Easter 6, Year B: Text of a Sermon preached at the Convent of Saint Mary in Sewanee, 2018.

For the Gospel: John 15:7-17

Our gospel passage this morning comes from Our Lord’s discourses at the Last Supper in the Gospel of John. It follows directly on from what we heard last week, Our Lord’s parable in which he spoke of himself as the true vine, and his disciples as the branches. As the branch cannot flourish apart from the vine, he said, so we, his disciples, cannot flourish without him.

Jesus now continues, “If you abide in me, and my words abide in you”—he speaks, I believe, of our communion with him through prayer: if the words of Jesus, that is, the things he says and the things he does—if these abide in us, then, he says, “ask for whatever you wish, and it will be done for you” (John 15:7). This will happen because if Jesus’ words and deeds are in our hearts and minds, then our petitions will be echoes of His words and deeds. As He speaks, so we will speak. Our prayers will be fragments of his teaching, transformed into supplications, and so will necessarily be heard, as He is heard. Let us be clear what this means: our Lord’s promise of the absolute fulfillment of our prayers is inseparably linked to our personal fellowship with Him. “Ask for whatever you wish,” he says, emphasizing the freedom of our choice given the union of our wills with that of Christ, “and it will be done for you.” So Saint Augustine of Hippo said, “Dilige, et quod vis fac”—“Love, and do what you like” (Homilies on First John 7.8). Precisely. Because if we abide in Jesus’ fellowship, then what we like will be what God likes. And even if there is something we would dearly prefer that cannot be—as Our Lord himself would have preferred not to endure the agony of the  cross and prayed in Gethsemane, “Father, if it be possible, let this cup pass from me,” but it could not be—even then the final movement and basis of our prayer will be, as was his, “nevertheless, not what I will but what you will”(Mark 14:36). This is something to which we bear witness every time we pray His prayer, as we shall pray it in a few minutes, putting our hand into the hand of God and being so bold as to say, “Our Father… thy kingdom come, thy will be done.”

Our Lord continues: ”My Father is glorified by this”—that is, by your abiding in me and the consequent fulfillment of your prayers—in order that “you bear much fruit” (in the fruitfulness of the vine lies the joy of the husbandman) and so “become my disciples” (15:8). We may well ask, “Are we not disciples already?” And of course we are! But we mustn’t forget that the Hebrew and Greek words for “disciple” mean “learner”, “student,” or “pupil”—and so by definition a true disciple is someone who is in a process of “becoming”, always growing and learning, always being transformed into Christ’s image, as Saint Paul has it, “from glory to glory” (2 Cor. 3:18). That is our calling now, in this life, and it will be our calling even in the life to come, even in the resurrection life—to ascend, as He did, to the Father.

“As the Father has loved me, so I have loved you; abide in my love” (15:9) Christ’s love is the atmosphere in which we must seek to live: not something sought in a moment of crisis, but breathed in, day by day, hour by hour. All else, whether good or ill, is, as Ecclesiastes reminds us, “הֲבֵל הֲבָלִים”—“vanity of vanities” as it is usually translated—which is actually somewhat misleading. For the word הֲבֵל—“mist”, “vapour” or “breath”—is used metaphorically in Qoheleth’s Hebrew, as its equivalents often are in English, to refer not so much what we normally regard as “vain”—that is, useless, or empty—but rather to what is ephemeral, fragile, passing away. Ecclesiastes is not saying that nothing is of any value, but rather that everything in this life—even good things, even things that God has given us for our joy, everything is transitory. And of course we know that is true. It is true of the universe itself, and it is certainly true for us. We all strive to do things—for good or evil, for ourselves or for others, in generosity or in selfishness—but whatever we do, life passes. Carpe diem! we say, following Horace: “Seize the day!” But there will certainly come for all of us a day that we cannot seize, a day when we cannot finish what we have started, a day when we must entrust even what we hold most precious to the mercy of God. What then is our hope? “Abide in my love,” says Our Lord.

And so we come finally to his promise: “If you keep my commandments, you will abide in my love, just as I have kept my Father’s commandments and abide in his love” (15:10). Love ensures obedience, obedience ensures love. That is something that even our as yet imperfect human loves can show us. When we are, as we say, “in love,” then to please the beloved is not a burden but our desire and delight. If that is true—and it is—of our merely human loves, how much more is it true of the One who IS Love, and the source of all love! No wonder our Lord concludes, “I have said these things to you, so that my joy may be in you, and that your joy may be complete” (15:11). May God give us grace to seek that joy, as the saints have sought it throughout history, and there perhaps find that although all things in this life are transitory and fragile, passing away like a breath, yet there, in God’s joy, all things, having come from God, find also their permanence and their fulfillment.

In that thought we may dare perhaps hope that Gustav Mahler was right:

O glaube, mein Herz, o glaube:

‘Es geht dir nichts verloren![2]

‘O believe, my heart, O believe:

‘Nothing to you is lost!’

And that, in a sense, is the Easter message.


[1] For rich commentary on this text, and indeed on Ecclesiastes—which she describes as “the most diffident book of the Bible”—see Ellen E. Davis, Proverbs, Ecclesiastes, and the Song of Songs (Louisville, Kentucky: Westminster John Knox, 2000) 166-69.

[2] Gustav Mahler, “Auferstehung” Symphony no. 2, no. 5.


Jesus the Good Shepherd: Thoughts for the Fourth Sunday of Easter. The text of a sermon preached at the Convent of St Mary, Sewanee.

ὁ ποιμὴν ὁ καλὸς

Why, when we are in the middle of the Great Fifty Days of Easter – why in the midst of all of the wonderful stories of Christ the Risen One which we have heard over the last few weeks – why, suddenly, this morning, does the church call upon us to listen to our Lord’s words wherein the Fourth Evangelist has him speak of himself as “the good shepherd” – or, as we more accurately might translate the evangelist’s Greek – “the beautiful” or “the noble shepherd”?   Why now?

First, I think it is precisely because we are in the midst of these wonderful stories of the Risen One that the church believes we need also to remind ourselves just who the Risen One is. After all, the mere fact of someone coming back from the dead might not in itself have been especially good news. He might have been a vengeful Odysseus coming back to his house to take vengeance on those who have betrayed him, as the disciples surely had done, and as we too have all done, in our own way! Or this might have been a demonic rising from the dead, the birth of a vampire, in which case perhaps Mary Magdalen and the others might need to send for Buffy!

Yes, it might have been. But it wasn’t.

This Risen One is our noble shepherd who has loved us unto death. This Risen One is the noble shepherd who, even though the male disciples were all traitors and failures, still calls them his brothers.

God, the LORD, is the shepherd of God’s people. We have long known that – David sang of it centuries ago, as the psalm we hear in the Proper for the 4th Sunday of Easter reminds us. So now we hear that Jesus, too, is the shepherd of God’s people, and since, as he points out, there is only “one shepherd,” we know who Jesus must be! But wait! As the TV commercials often say: there is more! What a very extraordinary shepherd and what a very extraordinary shepherding this is! Shepherds indeed take care of their sheep: but it is, after all, for the shepherd’s own benefit. Shepherds take care if the sheep so that they may profit from them. But this shepherd takes care of the sheep for their sake, so that they may dwell in his house for ever! However caring shepherds may be, in the end, we know, many of the lambs will die for them, so that the shepherd may earn a living, and we may have our roast lamb for dinner. But this shepherd dies for the sheep!

