cyril, as so often, uses an analogy which is not connected with the thought processes; by such means he emphasises that through the Spirit  we not only receive knowledge of the divine nature, we actually participate in it:

 If in effect the fragrance of aromatic plants impregnates clothing with its own virtue and in some way transforms into itself that in which it finds itself, how does the Spirit not have the power, since it issues from God by nature, to give, by itself to those in which it finds itself the communication of the divine nature? [In Jo 11:1-2, dealing with St. John 16:14-16.]

St Cyril ora pro nobis

The Holy Trinity and love

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In researching this morning’s Patristic commentary on Galatians, I cam across St Augustine’s comment that we ‘obey the law spiritually when we act out of love, not fear’, and his reminder that the law is there for our good too. That took me back to some of the recent discussions here about ‘love’ and ‘the law’ where, at times, one might have gained the impression that they were somehow antithetical. It can, it is true, seem that way. Newman described well the type of Christian who is so worried about ‘Judgement’ that he never shares the joy of knowing Christ, so conscious of his sins that he appears to derive no joy from knowing Christ. One of the things often commented upon by anti-Christian polemicists is just that tendency to be concerned with judging others which can come from judging ourselves. Jesus Himself asked how we could love God, whom we did not know, if we did not love our brother whom we did? If we hate ourself, how can we love others? What, after all, is love, save that which emanates from the mystery of the Economy of the Trinity?

The most startling insight of Christianity is not the revelation that God is one, but that He is Three. The Jews, and now the Muslims, hold the first belief; Christians alone hold the latter. When St. John tells us that ‘God is love’, he describes the relationship of the Persons of the Holy Trinity.

The only distinction between the persons of the Trinity is their mutual relations. None of the persons exists in respect to Himself alone, but each exists relatively to the other two:
…the “three persons” who exist in God are the reality of word and love in their attachment to each other. They are not substances, personalities in the modern sense, but the relatedness whose pure actuality… does not impair unity of the highest being but fills it out. St Augustine once enshrined this idea in the following formula: “He is not called Father with reference to himself but only in relation to the Son; seen by himself he is simply God.” Here the decisive point comes beautifully to light. “Father” is purely a concept of relationship. Only in being-for the other is he Father; in his own being-in-himself he is simply God. Person is the pure relation of being related, nothing else. Relationship is not something extra added to the person, as it is with us; it only exists at all as relatedness.

….the First Person [the Father] does not beget the Son in the sense of the act of begetting coming on top of the finished Person; it is the act of begetting, of giving oneself, of streaming forth. It is identical with the act of giving.

(Joseph Ratzinger Introduction to Christianity, pp. 131-132; cf. Augustine, ; De Trinitate VII, 1, 2.)

In short, each of the persons of the Trinity lives completely for the others; each is a complete gift of self to the others. The complete self-giving not only constitutes the individual persons of the Trinity, but also their inseparable oneness.

That love, it was which impelled  him to take action to help his creatures gone astray so when the time had fully come, God sent forth his Son, born of woman to redeem us and make us sons by adoptionIt is the love that overflows from the Trinity which created the universe and ourselves, it is that love which offers us redemption, and it is that same love which also sets out the law to help us. We obey the law because of love, not fear, but that does mean the law does not matter or is somehow opposed to love.

Second Reading for 13th Sunday in OT Year C

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Galatians 5: 1, 13-18

Chrysostom points to the number of reasons St Paul adduces to lead his readers and hearers away from error. In the first place he points to the utter folly, having become free, of wanting to become slaves again; in the second, he reminds them that they would be ungrateful to their benefactor, despising the one who frees them and preferring the one who enslaved them; and finally, he points out the absurdity of it, because the Law had no power over those saved by Christ.

Theodoret notes that at this stage (verse 13) Paul shifts to ethical exhortations and his commendation of the practice of virtue ‘For it was not in order to sin without fear that we have been freed from the Law’. It is clear from this that he is commending the observance of the moral law, and above all, love.

St Augustine notes that the works of the law pertain to the new covenant, but adds that Paul is pointing out that those who do good works in Christ do so not because of fear of the consequences of disobedience, but for love of Christ. The Jews fulfil certain works of the law which consist in ceremonies ‘but are completely unable to to fulfil those that consist in good conduct. For nothing fulfils these except love’.

