Tuesday, May 26, 2009

Ascension of the Lord - Ian Boxall

The gospel we have just heard depicts the ascending Christ in the guise of the high priest, with his hands raised in blessing. But I have to admit that, whenever I try and contemplate the Ascension of the Lord, the image that comes to me is not a pair of blessing hands, but rather a pair of feet, disappearing through the clouds. Many of you will have seen the pair of feet disappearing through the ceiling of a side chapel in the Shrine of Our Lady of Walsingham. Pilgrims travelling farther afield may have visited the traditional site of the Ascension itself, on the Mount of Olives. Now covered by a mosque, one can see the rock from which, according to tradition, the Lord ascended, and on which he left the imprint of his right foot. I have a vivid memory of Staggers students, queuing up to try it for size – and one or two exclamations of ‘It fits!’

Even in this church, the Ascension has an association with Christ’s feet. On the reredos behind the high altar, there is a magnificent depiction of the ascended Christ, reflecting the prominence of the Ascension in Fr Benson’s theology. But owing to the rood screen, all you can probably see from where you are sitting is a pair of feet. It is as if the two men in white robes in our reading from Acts are saying to the apostles on the Mount of Olives: ‘Men of Galilee, why do you stand looking up towards heaven? Why do you stand gazing at a pair of feet?’

Well, I want to suggest that this pair of feet, far from being a distraction from the mystery of the Ascension, actually takes us to the heart of what we are celebrating today. So that perhaps podology ought to become a subdiscipline of Christology. The first reason is that the Ascension does not simply remove Christ from our sight. In the Ascension, he takes our human nature with him, transfiguring it, taking it into glory. He goes not simply as God, but as one of us. Hence it is important that he goes with his feet, bearing the wounds of his suffering: transfigured, glorified, but not obliterated. He hasn’t left us behind so much as taken us with him. As Christopher Wordsworth’s Ascensiontide hymn puts it:

Thou hast raised our human nature
in the clouds to God’s right hand;
there we sit in heavenly places,
there with thee in glory stand.

Jesus reigns, adored by angels;
man with God is on the throne;
mighty Lord, in thine ascension
we by faith behold our own.

We now belong there, not through anything that we have done, but because he has gone there, feet and all.

But there is a second reason why reflection on Christ’s feet might help us to understand what we are celebrating today. The Ascension is as much a declaration of what Christ has done as of where he has gone. The New Testament is clear that, in his Ascension, Christ has been raised over his enemies, defeating them and in doing so setting his people free from their influence. Our second reading from the Letter to the Ephesians exploits the potential of Psalm 110 – a favourite psalm for the New Testament authors as they attempt to understand Christ’s resurrection and ascension – proclaiming that God has ‘put all things under his feet’ (Eph. 1:22): there are those feet again. In the Ascension, God has raised Christ from the dead ‘and seated him at his right hand in the heavenly places, far above all rule and authority and power and dominion, and above every name that is named, not only in this age but also in the age to come’ (Eph. 1:20-21).

If this weren’t the case, then we would have no reason to hope in Christ’s ability to save: no hope of overcoming sin, no liberation from those things which enslave us; no freedom from the fear of death. But because Christ has been lifted up not just above ourselves, but above all these ‘powers’ which threaten to swallow us up, then all these enemies have lost their sting. Christ’s victory is assured. He has put them all under his feet.

I have already alluded to the centrality of the Ascension in Fr Benson’s theology. For him, as for St Luke, God’s people live constantly in the power of Christ’s glorious Ascension, his body the Church participating in the glorifying of his body at the right hand of the Father. Preaching a retreat in this house in the Summer of 1874, Fr Benson spoke the following words:

Examine thyself then, as to thy love of Jesus upon the throne of his glory. Do not think of that is if it were a world far away. Jesus is very near to thee; nearer than he could be when he walked in natural form upon the earth. Seek to live in his love. Look up to him in his glory. See ‘the heavens opened, and Jesus standing on the right hand of God’ (Acts 7:55, 56). Meditate upon the glory of Jesus, and learn to live in the love of that glory, watching for it to shine out more fully. Yes, blessed are all they that love his appearing! (R.M. Benson SSJE, Look to the Glory (Bracebridge Ontario, 1966), p. 71).

Friday, May 22, 2009

Easter VI - Dr John Jarick

“The Lord has shown his salvation to all the nations” [Response to Psalm 98 (97) in the Grail Psalter]. Today’s psalm is a splendidly resonant hymn of praise and thanksgiving, an exuberant proclamation of God’s presence in a world that is invited to respond and reinvigorate itself. “Sing a new song to the Lord”, the psalmist calls to us, as he reminds us of the “truth and love” that God has shown to “the house of Israel”.