Again, I think that we are reminded today of Christ the Noble Shepherd in order that we may keep in mind what it the resurrection is actually about, what it actually means. If I may be forgiven for saying so, I sometimes feel that some of my dear Roman Catholic friends and my dear Evangelical friends, in their anxiety to defend the reality of the empty tomb, of the one who ate and drank with his disciples after he had risen from the dead – in their anxiety to defend the reality of all that, for which I applaud them – are nonetheless sometimes in danger of seeming to talk about the resurrection as if it were simply a historical event whose mere historicity is to be defended, as one might defend the historicity of the battle of Waterloo or Julius Caesar’s first invasion of Britain, and then go on to speak, perhaps, of its results or its importance. But a theology that is truly Catholic and Evangelical must surely make clear that the resurrection of Jesus Christ is not just like that. Yes, the appearances to Mary Magdalen and the other disciples, the empty tomb, the eating and drinking together – yes, these are real events in the past, and they are important events for us to remember and celebrate. But they are important precisely because the resurrection of Jesus himself, if he is what we say he is and that resurrection was what we say it was, is not merely an event in the past and can never be merely that. The resurrection of Jesus Christ is also a factor of the present. As the Lord of the Dance song has it – a song that I was taught to sing when I was quite little – “they knocked me down, but I leapt up high, for I am the life that can never, never die!” Exactly! The resurrection and the risen one are important precisely because the Risen Christ is not just the One who rose but also the Living One who enters my life and confronts me now!

There is, of course, one little problem, and it was there from the beginning. You will remember how, even with the first resurrection experiences, even with the disciples who had lived and worked with him, at first, they generally have some difficulty recognizing him. Even those who have been closest to him, even Mary of Magdala, who at first took him for the gardener. Invariably Jesus has to call them by a well known name, to break bread as he always done, to open the scriptures to them as only he could – in a word, invariably he has to act in some way by which they suddenly do recognize him for who he is, and identify him as Jesus, the same Jesus who lived and died for them.

We too have this problem. When Christ comes to us, we, too, do not always recognize him. And that, of course, is where the church comes in. That, if you like, is what the church is for. We might even define the church as that organization which is competent to enable us to see and recognize the Risen Christ for ourselves.

How does the church do that?

Basically, by its witness: by reminding us of the story and telling us the story in such a way that when the risen Christ enters our lives, as he surely does for each one of us, when we experience him in grace and glory and goodness, or perhaps, in pain and suffering, then nonetheless we may recognize Him with whom we have to do, and identify him. That is why, at the end of mass, we pray for grace to be faithful witnesses to Christ our Lord – so that we in our turn may do the work of the church, and enable others to see the Risen One, and likewise distinguish Him from all the many counterfeits that offer themselves to us in life. In addition the church has, of course, certain covenanted acts – most notably the Mass, wherein Christ himself, the crucified and risen one, has promised to be present to us when do them: and thereby we may regularly seek his presence, to be strengthened and fed by it and also, of course to be enabled by it and to have our eyes opened by it, so that we may recognize Him when he meets us elsewhere in the world, outside of the boundaries of the covenanted sacraments or even the church. And to what end? The end is and was, of course, always joy! Joy in heaven, and joy on earth – that joy which our Lord tells us there us among the angels over one sinner that repents.   The purpose of it all is the unfolding and enabling of that unity with the shepherd and with each other for which we were actually created – that unity with the shepherd and each other that in our folly we have so often and so easily thrown away. As our Lord tells us, “other sheep I have which are not of this fold; them also I must bring, and they will hear My voice; and there will be one flock, one shepherd.”

When we all participate together in that general resurrection, in the life of the one flock with the beautiful shepherd, then will be the final fulfillment of Calvary – and not just of our Lord’s Calvary, but of all the millions of other calvaries that litter our history, right down to the latest violent death in Iraq or Syria – or, come to that, in a school in this country. Then and there, by God’s grace, all will find meaning and glory, just as the wounds of Christ are glorified in his resurrection. And then and there, I think, our real life will begin, our real life, for which everything before will be seen as preparation – never wasted, of course: indeed, precious and glorified – but still only preparation, a prologue, a tuning up of the orchestra for the great symphony of eternal life, the true drama of heaven, which will then begin.





Ghosts? Text of a Sermon preached by Fr Robert MacSwain on the 3rd Sunday of Easter 2018 at St Mary’s Convent, Sewanee

For the Gospel: Luke 24:36b-48

I’m not a fan of most supernatural horror movies, but there are some good, well-made, thought-provoking ghost films out there, by which I mean films that are less about scaring you witless and more about making you think about what it would mean to either be a ghost or to interact with one.

Haley Joel Onsment and Bruce Willis in The Sixth Sense, dir. M Night Shayamalam (Hollywood Pictures 1999)

Perhaps the best-known example of this genre is The Sixth Sense by M. Night Shyamalan, which came out in 1999, starring Haley Joel Osment as a young boy who—as he famously puts it—“sees dead people,” and Bruce Willis as the skeptical child psychologist trying to help him. Aside from one of the most talked-about plot twists in cinematic history, Shyamalan’s distinctive take on ghosts is that—as Osment’s character again puts it—“they don’t know they’re dead.” Ghosts are stuck between this life and the next due to some trauma or unresolved problem, and although they think they are still alive they can’t move on until they are somehow healed or released from whatever is holding them back. It’s a powerful and moving film.[1]

Another film in this category is The Devil’s Backbone by Guillermo del Toro, which came out in 2001. Set at a boys’ orphanage during the Spanish Civil War, del Toro’s distinctive take on ghosts is that they are as afraid of us as we are of them. But, as in The Sixth Sense, the ghosts in The Devil’s Backbone are also stuck. The film begins with a monologue which asks:

What is a ghost? A tragedy doomed to repeat itself time and time again? An instant of pain, perhaps. Something dead which still seems to be alive. An emotion suspended in time. Like a blurred photograph. Like an insect trapped in amber.[2]

Of course, the reason I am focusing on what these films suggest about what it means to be a ghost is because our gospel lesson today is also concerned with the precise same question. When Jesus first appears to his disciples after his death, their initial response is not joy and excitement but shock and horror: as Luke puts it, “They were startled and terrified, and thought that they were seeing a ghost.” Jesus then does everything he can to reassure them, and even explicitly addresses the ghost question:

He said to them, “Why are you frightened, and why do doubts arise in your hearts? Look at my hands and my feet; see that it is I myself. Touch me and see; for a ghost does not have flesh and bones as you see that I have.” And when he had said this, he showed them his hands and his feet. While in their joy they were disbelieving and still wondering, he said to them, “Have you anything here to eat?” They gave him a piece of broiled fish, and he took it and ate in their presence.

Jesus did everything he could to assure them that he was not a ghost, but they still took some convincing.

A more recent film than either The Sixth Sense or The Devil’s Backbone is Risen, which came out just two years ago.[3] I don’t like most supernatural horror movies, but I also don’t like most so-called “faith-based” movies either, as they tend to pander to their intended religious audience and the faith they present is usually both simplistic and sentimental. Risen is a partial exception to this critique: it’s a big-budget sword-and-sandals biblical extravaganza like they used to make, with high production values and a strong cast. The well-known English actor Joseph Fiennes plays Clavius, a Roman tribune in Jerusalem who is charged by Pilate to oversee the crucifixion of Christ but who is then faced with the serious problem of finding his body when it goes missing three days later.

The film critic Matt Zoller Seitz explains:

And so Clavius has to act like a detective, questioning people who knew Yeshua or were in His presence during His final days, in hopes of figuring out what happened to the body. It couldn’t be an instance of the Son of God coming back from the dead, after all, because that would be a miracle! During his travels, Clavius hears one witness after another describe Yeshua as a benevolent prophet with supernatural powers. And he starts to wonder if he’s on the wrong side.