Chrysostom adds that Paul shows how we can fulfil the law – in love and in loving and serving one another. Love of strife, faction, ambition are the causes of error, and from these things we can be rescued by being slaves to one another in love. The law is not fulfilled in circumcision but in love. It is the proper function of the human spirit to govern the flesh, but, as Augustine reminds us, it sometimes makes slow headway against the flesh. All Christian struggle with sin and the old Adam, but the aim is to make virtue a second nature – we obey the law spiritually when we act out of love, not fear, but remembering that the law is there for our good too, and, as Jerome points out, the patriarchs were saved under it. But as Augustine comments, only the resurrection can complete sanctification.

 

The day after

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I am told that chickens can continue to run even after their head has been cut off; I have no idea whether that is true, but it seems an apt metaphor to apply to our politics today in the UK and the EU. I read that the EU wants us to begin negotiations straight away. This is one example of the chicken still running. What are the EU foreign ministers going to do if the UK does what its own Prime Minister has said it will, which is to begin the process in the autumn? The answer is nothing, and the minatory tone in which the comment was made is just one example of why so many people voted ‘leave’; it seems as though it is going to take time for the EU mindset to adapt to reality. At the same time, far too many on the losing side are behaving like children deprived of their favourite toy; it is not a sign of adaptation to circumstances to call half your fellow countrymen ignorant barbarians – that too is one of the reasons ‘leave’ got the traction it got. While I have sympathy with the young who feel betrayed, I can only say it does not look as though the young came out to vote in the numbers needed, and they need to remember that older people’s votes count as much as their own.

There are reports that Boris Johnson and Michael Gove are a little shell-shocked by the result, and that they had expected to put on a gallant, but not quite successful campaign, with ‘leave’ garnering enough votes to do very well, and to give them a good hand to play in negotiations with the EU when the former succeeded Cameron. That’s not improbable, as I met few on the ‘leave’ side who thought they would win. Now the oppositional rhetoric must stop, as must the scapegoating. Many of the things our politicians blamed on ‘Europe’ were, in fact the results of their own inadequacies. It is hard to have much influence in the European parliament if you deliberately align yourself with marginal parties; yes, you can complain of not having much influence, and you can rely on popular indifference not to understand why. There is a great deal of detailed work to be done; now it must be done.

The real ‘take away’ from this is nothing that ought to be new to any observer of the political scene – which is that we have a political elite which is out of touch with far too much of the electorate – and that applies to Labour perhaps even more than the Conservatives. For some time now Labour had been the party of the professional classes in the public sector, and of unionised labour. Mr Corbyn is a type recognisable to anyone of my age. He’s a product of the far left in the 1970s with an impeccably PC  resume when it comes to causes fashionable with Guardian readers; I have spent much of my career with colleagues of that type. But they are as far away from the working class electorate as any ‘Tory Toff’. Labour voters throughout the Midlands and the North of England have delivered notice to the Corbynistas that they have had enough. The Corbynistas may write that off as ‘false consciousness’, but they would be better advised to ponder whether it is not their own state of mind which does not best deserve such an epithet?

For some time now our political parties have mapped very uneasily onto the real contours of contemporary Britain. This has allowed nationalists in Scotland and Northern Ireland, and to some extent Wales, to make an appeal based on fantasies of nationhood and ‘taking control’; now the ‘leave’ camp have done that on an English level. At a time of globalisation and social change, there is an obvious appeal in such a line. But nationalism has not got a constructive record in modern politics.

It is clear that millions here who feel they have been let down by the promises made about modernity, have taken the opportunity to give the political classes a kicking. It is equally plain that this is fertile soil for demagogues to plant their seeds. The sleep of reason produces monsters – so it would be good if we would all wake up and start thinking rather than emoting.

The People have spoken

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So the people have spoken, and for some commentators there’s a sense of Brecht’s comment – ‘the people have failed, we must get a new people’. My own preference was the same as Jessica’s. I voted ‘out’ in 1975, and ‘in’ this time – so I am used to being on the less popular side of this issue. The Brexiteers have cleverly played on the fears of a lot of people that they are being left behind by globalisation, and that the levels of immigration are changing their country beyond recognition, and that ‘something should be done’. ‘Remain’ were very unwise to unlaunch ‘project fear’, and I suspect Brexit may find it was not all in their imagination; we shall see. I disliked the ‘what do experts know’ tone of much of the Brexit comment. It is one thing to point out, reasonably, that the experts are not infallible, it is another to imply that their opinion is worth no more than that of the man on the Clapham omnibus. One thing is now for certain, we are going to live test the experiment that the experts don’t know best.

