MARY’S DRESS

BANK HOLIDAY weekend affords a happy extension to “left brain time.” There are always more books I want to read, more paintings I want to paint, more photographs I want to make, more writing to be done, more poems to unfold, more prayer to be celebrated, more people to share some time and stories with, more songs to be sung, more colours to be marvelled at, more silence to be revelled in – than time ordinarily allows. And that very fact is cause for thanksgiving! Life is indeed a rich tapestry. The signs of the reign, the joy of God, are all around me. And I’m immensely thankful for the connections that blogging makes possible with people all around the world.

Today’s artwork is inspired, in Eastertide, by Mary Magdalene, beloved apostle of Jesus, first witness to new life in the Resurrection, loyal provider of intimate and loving support and sustenance, someone generous, open-hearted and giving, someone who just “knew” instinctively, what Jesus’ mission on earth was about, someone released, by God’s goodness, from the kind of prison every one of us finds ourselves in from time to time.

All human persons are “bedevilled” by “Legion” the perpetually underlying and taunting belief that somehow we’re failing to make the grade, we’re unlovable, bigger and better “failures” than anyone else, destined to be “alone”, faithless, heartbroken, misunderstood, wretched. All human persons yearn for the kind of release that Jesus’ love and acceptance brought about in Mary’s life; for the kind of release that she brought about in his.

Mary Magdalene: someone cruelly maligned and abused by religious patriarchy and misogyny across the centuries, but all the while someone I’ve admired and looked to as an icon of life’s richness and fullness, of life’s goodness and generosity, of life’s being – under the vivifying reign of God – a beautifully, colourfully, gorgeously dressed dance with our Creator.

Sydney Carter described Jesus as The Lord of the Dance. In my heart I think of Mary of Magdala as Jesus’ dance-partner and she is clothed, dressed, like the environment all around and about her, in colour and glory. And theirs is a partnership, theirs is a dance that, far from being exclusive and excluding, invites you and I to join. “Shall we dance?”, Mary asks. “And shall we sing?”, asks the Lord of the Dance. And sometimes the colours blur a little in the swirling. And sometimes they’re blended by our tears …

Have you seen the wonder of it? Have you seen Mary’s dress?

WHAT’S GOOD NEWS?

I’M OFF TO A DAY CONFERENCE on “Catholic Evangelism” tomorrow. I’m not wholly sure whether it’s going to be about Catholic Evangelism (capital C, capital E) or catholic evangelism (small c, small e), and I’m rather hoping for the latter … hoping, that is to say, for a catholic evangelism that really is about good news (evangelism) universally applied (catholic), ie, for everybody – no matter their “faith tradition” or lack thereof – everywhere.

I’ve spent a very great deal of my life passionately pondering what exactly constitutes good news, and in particular why having some sort of acknowledged relationship to / with the Source of our lives might matter – to individuals, to communities, to nations, to our world, to the whole created order – some of these whole and healthy, some desperately broken, hurting, and in need of that Divine touch that brings healing. And I’m consistently finding that old definitions of what it means to be Catholic, or Protestant, or Christian, or shades in between all of these, don’t fit all sizes any more, if they ever did.

Christ everywhere …

What constitutes Good News in a ‘catholic’, pluralistic world? Where is an / our anointed Christ to be found? (as I’m sure such a Christ is indeed to be found, anywhere in the world, and across the world’s faith traditions). And the questions are so important to me because as a Christian priest, seeking always to live and learn – to be a disciple – after the pattern of Jesus of Nazareth, I have observed that some kinds of Catholic, some kinds of Protestant, and some kinds of “Christian” plainly do not represent very good news for many people at all. So catholic evangelism must be something quite different, something much more open, something prepared always to be held to account as to the reach of what it purports to be good news. Catholic evangelism will not, I think, be too prescriptive.

Feast of life for all

Catholic evangelism will offer the “feast of life” to people in the “highways and byways” won’t it? Catholic evangelists, personal and corporate, will have dismantled their drawbridges. Catholic evangelism will be less concerned (although not wholly unconcerned) with the Faith of our Fathers and hugely more concerned with Faith Being Received Today. When I’ve asked adults over the past thirty years whether they’d like to come to confirmation classes, so that they can be presented to the bishop, confirmed, and thereafter receive Holy Communion many have politely declined. When I’ve offered the Sacrament of Holy Communion “no questions asked” it has been the case, more frequently than I can count, that the recipient has ended up doing the asking, seeking to confirm a present and acknowledged reality – satisfied hunger – in their lives.