Joseph Fiennes in Risen, dir. Kevin Reynolds (Columbia Pictures, 2016)


Fiennes’ performance sells the transformation. With his attentive stare and subtle reactions—by turns mortified, judgmental and cynically exhausted—he makes Clavius seem more attentive and skeptical than his countrymen. When the tale begins, the character already seems aware that Roman dominance of the region can’t be sustained. All this business with the messiah and the cave jump-starts a spiritual crisis that builds within him. Fiennes’ expressions are just right. We see the character being rattled by other peoples’ astonishment and gradually deciding to give in and join it.[4]

Where Risen overplays its hand and eventually unravels as a film is that Clavius actually meets the resurrected Christ. In a crucial scene, the Roman soldiers are hunting through the streets of Jerusalem for the disciples-in-hiding so they can find the body and end this religious movement. Clavius kicks open a door, sword in hand, and there is Jesus with the eleven in the upper room, sharing the very meal that our gospel lesson describes as they touch his wounds with wondering hands. Recognizing the man he saw die on the cross with his own eyes, Clavius drops his sword, puts his back against a wall, and slowly slides to the floor. Even more problematically, Clavius then joins with the disciples, helps them escape the Roman legions, gets them safely to Galilee, participates in the miraculous haul of fish, and even witnesses the ascension.

The problem with all this, both cinematically and theologically, is not so much that Clavius is an imaginary addition to the biblical narrative, but rather that what Seitz described above should have been sufficient. The character of Clavius, a cynical and skeptical Roman soldier, more plausibly represents us instead of the disciples. That is, he represents not the immediate inner circle but those who came later, those who come to believe in the resurrection not because of a visible encounter with the risen Christ, but because of the witness to that resurrection by his closest followers in their words and deeds, and the way in which that witness resonates within. It is in the chaos and confusion of Jerusalem after the body disappears, it is in the relentless brutality of maintaining empire, it is in the spiritual emptiness of his existence that the radiantly transformed lives of the disciples open Clavius to the inconceivable possibility that the Nazarene is really the Son of God after all. And so it is in the chaos and confusion of our own lives as well. The additional elements in Risen are not just implausible, they are unnecessary.

Back to The Sixth Sense and The Devil’s Backbone, in both of them ghosts are stuck, stuck between this world and the next, unable to move forward until what binds them has been loosed, their trauma has been healed, their problem has been solved:

What is a ghost? A tragedy doomed to repeat itself time and time again? An instant of pain, perhaps. Something dead which still seems to be alive. An emotion suspended in time. Like a blurred photograph. Like an insect trapped in amber.

Jesus is not a ghost, but we often find ourselves stuck in similar ghostly loops from which we cannot extricate ourselves. When something doesn’t work in our lives we try to move on, and often do, but then when the next thing doesn’t work either, we are tempted to go back to what didn’t work earlier, just because it is familiar, and then we just repeat ourselves ad nauseam. This is actually a famous definition of insanity, namely doing the same thing over and over and expecting different results. But how much of our lives can be described this way?

Jesus is not a ghost, but he sees us in our ghostliness and offers a way out. The eternal life he shares with us is not a ghostly existence, like an insect trapped in amber, but real life in all its fullness. So let us pray:

O God, who by the glorious resurrection of your Son Jesus Christ destroyed death and brought life and immortality to light: Grant that we, who have been raised with him, may abide in his presence and rejoice in the hope of eternal glory; through Jesus Christ our Lord, to whom, with you and the Holy Spirit, be dominion and praise for ever and ever. Amen.[5]

[1] The Sixth Sense, written and directed by M. Night Shyamalan (Buena Vista Pictures, 1999).

[2] The Devil’s Backbone [El espinazo del Diablo], directed by Guillermo del Toro, and written by del Toro, David Muñoz, and Antonio Trashorras (Sony Pictures Classics, 2001).

[3] Risen, directed by Kevin Reynolds, written by Reynolds and Paul Aiello (Columbia Pictures, 2016).

[4] Matt Zoller Seitz, Review of Risen: https://www.rogerebert.com/reviews/risen-2016

[5] Collect for Tuesday in Easter Week (BCP 223).

Florence Li Tim-Oi: Text of a sermon preached by Fr Robert MacSwain in the Chapel of the Apostles, Sewanee, on 24th January 2017

Florence Li Tim-Oi

In 1948, C. S. Lewis published an essay against the ordination of women titled, “Notes on the Way.” It was posthumously re-titled, “Priestesses in the Church?” with a question mark at the end, indicating Lewis’s dubiousness about the concept itself and whether it would ever actually happen in the Church of England. Since women were not ordained as priests in the C of E until 1994—almost 50 years later—Lewis’s worry was, shall we say, precocious. But it did happen, eventually, and of course women have been ordained in the Episcopal Church and other Anglican provinces since the 1970s.

Many of those who are opposed to the ordination of women appeal to specific biblical texts that speak against women teaching or holding authority over men, and I will come back to those concerns in a moment. But if you read Lewis’s essay you will find that while he mentions them he is less worried about exegetical matters as such. And he is certainly not worried about women’s capacity to do the work of ministry: preaching, pastoral care, administration, and so forth.

No, Lewis is primarily concerned about what he calls “the opaque element” in religious belief and practice. And by “opaque element” he means that in our religion which is not transparent to reason: the super-rational, mystical, divine revelation that makes the Church the Church and not just a voluntary human association. The opaque element is the given, the surd, the non-negotiable, regardless of how it might offend our natural human sensibilities. And for Lewis (at least when he wrote this essay) it was just axiomatic—beyond debate—that on the symbolic, imaginative, archetypal level women could not represent God. The masculine can represent the divine, but the feminine cannot. So while a woman priest could represent the people to God, simply in virtue of her gender she could not represent God to the people and therefore could not offer absolution or blessing or sacramental grace. To think otherwise was, for Lewis, to abandon Christianity for some other religion.

In her excellent chapter on gender in The Cambridge Companion to C. S. Lewis, Ann Loades suggests that Lewis’s essay was probably sparked by the post-war debate within the Anglican Communion regarding the priestly ordination of Florence Li Tim-Oi, whom we commemorate today. Li Tim-Oi, which means “much beloved daughter,” was born in Hong Kong in 1907. At her Anglican baptism some years later, she chose the name Florence after Florence Nightingale. After training as a teacher and working in a small island village, she went to mainland China to study theology, and was ordained as a deaconess in 1941.

When Hong Kong was occupied by Japan a few months later, Florence was already in the neutral territory of Macau as the only ordained person ministering to Anglicans. Since priests could no longer travel from Hong Kong to Macau, her bishop—the Englishman Ronald Hall—at first simply authorized her from afar to function as a priest, and then later, on January the 25th, 1944—the Feast of the Conversion of St. Paul—they met in unoccupied territory and he formally ordained her as the first woman priest in the Anglican Communion.

After the war, however, when her ordination became general knowledge, controversy ensued. To avoid being a source of conflict, in 1947—the year before Lewis’s essay—Florence resigned her license to celebrate the Eucharist but retained her priestly orders. She continued to serve in the diocese, even as a rector, and Bishop Hall insisted that she still be called a priest—because…she was. However, after the Communist take-over of China in 1949, and the later Cultural Revolution in 1966 (during which she was forced into manual farm and factory work), Florence was not able to minister again publicly until 1971 when the Revolution ended and her priesthood was formally acknowledged in the diocese. She moved to Canada ten years later where she served first in the Diocese of Montreal and then in the Diocese of Toronto until she died on February 26, 1992.