But in fact we’ve only heard the half of it so far, in that the setting we used this morning was of the first four verses of the psalm, set as three stanzas of English verse in the Grail Psalter. As good as that half is by itself, and fully worthy of comment from an Old Testament Tutor, I trust that you will forgive me if, after sharing some thoughts on those verses with you, I also go on to make some comments on the second half of the psalm as well, the remaining five verses of that splendid composition, which is similarly set as three stanzas of English verse in the Grail Psalter. You might say that today’s sermon is a game of two halves — indeed, that may be regarded as quite appropriate on the weekend in which the Premier League football title was won, but of course the sentiments expressed in today’s song of salvation are far more profound, much more a matter of life and death for the earth, than the latest battle at Old Trafford.

Well, then, the first half. Let me remind you of what we heard earlier, when those opening verses of the psalm were sung:

Sing a new song to the Lord,
for he has worked wonders.

His right hand and his holy arm
have brought salvation.

The Lord has made known his salvation;
has shown his justice to the nations.

He has remembered his truth and love
for the house of Israel.

All the ends of the earth have seen
the salvation of our God.

Shout to the Lord, all the earth,
ring out your joy.

Those students of this House who were recently examined on the book of Isaiah will be able to pinpoint the historical circumstances that plausibly first gave rise to the singing of this particular kind of song in honour of the God proclaimed by the prophets and teachers of ancient Israel. It was that great prophet of the end-of-exile, whose soaring poetic utterances are recorded in the second section of the book of Isaiah, who first sang the new song of salvation to a people who were languishing in exile from the Holy Land, no longer able to sing the old formerly-confident songs of Zion as they sat and wept by the rivers of Babylon. Among such downtrodden, anything-but-exuberant people, the so-called ‘Second Isaiah’ taught new songs, with words such as these:

See, the former things have come to pass, and new things I now declare; before they spring forth, I tell you of them. Sing to the Lord a new song, his praise from the end of the earth! … Listen! Your sentinels lift up their voices, together they sing for joy; for in plain sight they see the return of the Lord to Zion. Break forth together into singing, you ruins of Jerusalem; for the Lord has comforted his people, he has redeemed Jerusalem. The Lord has bared his holy arm before the eyes of all the nations; and all the ends of the earth shall see the salvation of our God
[Isaiah 42:9-10a; 52:8-10].

There were those among the exiles who had thought that God had abandoned them; that the promises once made to the ancestors of Israel — Abraham and Isaac and Jacob — were not worth the ancient scrolls they were written on; that the grand old Song of Moses — “I will sing to the Lord, for he has triumphed gloriously; horse and rider he has thrown into the sea” [Exodus 15:1] — was null and void after the destruction of the temple in Jerusalem and the deportation of the people from the promised land. But songs of lament changed to songs of joy when the redemption of Jerusalem did indeed come about, with the dramatic demise of the Babylonian superpower and the return of the exiles to rebuild the temple that had lain in ruins for close to a hundred years. Those songs of the ‘Second Isaiah’ certainly resounded in the hearts of the returnees, and it is no surprise to see them reflected also in such psalms as today’s Psalm 98. To the psalmist too, the sudden end of the Babylonian captivity manifested anew the saving nature of Israel’s God: “The Lord has made known his salvation, has shown his justice to the nations; he has remembered his truth and love for the house of Israel.”

With a song like this, the worshippers in the reconstituted temple could renew the celebration of the most time-honoured experience of Israel, the exodus from slavery in Egypt, through the addition of the newer experience of liberation, out from the darkness of that later imperial juggernaut of Babylon. And we latter-day singers can add more resonance to the song as well, as we celebrate not only those foundational divine acts in the experience of Israel, but also the new experience of God that came in the person of Jesus.

But let me hold back for the moment from saying more about that, because I promised you a sermon of two halves, and before I develop further comments, I need to put before you the second half of today’s psalm.

This, then, is Psalm 98, Part 2:

Sing psalms to the Lord with the harp,
with the sound of music.

With trumpets and the sound of the horn
acclaim the King, the Lord.

Let the sea and all within it, thunder;
the world, and all its peoples.

Let the rivers clap their hands
and the hills ring out their joy

at the presence of the Lord: for he comes,
he comes to rule the earth.

He will rule the world with justice
and the peoples with fairness.

