Tuesday, 16 December 2014

Mary: Graced, Gate, Lens, Ark & Mother

This post is from the Archives. 
Gaudete, gaudete! Christus est natus
Ex Maria virgine, gaudete!
Rejoice, rejoice! Christ is born
Of the Virgin Mary — rejoice!
The time of grace has come—
This that we have desired,
Verses of joy
Let us devoutly return.
God has become man,
To the wonderment of Nature,
The world has been renewed
By the reigning Christ.
The closed gate of Ezekiel
Is passed through,
Whence the light is born,
Salvation is found.
Therefore let our gathering
Now sing in brightness
Let it give praise to the Lord:
Greeting to our King.
Gaudete C16th
As our Advent journey draws to a close, as we come to the cusp of the Christ Mass, our thoughts turn to Mary. The ark of the new covenant, mother to beloved disciples, mother of God, queen of heaven, or simply the greatest Christian who ever lived. The language Christians us to speak of this remarkable young teenage girl who carried God incarnate within herself, magnifying the lord in her very flesh, has varied through the centuries.

Some ignore her essential role in the history of salvation and her place of respect in the early Christian communities. Others seem to elevate devotion to Mary to a level reserved for Christ. It is also not unreasonable to question what sort of impossible ideal the Virgin Mother sets for Christian women and even men.

Yet as the 16th century carol proclaims Mary heralded that a time of Grace had truly come. The Angel greets her saying.
Greetings, favoured one! The Lord is with you. (other ancient texts add) Blessed are you among women.
Luke 1:28 NRSV
‘Favoured one’ can also be translated as "to have grace shown, or bestowed upon, one" or to be full of Grace - as the first line of the ‘Hail Mary’ used in various forms by Eastern and Western Christians for over 1000 years.
Hail Mary, full of grace, the Lord is with thee; blessed art thou amongst women
Mary was a remarkable young woman, but although it may be an interesting thought experiment to wonder how many other young girls had refused the Angel’s proclamation, the sense of favour and grace are deeper than an indifferent selection. Mary had been prepared for her task by God, gifted and blessed with grace. She may have chosen to receive this gift as she grew from childhood, a choice fulfilled in a simple ‘yes to God’. Then Mary said,
‘Here am I, the servant of the Lord; let it be with me according to your word.’
Luke 1:38 NRSV
Mary proclaims the time of grace which she had received fully, in her song of joy: the Magnificat.
My soul magnifies the Lord,
and my spirit rejoices in God my Saviour,
for he has looked with favour on the lowliness of his servant.
Surely, from now on all generations will call me blessed;
for the Mighty One has done great things for me,
and holy is his name.
Luke 1:46-49 (NRSV)
In these words Mary herself is deeply aware of both her lowliness and her blessedness, of both her willing participation and God’s sovereign action.

For the Jewish people the soul did not reside in the head or the heart, but in the inward parts, in the stomach area, even the womb. It was here that the Lord was magnified; Jesus as both man and God was brought into focus as she acted as a lens for the incarnation. The baby she carried inside her body as she sang truly was the wonderment of nature, the renewal of the world, the opening of a gate that had been closed.

The imagery of the closed gate is found in the prophet Ezekiel who wrote:
The Lord said to me: This gate shall remain shut; it shall not be opened, and no one shall enter by it; for the Lord, the God of Israel, has entered by it; therefore it shall remain shut. Only the prince, because he is a prince, may sit in it to eat food before the Lord; he shall enter by way of the vestibule of the gate, and shall go out by the same way.
Ezekiel 44:2–3 (NRSV)
The passage from Ezekiel has a far earthier application. St Ambrose wrote in the 4th Century
Who is this gate, if not Mary? Is it not closed because she is a virgin? Mary is the gate through which Christ entered this world, when He was brought forth in the virginal birth and the manner of His birth did not break the seals of virginity.
Saint Ambrose of Milan (ca AD 390)
The early Fathers also held that in not breaking the seals of virginity Mary experienced no pain in childbirth, citing the prophet Isaiah.
Before she was in labour
she gave birth;
before her pain came upon her
she delivered a son.
Isaiah 66:7 (NRSV)
Carry the weight of the child she must, as any other pregnancy, even if she was spared the accompanying pains. But what she was to carry through her life was a far greater thing, the pains she experienced at the foot of the cross - a deeper rending. As Simeon prophesied when the infant Christ was brought as a first born child to the temple.
Then Simeon blessed them and said to his mother Mary, ‘This child is destined for the falling and the rising of many in Israel, and to be a sign that will be opposed so that the inner thoughts of many will be revealed—and a sword will pierce your own soul too.’
Luke 2:34-35 (NRSV)
The true birth pangs experienced by Mary were the piercing of her soul as Jesus her Son was crucified experiencing the weight of the sins of the world. She too must have experienced an echo of that ultimate suffering through her love, as her soul continued to magnify the Lord, now in pain rather than joy. No other apart from Christ can have suffered as she did.