Back to Ann Loades’s chapter on Lewis and gender: she astutely notes that more is going on beneath the surface of Lewis’s argument than he was perhaps aware. After rather crisply answering his specific concerns one by one, she then observes that the “primary difficulty here is that Lewis had his own ‘theology’ of gender which is perhaps more imaginative metaphysics than sober theology”. For example, while Loades does not mention Carl Jung, it seems that Lewis’s deep gender essentialism has more in common with Jungian archetypes such as anima and animus than it does with the Scriptural teaching that both men and women are made in the image of God and therefore both men and women do represent God, whether they want to or not and regardless of ordination. Indeed, I would argue that gender is not the issue: whether male or female, transgender, non-binary, or intersex, simply to be human is to represent God, to be God’s image in the world.

Universal human representation of the image of God is thus where all Christian thinking about gender should begin, before then moving to Paul’s revolutionary and still controversial statement in our reading from Galatians that within the Church all natural distinctions of race, class, and gender are overwhelmed in the waters of baptism—“for all of you are one in Christ Jesus.” We’re still trying to figure out the full implications of that, but in light of Genesis 1 and Galatians 3, to say that women cannot represent God in virtue of their gender seems indefensible.

What then about those biblical passages mentioned earlier, in which women are forbidden to teach or hold authority over men? We don’t have time to go through them in detail, so let me simply make two comments here, one specific and one general. First, my specific comment is that instead of the sending of the seventy in Luke 10, a better gospel lesson for Florence Li Tim-Oi would Matthew 28, 1 through 10. For there we hear that the very first act of the resurrected Christ is to appear first to the women who came to minister to him even in death, and then directly commission them to go to the male disciples—who were still hiding in an attic somewhere—and to announce the resurrection to them: “Go and tell my brothers to go to Galilee; there they will see me.” (Note the slight snark in that final comment: “there they will see me”—there, because they are not here.)

Likewise for Mary Magdalene in John, Chapter 20—hence her title even in Roman Catholicism as the “apostle to the apostles.” According to both Matthew and John, Christ first entrusts the message of his resurrection to women and commands them to share it with the men. In Mark 16 and Luke 24 it is angels rather than Christ himself who sends the women, but alas in Luke 24, verses 10 and 11 we read: “Now it was Mary Magdalene, Joanna, Mary the mother of James, and the other women who told this to the apostles. But these words seemed to them an idle tale, and they did not believe them.” So, men not believing women that they have been sent by divine commission with the message of salvation has a long and un-distinguished history.

Second, my general comment about biblical texts forbidding women to teach or hold authority over men is that the Anglican approach to Scripture is not simple proof-texting. We don’t just pull verses out at random, but interpret them within the full testimony of Scripture and also in light of what else we know. As I have written elsewhere, “the authority of Scripture is not absolute and direct but rather relative to its historical/cultural context and mediated by critical interpretation.”

So, yes, those passages are indeed there—and so are texts such as Exodus 21:7 which regulates how a father sells his daughter into slavery. Now, I’m sure that last week during all those snow days those of you with children were flipping through your Bibles to find those texts, but I’m sorry: it doesn’t work like that. So when it comes to the ordination of women to the priesthood we look not only at the full testimony of Scripture, but also to everything we have learned about God and Christ and human nature in the last 2000 years. We also listen carefully to those many women who—like the women in the Gospel resurrection accounts—tell us that they have been entrusted by Christ with a mission to serve the Church.

In short, we listen to women like Florence Li Tim-Oi, “Much Beloved Daughter,” who, in the face of intense opposition from the Church and terrible persecution from the State, manifested remarkably Christ-like character: humility, faithfulness, obedience, and sacrificial love. Indeed, in so doing, she has enhanced and intensified, rather than diminished and diluted, our understanding of Christian priesthood. Rather than saying that she cannot, in virtue of her gender, represent God, we say, this is what representing God looks like. And so today we give thanks for Florence’s devoted witness to the resurrected life of Christ, and to all those faithful priests of the Church who, in sharing her gender, have followed not only in Christ’s path but also in hers. Amen.

Thoughts on the Second Sunday after Epiphany: the text (more or less) of a sermon preached in All Saints’, Sewanee

Year B: For the Old Testament: 1 Sam. 3:1-20; for the Gospel: John 1:43-51.

Our readings today continue the Epiphany themes of “manifestation” and “revelation”. In the Old Testament reading, God calls to the infant Samuel and reveals what is to come. In the New, Our Lord calls Nathaniel to follow him.

There are in the Bible stories of God’s call that sound as if they were moments of blinding certainty when everything was clear. Isaiah’s experience in the Temple at Jerusalem—his hearing the divine voice, “Whom shall we send, and who will go for us?” and responding, “Here am I, send me!” seems to be such a moment (Isa. 6:1-8). So does the angel coming to Mary in Nazareth—“The power of the Most High shall overshadow thee” “Behold, the handmaid of the Lord!” (Luke 1:26-38).

But not all the stories of God’s moments of revelation are like that, and certainly the two we heard this morning aren’t.

God’s revelation to the infant Samuel was so unclear that young Samuel kept thinking it was old Eli talking to him. Hence the quite comic scene we just heard about, in which the poor old chap keeps getting his beauty sleep ruined, and eventually tells young Samuel—surely not without a touch of exasperation – “Just stay still, son, and listen to God!”

And then there is Nathanael. He finds it hard to believe in the source of his revelation. Philip says, “We have found him about whom Moses in the Law and also the prophets wrote, Jesus, the son of Joseph from Nazareth.” Jesus from where? Nazareth?! That, apparently, is just too much for Nathanael to swallow. Quite what Nathanael has against Nazareth I have no idea and neither, so far as I can see from the commentaries, has anyone else.[1] But he clearly has something against it. “Can anything good come out of Nazareth?” he says. Maybe we’ll get the idea if we substitute for “Nazareth” the most one-horsey and unpromising town we can think of. I’m not going to offer any suggestions, because I once heard Frank Griswold preach on this text in our seminary when he was Bishop of Chicago, and he named a town somewhere or other that he obviously regarded as the armpit of boredom and non-inspiration – and it turned out that two of our seminarians actually came from there and loved it very much, and after the service in the sacristy they gave him a right royal rollicking. So he said to me after they’d gone, “I shan’t make that mistake again.” So far as I know, he didn’t. And neither shall I.

The first thing, then, that this morning’s readings tell us is that God’s revelation is by no means always clear and straightforward. Indeed, sometimes it is quite confusing, and may be coming from the last place or person we’d expect. We may well find that we aren’t sure what is God’s voice and what is maybe a merely human voice – maybe even our own voice! So if we are finding ourselves in such a situation, unsure just what it is that God is telling us to do with our lives, or whether God is speaking to us at all, we should remember that we aren’t alone. People in the Bible had similar experiences.

So what?

So in the first place we have to do like young Samuel – be patient, and keep on listening. We must wait and see! Or else like Nathanael: “Can anything good come out of Nazareth?” “Well come and see!” And being a decent sort of chap, he went, and saw. So perhaps we have to go and see.

But what will follow then?