Already, Nicola Sturgeon has announced there will be legislation to allow another Scottish referendum on the question of independence. Prime Minister Cameron, whose short-termism was the origin of this referendum, has announced he will stand down by October, paving the way for the Conservatives to concentrate on their leadership contest rather than governing the country. The Labour leader, whose campaigning for ‘remain’ was at best half-hearted, will also face questions and a possible challenge. It is clear that a majority of those who voted do not believe what their political leaders are telling them, but it is unclear what sort of politics would deliver that. UKIP has secured its aim of ending our membership of the EU (once negotiations are complete), but it has also destroyed the UK in the process; the Scots want to remain in the EU, and do the Northern Irish. It is hard to see how the UK can continue in its current form.

None of us can know where this comes out now. Brexit talked of the bold hopes of a brave new world, now they will have to deliver, and if they don’t, then we shall be in for another round of people feeling ‘betrayed’. People have been able to blame the EU for almost anything they wanted, now they are losing that scapegoat. If, as may happen, Brexit is the first domino to fall, the EU itself may implode; if that happens, all bets are off.

For our American friends, remember, for the last year the powers that be have been saying that this could not happen. You are being told Donald Trump can’t be president; really?

Making choices?

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Today, across the UK, we are doing something unusual – casting our vote not for a candidate in an election of a political party, but in a referendum – only the third in our history, and the second on the same issue – our relationship with the European Union. That fact alone shows how contentious the issue is. By common assent, the tone of the campaign has been something close to toxic, with both sides making personal criticisms of the other – Tony Benn’s oft-stated desire to discuss ‘issues’ rather than personalities went west.

Last week I spent on the road with a campaign team, and for all the good it did, we’d have been better off staying at home and washing our smalls. Some of the people we spoke to hadn’t even heard of the referendum, but most had, and most of them had made up their mind already. There were times it felt as though a good class in what in America is called ‘civics’ would have been of use, as people complained about ‘unelected bureaucrats’ in brussels, as though out bureaucrats in the UK were elected, or as though members of the House of Lord were voted in by us. The levels of misinformation – on both sides – was immense. But then that’s democracy in all its messy glory – it isn’t pretty, it isn’t logical sometimes, and it isn’t even necessarily well-informed – but then it is made up of all of us, and we’re all those things at times (or is it just me?).

Original Sin, the fall of man, is, Chesterton said, the one dogma you can prove by looking in the mirror. So when I read commentators bemoaning the condition of the electorate and the campaign, I wonder what it is they expect? An LSE seminar with research papers and detailed number-crunching? That doesn’t happen in General elections either. In the end, democracy is based on the premise that the will of the majority gets it right – which is a form of fiction. That’s why we rarely have unmediated democracy – most systems allow for an element of mediation by elected politicians who are, it is hoped, more informed than those who elected them; that too is often a pious hope. But what else is to be done?

This is why the referendum is a dangerous device. Constitutionally we should remember that this is a consultative event. Any legislation to leave the EU will need to be passed by a parliamentary majority. Of course, that means that parliament is, despite allegations to the contrary, still sovereign – we can vote at any point of leave the EU and with no referendum necessary. But everyone knows there is not a majority in parliament for that – so why, you might ask, the referendum at all? The answer is that our Prime Minister had trouble with his own party and feared UKIP’s support would grow at its expense – a referendum was a way of shooting Mr Farage’s fox. But foxes are cunning creatures, and this one may yet inflict a fatal wound on Mr Cameron.

For my own part, I am persuaded by my own Scottish Conservative leader, Ruth Davidson, that it is a leap in the dark to vote ‘out’. But unlike some, I respect those who take a different view, and am quite happy to acknowledge they may be right, although, clearly, I cannot follow them to their conclusion. This campaign has shown us all democracy – and thus human nature – in the raw. What puzzles me is how people cannot see we stand in need to redemption.

Christianities?