Well, students of the Old Testament can get rather excited about the first of those stanzas, with its itemization of three particular musical instruments that were evidently deployed in the worship life of the ancient temple: the intriguing triplet of the kinnor (a harp or lyre), the chatsotsrah (a metallic trumpet), and the shofar (a ram’s horn). But for myself, who could never successfully play a musical instrument of any kind, I find the middle stanza much more exciting, with its picture of thundering seas, hand-clapping rivers, and hills being alive with the sound of music.

This part of the psalm also has resonances with the prophetic words of ‘Second Isaiah’, whose songs similarly called upon the natural world to join in the celebratory shout: “Let the sea roar and all that fills it, the coastlands and their inhabitants… Sing, O heavens, for the Lord has done it; shout, O depths of the earth; break forth into singing, O mountains, O forest, and every tree in it! For the Lord has redeemed Jacob, and will be glorified in Israel” [Isaiah 42:10b; 44:23].

The joy of the prophet, and of the psalmist, is infectious. It’s simply not enough to have the temple musicians strumming their harps and blowing their trumpets and sounding their shofars to acclaim the Lord. All of nature is seen as echoing back the exuberance of the human protagonists, a great harmony — or is it a glorious cacophony? — of praises sung to the glory of God.

This wider chorus is in fact too big to be contained only within Israel. The experiences of Israel led them to discern that the Creator is also a Redeemer and a Sustainer, but the song that those ancient prophets and psalmists have taught to the world finds further resonances in ways that the ancient tradents might barely have imagined. I intimated earlier that I wanted to say something about how we latter-day singers of the Lord’s song celebrate not only those momentous events of the deliverance of the ancient Israelites from Egypt and from Babylon, but also the opening up of the proclamation of liberation to the whole world through the mission of Jesus. And to that end, I would like to bring to mind the adaptation of Psalm 98 that was made three hundred years ago by the great English hymn-writer Isaac Watts. He phrased it this way:

Joy to the world, the Lord is come!
Let earth receive her King;
Let every heart prepare him room,
And heaven and nature sing.

That hymn goes on, as does our psalm, to describe a situation in which not only do humans employ songs to express their gladness at the Lord’s coming, but also “fields and floods, rocks, hills and plains repeat the sounding joy”. And the concluding verse proclaims that:

He rules the world with truth and grace,
And makes the nations prove
The glories of his righteousness
And wonders of his love.

Yes indeed, as Psalm 98 originally stated it, “The Lord has shown his salvation to all the nations”. The use of this psalm on Christmas Day, in its own guise in many liturgies as well as in the guise of Isaac Watts’ great hymn in countless services, and the further use of this psalm in the Easter Vigil, and again today in the season of Easter as we move towards the commemoration of the ascension and of Pentecost, is one of the Church’s ways of indicating that the birth, death, and resurrection of Jesus belongs with the exodus from Egypt and the return from exile in Babylon as a sure sign, indeed the surest sign, of God’s desire and power to save.

So it is that we “sing a new song to the Lord, for he has worked wonders; his right hand and his holy arm have brought salvation.”

Thursday, May 21, 2009

Easter V - Ian Boxall

Being only a very poor amateur when it comes to gardening matters, it is with some trepidation that I approach this morning’s gospel, with its rich horticultural resonances: ‘I am the vine, you are the branches.’ But, continuing the horticultural imagery, one might be tempted to ask why other possibilities didn’t suggest themselves to the evangelist. ‘I am the rose-bush, you are the thorns’, for example. ‘I am the fern, you are the fronds.’ Or ‘I am the rhododendron, you are the petals.’ But of course, the choice of the vine is far from arbitrary. For the vine, like the vineyard and the vine-grower, is a metaphor deeply rooted in the religious consciousness of the people of Israel. Israel was the vine which God brought out of Egypt and planted (Ps. 80:8); a vineyard planted by the beloved on a very fertile hill (Isa. 5:1), which was expected to produce grapes, but instead produced wild grapes. Or again, the Psalmist tells us how the vine – this time representing the Northern Kingdom – has been ravaged and burned by its enemies, leading to that heart-felt cry: ‘Turn again, O God of hosts; look down from heaven, and see; have regard for this vine, the stock that your right hand planted’ (Ps. 80:14). Or again, the vine comes to symbolise the Messiah, the one who represents and sums up the whole people (e.g. 2 Baruch 39:7). And if the vine has such profound significance, so does the fruit of the vine. Clusters of quality grapes – or more often the abundant, quality wine they produce – become a potent symbol of the good things God has in store for his people. As a reminder of all this, pilgrims entering the Temple in Jerusalem would have been confronted with a massive golden vine above the doors to the sanctuary, with clusters of grapes the size of a human being hanging from it (Josephus, Ant. 15.11.3; War 5.5.4).