In the biblical stories, Samuel and Nathanael did finally hear God’s call, and were sure of it, and it told them what they had to do. Right? Well, partly right. But think again of the stories! There was more to God’s revelation than that. My noble and learned predecessor as Professor of New Testament in the seminary, Dr Howard Rhys, was well known and revered for many things. One of them was that on occasion after he’d read a passage of Scripture to his students, and then he’d look up at them and say, “Well, there ain’t a hell of a lot of good news there!” I have no doubt that he did it in deliberate challenge to those who were constantly demanding of us when we studied theology in the 1950s and 60s that whenever we were presented with any passage of Scripture we must always look for “the good news” in it—an invitation to platitude and trivialization if ever there was one!

I suspect Howard Rhys would have said that about this morning’s story of the infant Samuel – “there ain’t a hell of a lot of good news there”! Because what Samuel hears about is the end of Eli’s priesthood and coming disaster for his people. In fact, this story, in chapter three of First Samuel, is a hinge between the story that precedes it in chapter two, where the priest Eli has been warned that because of the wickedness of his sons, his family will lose the priesthood—which was at this period effectively the role of rulers in Israel—and Eli’s sons will die; and the story that follows it in chapter four, where Israel takes the Ark of God into battle, born by the Eli’s sons, and Israel is roundly defeated by the Philistines, the Ark of God is captured, and Eli’s sons are indeed killed, as had been foretold. There is, of course, “good news” of a sort in this revelation. Samuel learns that God is watching over God’s own and God will act to vindicate God’s justice—but the cost of that vindication will be severe, at least in the short run. Unhappy indeed the nation—Israel or any other—that is willing to be ruled by such people as Eli’s sons—by the greedy, by thieves, by liars, or by the arrogant, which is to say by fools, for God is not mocked.

As for Nathanael: it turns out that once he actually sees and hears Jesus, he is quite easily convinced. “Rabbi, you are the Son of God; you are the king of Israel,” he says (John 1:49), a change of mind which seems to surprise even Our Lord, so that there is an element of comedy in this scene too. Jesus says to Nathaniel,

“You believe because I told you I saw you under the fig tree? You will see greater things than that!” He then added, “Very truly I tell you, you will see heaven open, and the angels of God ascending and descending on’ the Son of Man.” (John 1:50-51)

Jesus is referring, of course, to the story of Jacob in the Old Testament (Gen. 28:10-15). Jacob, you will remember, thought he was alone and had good reason to be afraid as to what life might hold in store for him. But he wasn’t alone. In his vision he saw that there was a bridge between heaven and earth—a ladder, with the angels of God ascending and descending on it. God was watching over him, and God would vindicate him. What Nathanael now hears, and we with him, is that Jesus is the ladder, the bridge between heaven and earth. God in Christ is watching over God’s own and working to vindicate God’s people.

The point is – and this is something that the story of Samuel and the story of Nathanael have in common—the point is, the first and main thing about God’s revelation is that it is essentially about what God is doing, and only indirectly or by implication about what we are to do. To put it another way, God’s call is not in the first place about us, either in our strength or our weakness. It is about God and God’s will, which is always gracious, and is always the best and most fulfilling thing for us in the long run, but may not always therefore be pleasing to us or what we thought we wanted in the short run. As the writer to the Hebrews famously put it, it is always “a dreadful thing to fall into the hands of the living God” (10.31); but yet, as the great New Testament scholar C. H. Dodd used to say, how much more dreadful it would be to fall out of them!

So is there then nothing for us to do? Of course there is always something for us to do! If we accept the grace of God, even God’s tough grace when necessary for us, and grant that we live by that grace, then certainly this means that we must try to be graceful too. Merely to pray “Our Father, thy will be done…” is to say that as children of God we put our hands into the hand of God and choose to go forth with God into the unknown, however frightening that “unknown” may be. And that, as King George VI reminded his people at Christmas 1939 in one of the darkest moments in British history, “shall be to you better than light and safer than a known way.”[2]

To put it another way, the fact that we are baptized into Christ means that we accept the identity of Christ as being essentially our identity. We have, as Saint Paul says,

been buried with him by baptism into death, so that, just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, so we too might walk in newness of life. (Rom. 6:4)

Which is to say, we are called and destined, each of us in our own small but unique way, to seek to be in the world as Christ was in the world and for it as He was for it.

Occasionally that means taking some big step, making some big change in our lives—joining the Christian church, committing ourselves to a relationship, taking a new job, joining a religious order, going into politics, whatever. Most often, however, it means simply accepting the present opportunity for grace: the next act of kindness, the next task, the next challenge, the next duty, even the next pleasure, whatever it is that God is bringing upon us now. Like good actors, we must always seek to be in the moment, the present moment, for we have no other. The past is gone and cannot be changed. The future is uncertain and we may not even live to see it. What we actually have is now: the present. “Today,” as the Scripture says, “if you will hear his voice, harden not your hearts.” And when we are in doubt as to what that voice is saying, we have always the paragon or touchstone which the prophet Micah outlined for us nearly three thousand years ago:

He hath showed thee, o mortal, what is good; and what doth the LORD require of thee, but to do justly, and to love mercy, and to walk humbly with thy God? (Micah 6:8)

And now let us confess our faith, as the church has taught us.

We believe in One God…

[1] Raymond Brown suggests the words may be proverbial, reflecting a rivalry between Nathanael’s own town, which was Cana in Galilee (John 21:2), and Nazareth (The Gospel according to John [New York: Doubleday, 1963] 1.83). That is of course possible, but we have no other evidence for it. John F. McHugh suggests that Nathanael’s words should be interpreted less sceptically and more positively: “So something good can come out of Nazareth?” (John 1-4 [London: T & T Clark, 2009] 160-61). He cites Augustine (On John 7:15-17) and Aquinas (Lectures on John 16.318-19). But even Augustine, though preferring the positive translation, conceded that the prevailing translation in his time was the sceptical one, and Aquinas actually was non-commital, noting Augustine’s view but setting Chrysostom’s sceptical view against it. Frankly, I would be more likely to be persuaded if McHugh had produced any Greek father who shared his opinion. It is always dangerous, so it seems to me, to reckon that we, or even the Latin fathers, could understand the rhetoric of these Greek texts better than those who in reading them were reading their own language.

[2] George VI’s Christmas Day Broadcast, 1939. The king was quoting from Minnie Louise Haskins, “God Knows” (known to many as “The Gate of the Year”), a poem that had been shown to him by his daughter (then) Princess Elizabeth. The opening lines of the poem are:

And I said to the man who stood at the gate of the year: “Give me a light that I may tread safely into the unknown.”

And he replied:

“Go out into the darkness and put your hand into the Hand of God. That shall be to you better than light and safer than a known way.”

So I went forth, and finding the Hand of God, trod gladly into the night. And He led me towards the hills and the breaking of day in the lone East.


Thoughts on the Baptism of Our Lord Jesus Christ

First Sunday after Epiphany. Year B.

For the Gospel: Mark 1:1-11 (I’ve added the three opening verses, as permitted by BCP p 888 last paragraph).

Mark begins his book with words about a beginning: “A beginning of the good news of Jesus Christ,” he says, “as it is written in Isaiah the prophet”. In other words, if we are to understand the story he’s about to tell us, we must see it as part of a much longer story, the story that had been told in the Scriptures of ancient Israel.

After a brief allusion to Malachi 3:1, Mark refers directly to the prophet Isaiah and tells us of “the voice of one crying out in the wilderness: ‘Prepare the way of the Lord, make his paths straight.’” (Mark 1:3 citing Isa. 40:3). I think Mark assumed that those he addressed would know what that “voice” was supposed to talk about, and I dare say a good many of them did. There all sorts of ways in which we know lots of things those early Christians didn’t know, but they did know their Bibles. Any way (just in case you and I have forgotten) what the voice was supposed to talk about was this: it was to tell Israel that her sins had been forgiven (Isa. 40:1-2):

Comfort, O comfort my people,
says your God.
Speak you comfortably to Jerusalem,
and cry to her
that she has served her term,
that her iniquity is pardoned,
that she has received of the Lord’s hand
double for all her sins.