 

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In the continued absence of the parousia, Christians have had to do something which was not looked for by the first Christians – that is to exist in time across the ages and in divers cultures. Initially mainly Jewish in terms of adherents, the destruction of the Temple and the dispersion of the Jews in the aftermath of revolts, shifted the composition of the Christian community; to put it bluntly, the mission to the Jews generally failed, and the mission to the Gentiles was hugely successful. By the end of the second century the faith had spread to the borders of India in one direction, and to the islands of Britannia in the other; the Mediterranean Sea was fringed with Christian communities, and if we are to credit their own tradition, there were Christian communities in southern India. Although the first Council at Nicaea in 325 was called ‘ecumenical’, it consisted only of bishops from within the Roman Empire; we know that there were Christians in the Persian Empire who were not invited, and who learned of the results of the Council only years later. It was, ironically, the greatest danger Christianity faced which had the most decisive influence on it – Islam.

If we were to survey the Christian world in the seventh century we should find its intellectual powerhouse was Alexandria and its most sophisticated thinkers were mainly in the Eastern Roman Empire, whose capital, Constantinople, had a magnificence lacking in the decaying splendour that was the old Rome, where a succession of Popes had to come to terms with a succession of barbarian invaders, some of whom were Arians. It was the irruption of Islam which destroyed that rich Eastern influence. By the eighth century Jerusalem, Antioch and Alexandria had all been conquered, and for the next five hundred years, Constantinople found itself constantly under threat, with its lands slowly being taken from it until, in 1453, the great city, a shadow of its former self, was finally conquered. One of its great service to the faith was that its resistance allowed the church in the West to develop within the new states which came into existence out of the wreckage of the old Roman Empire in the West. The King of the Franks had defeated the Muslims at Poitiers, and although Spain was lost for centuries, the West survived, prospered and became the centre of the Faith, with the Bishop of Rome, universally recognised as primus inter pares (first among equals), able to assert his version of what that meant, even if it resulted in a schism with the East in 1054.

The longer-term results of this have been interesting. During the age of discovery, it was Western Christians, especially Spanish and Portuguese ones, who came across the ancient Christian communities in India and China and attempted to bring them into line with their version of the faith – the cultural damage was tremendous, but it was one of the features of the Western Christian tradition that, assured of its own superiority, it thought nothing of imposing its ways on Christian communities which had survived for centuries. We see the same thing in the nineteenth century in the dealings of the Western Churches with the Eastern Christians in the decaying Ottoman Empire.

The dark side of such assumptions of cultural superiority are obvious now, but there was also a positive side – which is that in some of the places, especially those in Africa and Asia where the faith had had little or no history, the roots struck deep and the crop is abundant. Ironically, as we see in the recent debates in my own communion and that of Rome, the Africans have also imbibed the view of their Western founders that there is one way, their way, so, just as many in the West had begun the process found in every age, of finding ways of living in a changing culture, they find their own spiritual grandchildren insisting on the ways of their grandfathers. History in rich in ironies.

We have, though, I think, almost reached a tipping point. Were it not for the vast power and wealth of America, and for its rich an vibrant Christian cultures, then already the West would have ceased to be the centre of the faith – Europe has proven a good source of seeds for the growth of world Christianity, but vitality lies elsewhere now. We can only speculate on what the Christian world will look like in a century of so, and in so doing, bear in mind that no one, a century ago, would have thought it would look as it actually does today.

In one thing alone can we be sure – that guided by the Holy Spirit – Christianity will continue to grow and, having reached the ends of the earth, may even return to the places where once it was dominant.African-christian-parents

 

Stay with me: a meditation

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After I receive Holy Communion, I pray Padre Pio’s Stay with me. It expresses better than any prayer I know the reality of my own life as a Christian. Recently I have been putting some thoughts together on this, which I want to share with you.

So, here goes.

Stay with me, Lord, for it is necessary to have
You present so that I do not forget You.
You know how easily I abandon You.

How true that is. AT the church I now attend, they have a ‘communion hymn’, and I just want to remain quiet and ponder my Lord, whom I have just received. But the world seems determined to move on; are we that frightened of the silence and the thoughts of our hearts that we cannot linger a moment?

Stay with me, Lord, because I am weak
and I need Your strength,
that I may not fall so often.