Let’s explore!

And I remember that Jesus was ever ready to go the extra mile for children, too. “Do not try to stop them for the Kingdom of Heaven belongs to such as these”. Catholic evangelists will work hard at becoming more, well … catholic – so that they’re more plainly seen to be, well … “Christian” or “Anointed”. Catholic evangelists will be interested in marginalised multi-tasking-capable women, tax collectors, prodigal sons, unimaginative but very opinionated men, quieter and more imaginative men, too, and in lost sheep. Catholic evangelism won’t chastise the lost sheep for having left the fold in order to “explore”, still less tell the poor creature that God forbids it. Instead truly catholic evangelists (like Jesus of Nazareth) will make the fold larger so that there’s the space for MORE sheep to engage in the business of exploration, to engage, that is to say, in their God-given Life!

The Sound of Silence

One of the biggest growth areas in our parish (liberal Catholic with blurry edges – a bit like my paintings!) – has been a call to shared and silent meditation in the parish church – arriving and departing in companionable silence. No coffee or handing out electoral roll forms afterwards. And numbers in excess of many a church’s entire Sunday congregation have responded to a call – we believe a Divine call – to dwell for a space, together in the “house for the Church”, to wait upon the Word that touches life in silence. (The Word – not words. There’s not “even” a Bible reading). It’s life-changing, say many participants. It’s the only occasion in my month when I’m really and deeply aware of the heartbeat of God, the pulse of life, say others. This silence, this “that’s not very Catholic” but absolutely catholic encounter is breathing into our common life new elements of what it means to bear good news in our lives today, what it means, first and foremost to BE the Body of Christ now on earth, what it means to be religious in the original sense of the word (religare) – reconnected, re-membered. Restored to what we’ve forgotten.

Old assumptions yield

So whether tomorrow proves to be slanted more to Catholic Evangelism, or to catholic evangelism, I hope we’ll be asking the same question – What is Good News? – at least sometimes. Because, remembering Louis MacNeice’s Mutations again:

… old assumptions yield to new sensations.
The Stranger in the Wings is waiting for his cue.
The fuse is always laid to some annunciation …

TOBIAS AND THOMAS

THOMAS AND TOBIAS were baptised this morning – when, on the first Sunday of Lent, we recalled Jesus’ own baptism by John: (I absolutely love the little snippet above, beautifully narrated here, from the film The Miracle Maker, and used on this blog before)

In those days Jesus came from Nazareth of Galilee and was baptized by John in the Jordan. And just as he was coming up out of the water, he saw the heavens torn apart and the Spirit descending like a dove on him. And a voice came from heaven, ‘You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased.’ And the Spirit immediately drove him out into the wilderness. – Mark 1.9-15

What was John up to? What were we doing with Tobias and Thomas this morning? And does the doing matter?

Well, I think the first thing to say about this morning’s baptism is that it certainly appeared to matter, very much indeed, to the supporting families and friends. It’s true that the novelty value appears to have worn off for many a contemporary weekly churchgoing Anglican. Some of ours discreetly hive off back home if they get wind of the idea that “their” service will face the challenge of newcomers. On such occasions, with all due respect to John the Baptist, I thank God that I’m their parish priest rather than he. I understand a bit, I think, where they’re coming from, in that I am myself very fond of a bit of liturgical p and q. But I think they’d be given pretty short shrift from J the B, don’t you?

Back to the opening question. What was John up to? Why would baptism be important for Thomas and Tobias, or for me and you?

The keyword, for me, is “repent”. John called his hearers to repent – a process described in Greek as metanoia – a turning around. Not a sandwich-boarded doom-laden “you’re on the road to hell” sort of a “repent” but nevertheless a turn-around-sort of a repent. A stopping-in-our-tracks sort of a repent. And that’s what I was up to this morning, too: inviting people to take a moment to “turn around”, to have a bit of a rethink. Repentance: a few moments practice in our daily lives – (as wholesome and as necessary a daily-renewed baptism as the practice of having lunch or dinner) – when we turn around to look inside ourselves instead of outside.