And that, Mark says, is what was fulfilled in the teaching and ministry of John the Baptist. “As it is written in the prophet Isaiah,” he writes, “John the baptizer appeared in the wilderness.” The Baptizer came with an announcement that was all about the forgiveness of sins—just as Isaiah said it would be. He came, “proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins”—or as we might paraphrase his words, “a baptism as a sign of repentance in view of the fact that God forgives our sins.”

What is “repentance”? The Greek word that our English Bibles translate as “repentance” is metanoia, which means literally, “a change of mind”. If it is true that God forgives sins—the sins of our people, and my own individual sins as a part of that—if forgiveness is the nature of the universe, then apparently the universe is a very different kind of place from what we normally take for granted. A great deal of the so-called wisdom of the world—“there’s no such thing as a free lunch,” “charity begins at home,” “nice guys finish last,”—suddenly appears questionable. No wonder we need to change our minds about much that we normally assume. No wonder we need to do a rethink!

Leonardo da Vinci
Battesimo di Cristo

“In those days,” Saint Mark tells us next—that is, while John the Baptist was preaching—“ Jesus came from Nazareth of Galilee and was baptized by John in the Jordan.”

That sounds simple enough. But what did it mean? If John’s baptism was about “the forgiveness of sins,” and Jesus was sinless, why did he need to be baptized? If someone would give me an extra hundred dollars (or pounds, or euros—I’ve no prejudice against any major western currency) for every time I’ve been asked that question or something like it, I’d be quite a lot richer!

But the fact that we ask it shows that, died in the wool individualists as we are, we don’t really understand what either Isaiah or John the Baptist were talking about. What they were talking about was not the forgiveness of any particular individual’s sins—Jesus’ or anyone else’s—but the forgiveness of Israel’s sins. Jesus’ accepting John the Baptist’s baptism was an act of unity, of solidarity with his people, with the people of God. It joined him with those who did have things to repent—which is to say, it joined him with Israel—which meant, since Israel is also a part of the world’s history, that it joined him with humanity, with all of us. It was a sign that Jesus was, to use Matthew’s word, truly “Immanuel, God with us.”

And God greets that earthly sign, says the Evangelist, with a heavenly sign: “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” (Mark 1:10). Just as the Spirit of God brooded like a dove over the face of the waters in the Genesis creation story, so the Spirit of God broods over Jesus in this union of God with us which is, as Saint Paul will later put it, “a new creation” (2 Cor. 5.17, Gal. 6.15), an act of God as wonderful and mighty, in its own way, as the first.

But at what cost?

“And a voice came from heaven, ‘You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased’” (Mark 1:11). In Mark’s Greek these are the very words with which, in the Greek Old Testament, Abraham was told to take his beloved son Abraham and lay him upon the altar and kill him (LXX Gen. 22.2, 16). They are the words, again, that God will speak from heaven on the Mount of Transfiguration, as Our Lord is about to set his face to go to Jerusalem and death (Mark 9:7). And finally “God’s son” is the title that will be attested as Jesus’ own on Calvary, on this occasion not from heaven, but by none other than the pagan soldier who has just crucified him, whose conversion through the cross will stand as first fruit of the gentiles (Mark 15:39). That is how, being united with us even unto death on a cross, our Lord will finally fulfill that union of God with humankind which began when Mary conceived and as St John puts it, “the Word became flesh”: thereby binding God’s self to us in our weakness and sin, but by the same token also binding us to God in God’s glory and power.

And what is that to us? A millennium or so before Our Lord, King David sang, “Though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil, for thou art with me.” Three centuries or so after Our Lord, Athanasius of Alexandria observed, “The Word of God… became human in order that we might become God.” Many centuries after that, Austin Miles the Protestant hymn writer sang, “for he walks with me and he talks with me.” Our Lord’s uniting himself with Israel in its “baptism of repentance,” his uniting himself thereby with us, was a sign of that faithful union of God with God’s people, a sign that David and Athanasius and Austin Miles were right. And that is the sign that we celebrate today.

And now let us confess our faith…

Thoughts on the Nativity of Our Lord: Text of a Sermon preached by Mother Julia Gatta in the Chapel of the Convent of St Mary at Midnight Mass

For the Gospel: Luke 2:1-20

Saint Luke paints his nativity scene on a very wide canvas. He begins by solemnly invoking the Roman imperium: “In those days a decree went out from the Emperor Augustus that all the world should be registered” (Luke 2:1). It is within this sweeping landscape—universal to those experiencing it—that his story about the birth takes place. A personage no less than Caesar Augustus has some role in it. The registration or census taking he demanded was for the purpose of taxation; for Rome, like other ancient empires, placed heavy tax burdens on their subject peoples. Why not have the poor subsidize the rich, if you are rich and powerful? Mary and Joseph bend themselves in compliance to Caesar’s decree, just as a little later Luke would show them obedient to the weightier law of God when they have their newborn son circumcised and presented in the Temple. But for now, the imperial decree prompts their temporary migration from Nazareth in Galilee to Bethlehem in Judea. It turns out that Caesar, who imagines that he’s in charge of the “whole world,” is actually an instrument of God, pressing forward the divine purpose and direction. For it is in Bethlehem that the greatest “son of David” must be born. Caesar, all unawares, is in fact obeying a power far greater than himself. And this is not the last turn-around and upending at work in this tale of grace. It happens again and again in the nativity story, foreshadowing the great reversal at the end of the gospel, when death itself yields to life.

For all the majesty of his opening verses, Luke surprises us by describing the birth itself straightforwardly, plainly, simply. God enters the world quietly—not at all what we would expect: “While they were there, the time came for her to deliver her child. And she gave birth to her firstborn son and wrapped him in bands of cloth, and laid him in a manger.” That’s it. It could be said of any birth, anywhere, at any time—except maybe for the manger part. Swaddling, as I learned when my granddaughter was born, is still practiced. It keeps baby warm and snug, imitating the secure confines of the womb. So Mary’s a good mother, doing what generations had done for their newborns before her. This is how God makes his home among us—softly, without fanfare, no fireworks. The first witnesses to the incarnation of the Son of God are a young couple trying their best under constrained circumstances and, of course, the animals.

Not in the manger scene nor even in the town precincts of Bethlehem—where we might expect it—but in an outlying area of pastureland, there is an outburst of divine radiance, this time taking the shepherds by surprise. Why shepherds? Well, why not? Young David was shepherding his father’s flocks near Bethlehem when he was called to become Israel’s great king. And the newborn child would be great like his father David—and even more like the Lord God, shepherding God’s own flock, becoming their Good Shepherd. So to shepherds near this city of Bethlehem renowned for its shepherd-king, an angel appears, bringing with her the shimmering, overwhelming divine presence and power: “and the glory of the Lord shone around them.” This is the Shekinah, the transcendent divine glory, the holiest of holy presences. No wonder the shepherds were terrified. Yet the angelic message is reassuring: “Do not be afraid”—a word we will hear at key junctures throughout the gospel when human beings have every reason to be afraid, humanly speaking. But the angel comes with a message that does not originate with mere mortals. She brings a message from heaven itself. God has something to tell us, something to speak into our fear-filled situation, a word become flesh. It is news—good news—but truly news: something utterly new.