The cross is not the last glimpse of Mary we see in the New Testament. We find Mary in Revelation:
Then God’s temple in heaven was opened, and the ark of his covenant was seen within his temple;

A great portent appeared in heaven: a woman clothed with the sun, with the moon under her feet, and on her head a crown of twelve stars. She was pregnant and was crying out in birth pangs, in the agony of giving birth. … And she gave birth to a son, a male child, who is to rule all the nations with a rod of iron.
Revelation 11:19-12:5

Images in revelation have rich multiple readings. The woman is Israel, the woman is the Ark of the Covenant, and the woman is also Mary. The first Ark contained the most precious remains of God delivering his people from slavery in Egypt. Hebrews speaks of its contents.
In it stood the golden altar of incense and the ark of the covenant overlaid on all sides with gold, in which there were a golden urn holding the manna, and Aaron’s rod that budded, and the tablets of the covenant; above it were the cherubim of glory overshadowing the mercy-seat. Of these things we cannot speak now in detail.
Hebrews 9:4-5 (NRSV)
The first Ark carried angelic food, Priestly authority of grace and judgement, and the words of God. Mary carried the same but greater, Jesus who is our heavenly food in the sacrament, Jesus who is our high Priest at that offering, Jesus who is the Word of God. The Israelites treated the first Ark with respect - we too honour Mary as the Ark of the new covenant. But the first Ark was kept closed. From the new Ark, Mary, the gate of grace is wide open. We too share the same grace that filled Mary from a young age, we follow in her footsteps as her children.

Further on in Revelation we read:
Then the dragon was angry with the woman, and went off to make war on the rest of her children, those who keep the commandments of God and hold the testimony of Jesus.
Revelation 12:17 (NRSV)
In holding the testimony of Jesus and the commandments of God we are Mary’s Children, and she is rightfully our mother. When we accept Mary as our mother, when we meditate on Mary, when we pray with Mary, when we come to her as the open Ark, when we seek her guidance as the lens of the incarnation, when we honour Mary, she always points us to the one she carried within but is available to us.

Let us receive Him again as The Word, as our High Priest and as the Bread of Heaven today.

Tuesday, 11 November 2014

Five Smooth Stones & Statistics for Mission

The Church of England has released its latest Statistics for Mission, and Norman Ivison has an excellent analysis. The good news is that CofE worshipping communities are not collapsing as some might expect. The bad news is that what many of us hoped was a the bottom of a curve seems instead to be a gentle decline.

So here are my immediate thoughts:
  1. It is clear that a huge number of Anglicans are older, and that what has kept that generation in church has not worked for their children or their grandchildren. Anglicans regularly reminisce about how many children used to be in church through various events, links with uniform organisations and schools. However these models clearly failed in introducing young people to a life long, life changing encounter with the living God. We should ensure that we do not repeat these mistakes.
  2. With the huge number of older people in the church, there is bound to be a natural shrinkage. A church which sees 5 new families come to faith each year (or a greater number of individuals) may still be classified as  'shrinking' due to older members leaving or moving into residential care. We still need to identify and celebrate this as growth.
  3. There is not a single missing generation as Norman suggests in passing, but several. The generation which abandoned faith in the 1960's and 1970's is now coming face to face with the reality of their own mortality. The Church needs to be intentional about mission with those coming into retirement, the Boomer generation, as well as the generations that have followed them.
  4. The evidence of 74% transfer growth to cathedrals is important. It is something I have suspected anecdotally for some time, and speaking as an anglo-catholic drives another nail in the coffin of the choral liturgical tradition in parish churches - we just cannot compete. However over time we may see similar transfer growth within other expressions, as smaller churches cannot compete with the quality of larger worship band lead congregations. It's not pretty but we need to be aware.
  5. There is growth in the Church of England. We need to support and encourage those lay or ordained who are seeing people find Jesus. This needs to move beyond boundaries of tradition, parish or fresh expression. The whole church lay and ordained needs confidence that God is moving among us in this nation. As a priest I have learned about mission from practitioners, not theorists and 'big name' speakers. The national church needs to embrace this philosophy.
At our recent diocesan conference we were asked what the church needed for the future. I wrote
  • Renewal of engagement with the Seven Sacraments 
  • Prayer on the Streets.
I stand by that eclectic mix. Because people come to a life long, life changing faith through encounter with the living God.