And I think that that’s what Jesus’ Lent, his “days in the wilderness”, tempted as we are, were and are all about. Lent’s not just about Jesus in “wilderness” (in the tempting, perplexing, question-provoking aspects of life) but about you and me needing to grapple with those places and those temptations, perplexities and questions, in our time, too.

Who am I? Whose am I? What’s my life for? Am I on the side of right or of wrong? And do my life and actions – does my practice – reflect my answer? And do I feel the same today as I did yesterday? And how am I hoping to feel tomorrow? (Heavens! This is a process that’s gonna take some time. Probably a lifetime. I’d better set some time aside every day – and it would be as well for me to “train up” children to start this practice in their own child-like sure-footed and imaginative way). There’s going to be need to hive off up a mountain on my own from time to time, or take a boat away from the crowds and out into the bay, if I’m really going to find my Way.

Am I at peace with what, having repented, I observe within myself? Do I have the inner resources not only to survive but also to thrive when the Spirit of Life “drives” me into the wilderness spaces and places of my own ordinary day to day life and experience? Does my engagement with this liturgical act, this Baptism, this honouring, and raising and welcoming of two little British boys have anything at all to say to what I feel about the “heaving little tummy” of the 2 year old Syrian boy whose tragic death was witnessed by Marie Colvin, shortly before her own untimely death, the other day?

Baptism? What was John doing? What was Jesus doing? Why did the “Good News” writers notice? Why was I engaged in baptising Tobias and Thomas today?

Stop, look, listen. That’s the content of John’s preaching. Consider. Look left, look right, look left again before you cross, are the themes picked up and developed and run with by Jesus, then and now. Jesus takes preaching a step further. Jesus turns preaching and teaching into living. So let me repeat: Stop, look, listen. Look around you. What’s to be seen in the wilderness of this life – your life? Stop, look, listen. Look inside you. What’s to be seen in the wild places of your own heart? And how, if at all, does the one affect the other?

Baptism isn’t about filling the Church’s pews (so in that sense it shouldn’t matter too much if “we never see them again”). Baptism is more of an invitation to oasis in wilderness, a daily-repeated invitation to a place where we may be assured of welcome, our morning shower and refreshment, the place of preparation before receiving the bread and wine of life itself; Christian Baptism matters because it is sacramental sign and symbol of an invitation to a place, and to a challenge, where we may grow into the discipline and practice of asking questions – and grappling with them until we come upon some answers. Though there may be more questions about questions before ever we arrive at answers.

I heard it suggested recently that the “Good Shepherd”, seeking to keep his whole flock safe, discourages single sheep from going out to explore. They’ll automatically trip up, automatically fall down a hole. He’ll then have the (very worthy but inconvenient) task of setting out to rescue the naughty explorer. But I believe exactly the opposite. I believe that we’re set down in the wilderness of life precisely to ask questions, to employ our inner resources to make sense of what we know exists beyond the walls of our own little (maybe ecclesiastical) sheep pen, and to explore. Co-creators with the Source of our own lives, we won’t necessarily live in perpetual clover, but we’ll be alive! Fully alive – building a home in the heart of humankind for “the reign of God”. And trusted by the Divine parent who’ll wait patiently forever on the lookout for our safe (and better informed) returning.

Baptism matters because it washes the dust of desert from our souls, refreshing and awakening and dawning and calling. Baptism matters – even infant baptism – because the questions it raises and the confidence it inspires are addressed and gifted to the whole community. Baptism matters because it has an eye to everything that’s going on around us, to the future security and mutual society of Thomas and Tobias, and because it calls us, every day of our lives, to be quiet enough, for long enough, to hear the Word that God speaks into every fibre, cell and atom of all creation. “YOU – all of you – are my Beloved …” You, all of you are, as the great hymn of the incarnation puts it: Of the Father’s Love begotten.

Yes: Becoming the Beloved – or, more accurately, recognizing that we are the Beloved of God. That’s what we’re up to, or should be up to, in Homs and in Bramhall equally. All of us.