At the centre of my need for Christ is the recognition that I do fail often, I fall, I falter even when I do not fall, and in the words of the old general confession of the Church of England: ‘I have done those things which I ought not to have done, and I have not done those things which I ought to have done, and there is no health in me’; without my Lord’s help, there is no hope. I am weak, but if I lean on him, I can be strong.

Stay with me, Lord, for You are my life,
and without You, I am without fervor.

How often is there ‘fervor’ in my faith? How often does it become something apart from the rest of my life? I read my Bible, I pray, I go to church. But is there a fervor there, or is it a routine? I know the truth in this verse from Padre Pio, for there is no fervor without him.

Stay with me, Lord, for You are my light,
and without You, I am in darkness.

Of the the names of God, that he is eternal light is the one which means the most to me. When the darkness seems complete, when it threatens to overwhelm me, I light a candle before my statue of the Blessed Virgin, and then I am not afraid. Light will overcome the darkness.

Stay with me, Lord, to show me Your will.

How easily I forget his will when I leave church, or when I leave my prayers. What a weakness it is, how much at that point I feel the sin of Adam and Eve. How tempted I am to rely on my own will – though it is frail and feeble. If he stays with me, I go straight.

Stay with me, Lord, so that I hear Your voice
and follow You.

That still, small voice beneath the storms of life; it is there always – if I will just make the place and the silence where I can hear it. How tempting our modern world is with its instant access to noise. If I listen I can try to follow; I do not always succeed. But If I can’t hear, I hear only the devices and desires of my own heart.

Stay with me, Lord, for I desire to love You
very much, and always be in Your company.

I want to love God, always, but I am forgetful and sinful and I don’t do as I want to do; but if he is with me and I am in his company, I am conformed to him.

Stay with me, Lord, if You wish me to be faithful to You.

If Padre Pio can confess that, it emboldens me – for I forget so easily, and I am unfaithful so easily too. I confess my weakness and ask for forgiveness.

Stay with me, Lord, for as poor as my soul is,
I want it to be a place of consolation for You, a nest of love.

I am made to know God and to love him, so my soul longs for him and apart from him is desolate and without consolation.

Stay with me, Jesus, for it is getting late and the day is coming to a close, and life passes;
death, judgment, eternity approaches. It is necessary to renew my strength,
so that I will not stop along the way and for that, I need You.
It is getting late and death approaches,
I fear the darkness, the temptations, the dryness, the cross, the sorrows.
O how I need You, my Jesus, in this night of exile!

This valley of tears, this place of exile, where we sit by the waters of Babylon and mourn – darkness, temptation, dryness and sorrows – all can be healed only by the Cross – but how much I fear that Cross, that my strength will not be equal. I pray for strength to bear the burdens, but my faith is weak. My strength is in him.

Stay with me tonight, Jesus, in life with all its dangers. I need You.

How often is that my night prayer. Only he saves from the perils and dangers of the night, and if I feel him with me I can sleep, and hope to wake refreshed to do his work.

Let me recognize You as Your disciples did at the breaking of the bread,
so that the Eucharistic Communion be the Light which disperses the darkness,
the force which sustains me, the unique joy of my heart.

That captures exquisitely the sublime joy of receiving the Lord at the Eucharistic feast. At that moment I am lost, and happily lost, to the world. For a brief, but timeless moment. I am one with him – as I hope to be at the end of all earthly things.

Stay with me, Lord, because at the hour of my death, I want to remain united to You,
if not by communion, at least by grace and love.

At the last we can none of us escape the consequence of the sins of our first parents, and we are all heirs to death. But if we can die in him, we shall rise in him too.

Stay with me, Jesus, I do not ask for divine consolation, because I do not merit it,
but the gift of Your Presence, oh yes, I ask this of You!

There is no health in me, and if I were to get my just deserts, then how awful my fate; but his presence is consolation here on earth and hope hereafter.

Stay with me, Lord, for it is You alone I look for, Your Love, Your Grace, Your Will, Your Heart,
Your Spirit, because I love You and ask no other reward but to love You more and more.

In Him, his love, his grace, his sacred heart, alone is hope to be found. In Him I am brave, and as I know Him more, I love Him more.

With a firm love, I will love You with all my heart while on earth
and continue to love You perfectly during all eternity. Amen.