Nothing else will do.

Thursday, 6 November 2014

Mail Order Penguins

Something about the new Christmas John Lewis advert just seems a bit off.

We have a lonely penguin - Calvin and Hobbes style. The gender of the penguin is not explored. However it is a lonely penguin. But don't worry John lewis have the answer. A mail order bride/groom to bring happiness to the saddest Spheniscidae (yeah I had to look that up).

And of course it is a match made in heaven.

And to me my gut reaction, following the anthropomorphism in regards to the lonely penguin, was:

'ewww, that is really creepy'

Okay I understand that it is just a stuffed penguin. That's the reveal. But the penguin was human enough for us to identify with its feathered feelings.

And with issues of human trafficking in many peoples minds at the moment  John Lewis have made me if anything a Little Blue.

Monday, 29 September 2014

Anglo-Catholic Future: Liturgy is Messy

I was unable to attend the recent Anglo-Catholic Future event, but  Prof. Alison Milbank’s keynote is now available on-line. It is worth reading, and much of it I agree with. With Prof. Milbank I acknowledge both the strangeness and beauty of the catholic tradition. But where we may differ is our experience of what is beautiful. I truly believe that liturgy is messy, that this is beautiful, and that we need not fear mess.

My first experience of the catholic tradition was as a child in a mission parish on an estate in Gravesend. Holy Family still looks pretty much the same today as it did back then. I remember the richness of the experience, the images and colour - but a cathedral it is not.

I re-entered the catholic tradition through suffering. After my mother died I found myself, by accident, in a church where suffering was not packaged away but hung messily from every crucifix. Catholic spirituality embraces the reality of pain and suffering in the world as well as seeking supernatural healing.

I have been nourished in the catholic tradition through spiritual encounter. Catholic worship and practice is essentially ecstatic: an inability to move from adoration of the sacrament, a glimpse of Christ through palm branches, a strangeness of a statue of Our Lady. These and other supernatural experiences have shaped my relationship with God, even during those seasons when I have struggled to believe in God.

I have persevered in the catholic tradition through the sacrifice of the mass. The disruptiveness of the sacrifice offered corporately on the altar even when God may seem distant to the individual. Christ present in bread and wine, broken and blessed at the heart of a wider sacramental life. I long for a renewal of our shared intention at the altar in the catholic movement.

I have been renewed in the catholic tradition by walking with the apostolic teachers of an early missionary church. Seeking to engage in mission within a diverse and fractured culture around us. A plain reading of those who knew the apostles makes little space for obsessive aesthetics.

Mess does not mean disorder. Mess can have shape and form. But none the less embracing suffering is messy, the charismatic and ecstatic is messy, the disruptive sacrifice is messy, mission is messy. I believe that catholic worship and community lives and thrives when space is made for mess, for contemporary worship, for creative prayers, for prayer ministry and charismatic gifts, for flags waved and hands lifted high, for risky evangelisation and invitation.

I cannot help but return to Augustine:
Then, indeed, such a shout of wonder rose from men and women together, that the exclamations and the tears seemed like never to come to an end. ... They shouted God’s praises without words, but with such a noise that our ears could scarcely bear it. What was there in the hearts of these exultant people but the faith of Christ, for which Stephen had shed his blood?
Messy yes, and profoundly catholic. As it was then so may it be in our anglo-catholic future.

Friday, 29 August 2014


This Blog follows on from asking questions about Changes at Greenbelt and about the lack of UK Emergent Speakers.

Part of the reason that we have fewer UK 'Name' speakers is that emergent movements in UK Christianity have tended to follow the pattern of Symposia - either communicating through worship or short talks. This does not naturally produce single name speakers.

For the Rural Fresh Expressions events we did book a couple of named speakers, but they were not the focus of the conferences. The idea was that all who attended were contributors and practitioners. Everyone who wanted to come to the conference was invited to submit some background and part of their (communities) story. This was distributed to everyone before the conference, so we all knew something of one another. The conference was open to non-practitioners too (although they had a lower booking priority), but they too had to share what they were interested in learning and sharing.