 

 

ALMOST SPELLING ‘HOLY’

WRITING ABOUT stained glass fragments “blown apart in wars” and haphazardly reassembled later, the priest poet David Scott, in the second stanza of his A Window in Ely Cathedral, tells of

A leering bit of face with twisted lips,
a bit of beard, and letters almost spelling ‘holy’,
a sheaf of corn, a leaf, and then the sun dips,
lighting Mary in her simple glory.

Piecing Together
A Window in Ely Cathedral,

stanza 2 of 3, page 29

In the economy of God there’s something afoot. I can feel it in my bones. The downtrodden, the dispossessed, the shattered, the fragmented and the forgotten, wherever they are in the world, are raising their voices. They cry for the reconciliation, resurrection and restoration of a humane humanity – for people of every race and nation, and of every creed (or lack thereof), or “class”, or colour. Too much has been blown apart by wars and for too long. But days wear on, the sun dips in her course, illuminating that which speaks of life’s real glory, and is thereby truly holy.

This is exciting. This is the stuff of the reign of the Source of all of our lives, to whom we have prayed, and with whom we have yearned, in every time and place, in every political and religious tradition, for so very long. Whether we’re speaking of ordinary Libyans standing up to be counted, intent on “occupying” their own entitlement to a bit of their own space as human beings; whether we’re speaking of Occupy New York, or Occupy London, or occupy-a-space-in-the-queue for fresh air, or clean water, or a bowl of rice, something is most assuredly afoot. The sun dips, lighting Mary in her simple glory, and because at evensong we’re rather quieter than usual we may hear her softly say and pray

he hath scattered the proud in the imagination of their hearts. He hath put down the mighty from their seat: and hath exalted the humble and meek

Come Christ-Mass this year the stable and the tent will not be featured only in hand-picked and glossy Christmas cards. Tents and stables are being raised up alongside cathedrals and churches. Tents and stables are being raised up in our dreams and in our slowly-awakening hearts. Here are opportunities to catch real glimpses for the possibilities of life’s glory, opportunities that are thereby truly holy. Some amongst us, nonetheless, will not look any more kindly upon such fragmented opportunities than they would ever have looked upon the teenage mother in the stable of Bethlehem.

But something of and from the divine is afoot. The leering bit of face with twisted lips, a bit of beard, and letters almost spelling ‘holy’, must give way to the sun’s dipping

lighting Mary in her simple glory.

BLESS MY CHILD

A woman and her malnourished child in Banadir hospital in Mogadishu. Photo Reuters

ARCHBISHOP ROWAN spoke to the recent General Synod of the Church of England of his experiences in Eastern Congo:

Two weeks ago in Eastern Congo, listening to the experiences of young men and women who had been forced into service with the militias in the civil wars, forced therefore into atrocities done and suffered that don’t bear thinking about, I discovered all over again why the Church mattered. One after another, they kept saying, ‘The Church didn’t abandon us.’

The Archbishop is a shining example of a pastor continually willing to “discover all over again”. God knows how much we all need to. In common with many a clerical household, I guess, Church Times is usually to be found on or near the kitchen table in this vicarage. Mealtimes this week have therefore been especially chastened experiences. What, I’ve wondered, is this young mother praying for herself and her (beautiful) hungry little one?

And the hand of blessing laid with love upon the heads of beautiful, well cared for, well fed little ones in Bramhall Parish Church this morning was warm with desire to bless the mother and her child in this photograph – and the countless mothers, fathers and children who share their desperate plight, praying for the impossible, whilst laying-on their own tender hands of blessing. God help us: I’ve thought a thousand times this week that this madonna and her child in Mogadishu were praying together once in Bethlehem.

And the weeping for the children in Norway today is heard all around the world. Christopher Burkett has written, too, in that tragic context, about why the Church matters. God help us to widen our vision: to sing fewer songs of rejoicing in our own perceptions of personal salvation until we’re a bit surer in our hearts and minds that salvation has to be extended to each and all – or it is no salvation. Whilst I thank God for “looking after” me I must heed the Divine call to play my own part in “looking after” others. For each and every child of God is intended to be provided with a Bethlehem home, a House of Bread.