So with all this in mind, we hear in today’s Gospel of Jesus as the true Vine, the trustworthy vine, the reliable vine which can be relied upon to produce fine grapes, and his people as the branches, who may not be quite so true, quite so trustworthy, quite so reliable. Which is why the focus of Jesus’ words is on what is required for us, the branches, to remain part of the vine, and how the fruitfulness of the vine might be ensured and enhanced.

What does this involve?

First, it involves some rather heavy duty pruning on the part of the vine-grower. ‘You have already been pruned by the word [logos] that I have spoken to you’ (John 15:3). John, playful as ever with his Greek, exploits the resemblance between the verb for pruning and the adjective meaning ‘clean’, and also the ambiguity of the noun Logos. The Word-made-flesh, the Word spoken to us by the Father, cleanses his people by the word that he speaks. He has just shown this in a very dramatic way in this same Upper Room through washing the disciples’ feet. And he repeats this a few verses later by speaking about his words [his rhÄ“mata] abiding in us (verse 7).

So one of the fundamental means of bearing fruit is to allow Christ’s words to do their pruning/cleansing work in us. Which requires spending time reading and praying those words. But I wonder how many of us have built into our rule of life the regular practice of spending time with the words of Jesus in the Gospels? I don’t mean speed-reading, or picking one or two phrases as sound-bites or proof-texts, or reading the gospels from beginning to end, or spotting likely passages for examination gobbets. But engaging in an activity which is probably much more difficult for us that for our forebears in the faith, because it is so countercultural: mulling over the words, maybe just a phrase or a couple of verses, staying with them, so that we absorb them slowly and purposefully, and as they become part of us expecting them to transform us as the Father’s work of pruning takes effect.

Second, it involves abiding in the vine, with all the richness of that Johannine verb: staying, remaining, abiding, that mutual indwelling in which we are invited to abide in Christ as he abides in us. And here John seems to give a crucial role to the Eucharist, in nurturing and sustaining that intimate relationship between Christ and his followers. Earlier in John’s Gospel, Jesus taught his disciples that ‘Those who eat my flesh and drink my blood abide in me, and I in them’ (John 6:56). Now, the image of the vine and the fruit of vine brings the same Eucharistic mystery to the fore again. Remaining united to the vine who is the source of life; drinking of the divine life; growing into fruitfulness through regular reception of the Eucharist. It is a connection which is already made in one of the earliest Eucharistic passages, from the Didache: ‘We give thanks to you, our Father, for the Holy Vine of David your child, which you have made known to us through Jesus your child; to you be glory for ever’ (Didache 9:2).

Finally, the process of being pruned by Christ’s words, and abiding in the vine through the life-blood of the Eucharist, should be manifest in the quality of the vintage. It should bear fruit in our attitudes and dispositions and relationships. The definition of bearing fruit provided by this gospel is that Christ’s people keep his commandments, which for John is really only one commandment: that you love one another as I have loved you (verse 12). Or as our second reading from the First Letter of John puts it: ‘God is love, and those who abide in love abide in God, and God abides in them … The commandment we have from him is this: those who love God must love their brothers and sisters also’ (1 John 4:16b, 21). The sign of the fruitful branch, the living branch, and the fruitful healthy vine, is ultimately to be found in the exercise of charity, manifest in our life together.

Wednesday, May 20, 2009

Easter IV - The Revd Kate Stowe

The Revd Kate Stowe, Assistant Curate of St Patrick, Salter Street and Shirley in the Diocese of Birmingham, was welcomed as a guest preacher for Easter IV.

The parish in which I’m serving my title borders a gorgeous little country parish which, of course, I’ve secretly got my eye on as a potential first incumbency. The vicar of this gorgeous little country parish, who, sadly, is not thinking of leaving in the near future, is, nonetheless, a lovely and creative chap. Last year he put up some posters around the village, advertising 5 mystery guests who would be making an appearance at the morning Mass on the 4th Sunday of Easter, also known as Good Shepherd Sunday. Interests were piqued and speculation was rife amongst the people of the gorgeous little country parish, and a bumper congregation turned out for mass on the Sunday morning. They were greeted by 5 sheep, who were let loose in the church during the service. The sole job of the congregation, it was explained, was to observe these sheep during the service, in order to try and work out why Jesus might have used that image of sheep and shepherd that we hear in today’s gospel reading. Well, of course, as you can imagine, chaos ensued: there were sheep tottering precariously around the church, making short work of the Mothers’ Union flower display; there were sheep making a mess, and in one case, having a little accident in the pulpit; there were sheep ruining the reverence of the liturgy with their noisy interjections at inappropriate moments; and there were sheep drowning out the intercessions by their constant bleating.