“To you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, who is the Messiah, the Lord.” It is a breathtaking announcement, and I doubt it did much  to alleviate—at least at first–the shepherds’ utter terror. It would take time to take it all in. The shepherds, like Mary, and like ourselves, would need to “ponder these things” in their hearts for a long time, indeed, for a lifetime. Consider the terms of the angelic announcement: the Saviour is here; he is born “for us”; and it’s happening “this day.” In a world governed by imperial edits or early morning tweets, the grace of God presses through with a power beyond this world’s imagining. It’s not the power of Roman legions or angry bluster, but the power—of what? The power of a baby utterly dependent upon his parents; the power of a child’s tender flesh; the power of total vulnerability. For behind this birth is the power of divine love: a self-emptying love that takes flesh and is born in this world; a love of crucifying availability that will finally lead to death; a love that will raise this mangled body and begin a new creation. Today is born for us this Savior.

The announcing angel proclaims this first word of gospel and there is an immediate reaction: not on earth, but in heaven. Celestial beings—a “multitude of the heavenly host”—burst into praise: “Glory to God in the highest heaven.” Doxology, spontaneous joy for the glory of God, fills the heavens and pours upon the earth: “and on earth, peace among those whom he favours.” Tonight we are caught up in the angels’ song. We can catch their ecstatic joy even more, because it is not for angels but for us that this saviour is born. The hardships of this world do not, of course, go away. Mary and Joseph are still dislocated, still pushed around, by forces outside their control, just as their son will experience much later in the story. But that is why he has come: to release us from the self-defeating diminishments human beings are ever devising, to free us from the crushing weight and distortion of sin; and finally to liberate us from death itself. So it is right to praise God tonight, letting the joy of the angels and the peace of heaven surround and envelop us.

Today he is born for us: today. One thing I have learned from my granddaughter is that for very young children, as for animals, it is always today. If we tell her, “Tomorrow we will do such-and-such,” she will ask us, maybe later that day, maybe a few days later, “Is it tomorrow now?” Time simply stops in the apprehension of the present moment. This experience of humans at an early stage of development is perhaps a glimpse of the wondrous eternity of God that becomes present to us in liturgy, in prayer, in fleeting moments of grace, catching us by surprise. It is the “today” when the scriptures, pondered in our hearts, leap into the present.

The Word of God seeks a place to be born. “The Word of God, who is God,” wrote St. Maximus the Confessor in the seventh century, “wills always and in all things to work the mystery of his embodiment.” The Word of God, who is God, thus seeks to be born in us. We take him in, in his scriptural word and in this sacrament, we let him be born—through labour, though self-giving love, through the same vulnerability as this Child we adore. “Be born in us today,” wrote Phillips Brooks in his famous hymn, “O Little Town of Bethlehem.” This day he is born for us. Tonight and every today may he be born in us, making us true children of God.

Thoughts on the Fourth Sunday of Advent, 2017: the text of a sermon preached at the Convent of St Mary, Sewanee

For the Psalm: The Magnificat. For the Gospel: Luke 1:26-38

Our readings on this last Sunday of Advent take us to two points in Saint Luke’s story of Our Lord’s birth. The gospel tells us of the Annunciation, culminating with Our Lady’s joyful acceptance of God’s call, “Be it unto me according to thy word”—and I emphasize that it is joyful. That is particularly clear in Luke’s Greek: clear in a way which is not so evident in English or even in Jerome’s Latin. For Luke’s Mary utters her “let it be” to the angel with a verb that is in the optative mood—γένοιτό μοι. What is the optative mood? We have no equivalent in English. I used to describe it to my students as the “optimistic” mood. The Oxford English Dictionary has “optative” as “expressing wish or desire…characterized by desire or choice”. In other words, what Mary is saying to the angel is not merely, “Yes, all right then, if you insist, I suppose I can live with that,” but “Yes, please, that is what I want!” That, of course, is one reason why the church has long seen her as the model disciple. She does not merely accept God’s will through gritted teeth (which is generally the best I can do, and often not even that) but she actually desires and enjoys God’s will, as one who cannot imagine desiring or enjoying anything else. A very few saints—Saint Francis for example—seem to have come somewhere near that. For me, certainly, and for many of us, I suspect, it is a hope for heaven.

What then of the hymn Magnificat, with which in these last two Sundays in Advent we have replaced our usual psalm? This is Luke’s portrait of Mary’s further rejoicing and reflecting on the angel’s promise. Magnificat has the form of a Hebrew hymn of praise to God, and it has many biblical antecedents. The first part of it is closely tied to Mary’s own situation: she is the one who has been looked upon with favour by God: “he has regarded the lowliness of his handmaiden.” The Hebrew prophets, however, also used the past tense to speak of things that were in fact still to come. Such was their trust that God would do what God had promised! And Mary does this too. “He that is Mighty has done great things for me, and holy is His Name.” Of course the evangelist writing this, and we hearing or reciting it twenty centuries later, have an advantage over Mary, since we live after Our Lord’s life, death, resurrection and the grace of God given us in the gospel. Yet even for us the tension between prophetic hope and experienced reality remains, and especially in the second part of her hymn when Mary moves from her personal experience of God’s grace to her, the woman of low estate, to God’s dealing with society and the world at large. For the fact is, we do not see the rich cast down from their positions of power, we do not see the poor and humble exalted, or the hungry filled with good things. Still less do we see the rich sent away empty. Rather, we seem at times to be living in a kleptocracy, where the rich become obscenely ever richer and the poor are threatened with the loss of even what they have.

And yet, with Mary, we continue to pray Magnificat, in faith that the fulfilment of God’s Word and promise is certain, and that it has already begun. It began in the birth of a baby to a girl whom nobody in the world of her time would have regarded as of the slightest importance, and yet all future generations were to call her blessed. And it begins in the creation of a just society in which power is used in the service of compassion—a society of which we see glimpses and glimmers here and there, but which does not yet, alas, exist.

One thing more should be said. Between Mary’s joyful acceptance of God’s will for her, “So be it!”, and her prayer and prophecy Magnificat there is in Luke’s account a word to her that so far we have not mentioned. It is the word of her cousin Elizabeth. “Blessed are you who believed!” says Elizabeth (Luke 1:45). Mary’s glory is not her position in society, nor her lack of it, nor even her physical relationship to the Messiah, but her faith. And that faith we may share, when we dare to pray with her, Magnificat. An age such as ours—an age when so much that we thought achieved seems to be being undone, so much that we thought secure is being ruined—

Things fall apart, the centre cannot hold.

Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world,

The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere

The ceremony of innocence is drowned;

The best lack all conviction, while the worst

Are full of passionate intensity—[1]

such an age surely needs that Advent faith of Mary as St Luke portrays it, a confident assurance that God will fulfill God’s promises and a willingness to work for it.

In fellowship with Mary let us then let us then confess that faith, as the Church has taught us…

We believe in One God….


[1] W. B. Yeats, The Second Coming (1920): written in 1919 in the aftermath of World War I.

Thoughts on a First Profession: the text (more or less) of a sermon preached in the Chapel of the Convent of St Mary on the occasion of the First Profession of Sister Hannah, CSM.

Advent 3, Year B: Old Testament Isaiah 61:1-4, 8-11, Gospel John 1:6-8, 19-28

I spent a very interesting hour last Tuesday talking with Rebecca Wright[1] about this morning’s Old Testament reading—the reading from Isaiah. She thinks that what the prophet may be talking about when he speaks of “the Year of the Lord’s favour” is what is elsewhere called a “Year of Jubilee”.

What’s a Year of Jubilee?