I pray for the day when, for God’s sake, sectarian divisions and some of the more nuanced religious certainties – of whatsoever religious tradition (or none) – may be set aside in favour of the one really important certainty, the one really important bit of “gospel” that Jesus alluded and alludes to again and again and again – that in the heart of God, at the heart of Life, the mother and her child in this photograph, and the hurting and grieving souls in Norway, and in every other nation under the sun, are of absolutely equal importance. With Archbishop Rowan I “discovered again” this morning why the Church matters, and why all men and women of goodwill, all over the world, matter: Christian Aid emergency envelopes “sold” like hotcakes, thank God, and we sang “We have a dream” with vigour. Dear God in heaven, help us to dream big … and to plant mustard seeds of faith and hope and real practical love wherever and whensoever we can.

MAGDALENA

CYNTHIA BOURGEAULT’S The Meaning of Mary Magdalene has been such a gift to me this year; and so, more recently, has Jan Richardson, and her In the Sanctuary of Women, both of which books I’ve been revelling in, and recommending widely.

I’ve often spoken of my undying gratitude for something the late and great Archbishop Michael Ramsey said – I believe quite frequently – and once to me and a small group of doting ‘disciples’ gathered around him in my small rooms in Salisbury 30+ years ago: (Gleefully and with a slight stammer) “We’re the early Christians!”

How glad I’ve been to recall the truth and the depth of the archbishop’s wisdom! How glad to be a disciple alive today – 2000 years (only!) after Jesus and Mary Magdalene and their friends graced and anointed human encounters – glad to be alive in a wide world and in wide faith communities that are still being blessed, and still being graced, with new and ever deeper understandings of what it means to be fully human; to be anointed, to be loved, and graced, and held (even “after the Cross”) and sustained, and still learning.

And tonight I fell upon this achingly beautiful video produced and gifted to the world (thanks be to God) by Jan Richardson and her own “sweetheart” Garrison Doles. May it bless a wider and more humane humankind, and awaken new riches in all of us. May we know, and feel, and be thankful for, and above all understand, passiontide – Christ’s and all peoples’ passiontide – in new and personal ways. May we delight in the Love of the God who sees the deepest and truest beauty in us. May we know the fullness of the blessing of Life. May we hear Life say “Today: today you will be with me in paradise”.

A PRECIOUS CALLING TO MIND

CANON RICHARD PRICE mentored a young ordinand long ago, and then received the skinny young Curate to serve in his parish in 1982, and has remained friend and encourager ever since. It took him only a moment to discover that we’d both turned for Advent re-reading to William Charles’ Basil Hume Ten Years On when he was here the other day. Trainer and trained share a number of heroes!

What will Advent and Christmas bring to the physically hungry and thirsty parts of our world? What will Advent and Christmas speak of to the spiritually hungry and thirsty? Father Basil’s nephew recalls that the Cardinal’s life was changed irrevocably by a visit to Ethiopia. “Each Christmas I find myself calling to mind my visit to Ethiopia” (p179)

Father Basil, one of the world’s most wonderfully human and humane priests, told of having to leave behind a ten year old boy who had clung to his hand, rubbing it against his cheek, since their first meeting:

I can see him now – feet astride, his hands on his waist, and looked at me almost with reproach. I could see in his face, ‘Why are you leaving me behind?’ I felt awful because there was no way I could take that little boy and bring him back to England.

I realised that when you’re lost and are very hungry, and you are abandoned, you have a craving for two things: for food and drink and for love

What sort of Holy Communion do we imagine Jesus would have in mind for such a little boy and his countless millions of brothers and sisters, some physically and some spiritually hungry and thirsty? Would Communion be made in church or temple at the hands of a priest? Let us hope so. Would it not also be made, though, in ordinary eating and drinking, and in ordinary sharing and humanly-priestly loving, wherever we lived, whatever our religion, or politics, or the lack of either?

Dear God at the heart of all created things, dear God at the heart of Basil Hume and at the heart of his oft called to mind young Ethiopian, may it be so. Whenever we eat and whenever we drink let there be a precious calling to mind; that the world’s hungry and thirsty might be remembered and fed.

See also: in Words Out Of Silence