All of this, I think, gets us so far, and certainly reveals some telling and uncomfortable truths about us as God’s beloved children. This morning I’d like us to build on that by focusing our attention on the shepherd, and by thinking about just why we tottering, messy, bleating sheep might follow him.

Jesus says, "I am the good shepherd." Perhaps the first thing to notice is the 'I am', the words which begin Christ’s statement. ‘I am’ is, of course, a significant and resonant thing for Jesus to say, particularly in John’s gospel, where we find all the other ‘I am’ sayings. The words 'I am' take us back to the third chapter of Exodus, where, if you remember, Moses is playing the truculent child, and refusing to do as he’s told unless God tells him God’s name. One can almost hear the Almighty sighing in parental exasperation as he says to Moses, "just tell the people that I AM sent you." I am. God’s name. The one who is. The existing one. Whenever we hear Christ beginning a sentence with the words 'I am', our theological antennae ought to start twitching, because we're being reminded that Christ is, to borrow Rowan Williams’ phrase, in every moment “acting out the act of God.” (Williams, R, The Dwelling of the Light: Praying with Icons of Christ (Norwich, 2003), p.70)

God’s very life is expressed in the person of Jesus Christ. Often during my ministry people ask me how they can know what God is like. The answer, of course, is simple. Look at Jesus, and there you will see God. Look at the one who says, 'I am', and there you will see God. As the liturgy puts it, in Christ we see our God made visible, and so are caught up in the love of the God we cannot see. (Extended preface for the Christmas season, from Common Worship)

I am the good shepherd, says Jesus. Images of Christ the good shepherd abound – I’m sure we’ve all seen them, perhaps in paintings or in stained glass windows, or even in children’s bibles. It’s these images that are probably at the root of a certain fluffiness and niceness that can seem part and parcel of the good shepherd package. And it’s this fluffiness that I want to challenge just a bit. For in the very next breath, Jesus says "the good shepherd lays down his life for his sheep." Christ the good shepherd isn’t some nice, fluffy storybook hero, he’s the suffering servant, the crucified messiah, the one in whom is wrought the agonising, bloody, yet incredible, story of our salvation.

In his first letter John writes, "we know love by this, that he laid down his life for us." It is for love of us, his tottering, messy, bleating sheep, that Christ the good shepherd lays down his life. It is for love of us that Christ, the 'I am' of God, the very one who acts out the act of God, becomes the sacrificial lamb. That’s what the love of God looks like. That love is the reason I’m a priest. And that love, in the end, is precisely the reason we tottering, messy, bleating sheep seek to follow this good shepherd with our whole hearts. Because, in the words of Isaac Watts,

"love so amazing, so divine,
demands my soul, my life, my all."

Tuesday, May 19, 2009

2009 Open Day

The 2009 St Stephen's House Open Day saw around 100 people visit the House for a day focussing on Christian vocation to ordained ministry. Aside from those exploring vocations to the priesthood and the distinctive diaconate, the day was an opportunity to build on local community links with Oxford parishes and members of the public who wished to see the buildings and something of the life of the Church of England's oldest theological college. Tours of the site were followed by a Sung Mass in St John's Church, a buffet lunch, vocations talks and Solemn Evensong & Benediction before the end of the day.

If you are interested in finding out more about St Stephen's House, do be in touch.

Thursday, May 7, 2009

House Lecture deals with migrant workers

Fr Angus Ritchie from the Contextual Theology Centre gave this term's House Lecture on Thursday introducing and expanding on the Strangers into Citizens campaign that has received much press coverage in the last week. A number of students have been working with parishes and organizations linked with CTC and the Jellicoe Society in East London and the Principal, Canon Robin Ward, gave the 2009 Jellicoe Lecture earlier this year.

An introduction to Strangers into Citizens is found here:

Sara Maitland talks about Silence

The author Sara Maitland will give a talk on her recently published Book of Silence at St Stephen's House on Tuesday 12th May from 4.30-5.30. All are welcome to join us and to meet the author.

Friday, May 1, 2009

New Junior Dean appointed

St Stephen's House will welcome Fr Peter Anthony, currently Assistant Curate of St Mary with Christ Church, Hendon, as Junior Dean in September 2009. Fr Peter will be undertaking postgraduate research in the field of New Testament apocalyptic literature with Professor Christopher Rowland, and Ian Boxall. Having read French and German at Magdalen College, Oxford, and Theology at St Stephen's House (2002-05), he was part of the exchange programme with the Venerable English College in Rome before ordination to the diaconate in 2006. Between leaving Hendon and returning to Oxford, he will be assisting at the Shrine of Our Lady of Walsingham.