My will may fail, my actions fall short, my body be frail, but love will triumph – feeling the love, his love, which drew me to him, draws from me love in return. In that is my hope of salvation – that he knows how much I love him and will forgive my transgressions for the sake of Jesus Christ, in whose name alone is salvation to be found.

Thank you for reading my thoughts – and I’d be so interested in knowing yours.

 

 

 

The Christian revolution

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In the ancient world into which Christianity was born, status mattered and was easily measured. If you had a lot of money and a lot of power, you also had a lot of wives, a lot of big palaces, lots of slaves and servants, and lots of people to treat you as the next best thing to a god; indeed, Roman Emperors wanted to be worshipped as gods, and one of the first reasons that early Christians got into trouble with the authorities was their refusal to do this. If you belonged to a famous family, if you had money and contacts, people could see it in the way you lived – appearance mattered a great deal – it said who you were and why people should pay you respect. Imagine then how Christ’s words about the leader being the servant must have sounded to ears attuned to another song? He who would be first must be last? Christ came not to command but to serve, and he called his followers to the same message – he died a terrible death to serve suffering humanity.

If we look at what the early church demanded of its elders, it was an ethos of service. Christian elders were not to lord it over their followers, and they were not to turn away the poor from their places of worship, neither were they to give the best places to the wealthy and the influential. Why not? Because of the truly revolutionary insight Christianity brought into the world – that we are all equal in the eyes of God because we are all children of the same living God. There was neither Jew nor Gentile, male nor female, slave nor free, all were one; human life mattered because we are all made in God’s image. So, for Christians, life was sacred. The early Christians were notable for their refusal to abort the unborn or to expose unwanted children to the elements; they were notable, too, for the care with which they tended the elderly or the poor. Those whom Romano-Greek culture found valueless were valued by Christians; those who served no economic or social function were loved for who they were, not what they had or their wealth and power; the lowliest slave was as valuable in the eyes of God as the greatest king; indeed the Lord said it was more difficult for the rich to get to heaven.

This was truly a revolution, and its effect have gone on to form the culture of the modern West. The idea of human rights originated in Western culture because that culture was informed by that Christian belief that all life matters. It was in the culture influenced by Christianity that the belief first grew that slavery was wrong, and it was from that culture that the impulse came to abolish it. It was from that culture that the idea of the hospital grew, that the notion that the elderly should be cared for came, and that the infant should be valued from the moment of conception.

To what extent though will these things survive the decline of Christianity in our society? In an age of celebrity, where money and fame determine worth, what then of the idea of public service? In an age of instant gratification, what then of the needs of the unborn and the elderly, and what of the priority for the poor? As the influence of Christianity on our society lessens, so, too, might we come to regret it, as it seems as though we retreat back into a culture of pagan priorities. A servant king? Forget it.

A time to mourn

 A time to weep, and a time to laugh; a time to mourn, and a time to dance; a time to cast away stones, and a time to gather stones together; a time to embrace, and a time to refrain from embracing…                                                 -Ecclesiastes 3:5

We are left reeling in the face of the bitterness and divisions in our country, bitterness that has even resulted in bloodshed. It is hard to be optimistic when confronted with such hate. What is worse, it can be hard to feel anything at all: a steady diet of misery in the media can leave one feeling desensitized.

This is a time to mourn. This is a time to lament the state of humanity. This is a time to lay before God all the hurt that “Adam’s helpless race” is experiencing: corporate and individual. We will not be able to move on, eyes fixed on the horizon, until we come to terms with reality. Hope is not hope that pretends the world is not a dark place – that is delusion.

But we were not made for despair. One day the daystar will dawn in our hearts. One day we will behold Jesus the Messiah, and He will wipe away every tear. His Sacred Heart burns with holy fire, the fire of compassion for humanity. Jesus is here in the midst of suffering; He is here by His Spirit, and if we mourn, then He mourns with us.

The Lord is near all those who call upon Him, to all who call upon Him in truth. He will fulfil the desire of those who fear Him: He also will hear their cry, and will save them.                                                                                                             -Psalm 145:18-19

Now is a hard time to praise God. Now is a difficult time to lay our sacrifice on His altar. Faith and hope must look beyond this valley of tears in the expectation that life will not always be this way. In giving our grief to Jesus, let us also confess that He will give His joy to us.

and so shall we ever be with the Lord.                                    -1 Thess. 4

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