The idea, according to Leviticus 25, was that every fiftieth year in the land of Israel all land would be returned to its original owners, all slaves and prisoners would be freed, all debts would be forgiven and the mercies of God would be particularly manifest.  There were, of course, many complications involved in such a project. And some, I gather, doubt whether it was ever really more than an aspiration. But whether it was ever actually attempted or not, it was surely rather a wonderful vision—a vision of a society in which however big a mess you got yourself into, there was always a prospect of forgiveness—forgiveness of debts, forgiveness of the loss of land; a society where by definition there could never be a landless class—a class, in other words, that had fallen through the cracks, that had no stake in or possibility of sharing in whatever prosperity the nation had as a whole. It was a vision of a society that functioned, or at least attempted to function, in accord with the boundless mercy and justice of God.

Our prophet in this morning’s reading sees the return to Israel of those who had been forced into exile and captivity at the Fall of Jerusalem in 597 as such a moment of grace, a time of Jubilee, when what had been lost through the nation’s folly, sin or mere tragedy, would be restored. So he says:

The spirit of the Lord God is upon me,
because the Lord has anointed me;
he has sent me to bring good news to the oppressed,
to bind up the broken-hearted,
to proclaim liberty to the captives,
and release to the prisoners;
to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favour.

According to St Luke, centuries later Our Lord himself was called on to read these very words for the haftorah—that is, the reading from the Prophets—in a service in the synagogue at Nazareth. And he saw in them a vision that also described his own ministry. “Today,” he said when he had finished reading, “this Scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing” (Luke 4:21). Here, he told them, in his presence among them, was the true jubilee, the time of God’s forgiveness, the true year of Grace.

All of which brings us to our gospel passage, and the words and deeds of the John the Baptist. As we heard, various people who have been sent by the authorities in Jerusalem want to know what he is up to. After dismissing various suggestions he finally says, “I am a voice”—that is how we might literally translate the Greek—“a voice of one crying in the wilderness, make straight the way of the LORD!” He too, as he goes on to point out, is alluding to the Book of the Prophet Isaiah, although to a different part from the passage we just heard for our first reading. He is alluding to Isaiah 40, verse 3, where Isaiah speaks of, “a voice calling (קוֹל קוֹרֵא)”. But this passage also, like the one we just heard, speaks of the end of Israel’s captivity,[2] and has wonderful words of hope:

Comfort, comfort my people, says your God.
Speak comfortably to Jerusalem,

and cry to her that her warfare is accomplished,

that her iniquity is pardoned,

that she has received of the LORD’s hand double for all her sins.

The prophet’s word of summons, “Comfort, comfort (נַחֲמוּ נַחֲמוּ)”—he says it twice, for the matter is urgent!—implies not merely “comfort” in our modern sense of that word, but also challenge, a call to action.[3] So it leads on to “make straight (יַשְּׁרוּ)”! Don’t sit around moping and moaning saying, “We have sinned, our lives are ruined, all is lost”, for the LORD has put away your sin and you have things to do! Rouse yourself! Start living as people who have received forgiveness, a fresh start, and who hope for something even more glorious to come—an eternal destiny as daughters and sons of the living God!

And that, of course, is what this season of Advent is all about. It is the season that looks back to what has been achieved already in the first coming of Jesus Christ, and also forward to the glorious “not yet” promised us in Christ’s second and final coming. So I agree heartily with what Fr. Rob said to us on Advent 1. Advent is not merely a passage to be got through between Thanksgiving and Christmas, a path by way of too much Christmas shopping from one turkey dinner to the next (though to be sure, as an English traditionalist I eat goose at Christmas). No. Advent is actually the season that speaks most directly and plainly to where we really are now. “You were saved in hope,” is the way St Paul puts it (Rom. 8:24), and much of the rest of his correspondence says in effect, “so act like it!” Act as if you really were expecting “a new heavens and a new earth,” as 2 Peter puts it, “the abode of justice” (3:13).

And so we come to this particular morning in this particular place, where a courageous young woman does act in this way. She places her hope in God and commits herself to live in personal poverty—poverty of spirit and simplicity of life; to celibacy; and to a life of obedience, praying that her will may be in harmony with God’s will. All this she attempts for the sake of God’s kingdom and in fellowship with her sisters, other brave women who long ago made this same commitment, as well as in fellowship with still others who have gone before them through the centuries—Hilda of Whitby, Teresa of Ávila, Constance and her Companions, and thousands more.

My friends, what better witness could we have than this of what it means to be what we are all called to be—Advent people, people who look for the coming grace of God?

I’m a Londoner as you know (to be precise, a cockney and proud of it), and I remember once a little cockney Franciscan being asked what was the point of what we call “the religious life”. What did he, as a Franciscan monk, actually do? Since his was a life of service, he could have named many things that he did, but what he actually chose was this.

“Look,” he said, “you know everyone’s supposed to say their prayers, don’t you?”


“Well they don’t always do it, do they?”

“Er—no. I suppose not.”

“Well then, we says ’em for ’em!”

Sister Hannah and her sisters will certainly receive personal gifts of spiritual enrichment through their commitment to the religious life, as do we all for our attempts at faith, love and obedience. But that’s just a side effect. The Sisters and their fellow religious throughout the world don’t actually do what they do for their own enrichment at all. They do what they do for God’s kingdom and for us, for the sake of the world, which God loved so much that he gave His Only Begotten Son to die for it.

So let us, people of the Advent in this third Sunday of Advent, rejoice in our fellowship with these gallant ladies and today especially with Sister Hannah, as they bear their witness to us and for us. Let us pray for grace ourselves to bear that witness with them, in our own way and according to our own calling. And let us now and always joyfully confess the faith that we all share, as the church has taught us.

We believe in One God…

[1] The Reverend Dr Rebecca Abts Wright, C. K. Benedict Professor of Old Testament and Biblical Hebrew at The School of Theology of The University of the South in Sewanee.

[2] While the Book of Isaiah as a whole is surely marked by a distinct theological and even to some extent literary unity, it remains that there are also within it distinctions of tone and apparent situation that persuade many (me among them) that it actually contains the work of three prophets over a considerable period of time. Simplifying considerably, one may reasonably speak of an eighth century “First Isaiah”, who lived and prophesied in Jerusalem before the exile and was largely responsible for our Isaiah 1-39; a “Second Isaiah” (or “Isaiah of Babylon”) who lived in Babylon near the end of the exile and was responsible for Isaiah 40-55; and a “Third Isaiah” who was in Jerusalem at a time when, following Cyrus’ edict of 538 (see Ezra 5.13-15, 6:3-12), the exiles were able to return, and whose prophesies are largely reflected in Isaiah 56-66. In view of the connections between them, it is quite possible that Second Isaiah was Third Isaiah’s master and teacher (see e.g. Claus Westermann, Isaiah 40-66, D. M. G. Stalker, transl. [London: SCM 1969 (1966)] 366). According to this view our first reading this morning is from Third Isaiah, but the Baptist in our gospel passage is alluding to Second Isaiah. All that granted, of course neither John the Baptist nor the Evangelist knew any of it, and I doubt they would have cared if they had. The important point for their purpose, and as it happens for mine too, was that they all were talking about God’s forgiveness, God’s grace, God’s Jubilee, which they believed themselves called on to proclaim.

[3] This was original sense of English “comfort” (from Latin confortare: con intensive + fortis) which carried meanings such as, “to strengthen; to encourage; to support; to invigorate” as late as 1674 (see OED “Comfort v.”). So in 1611 when King James’ translators chose it, it was an excellent translation of the Hebrew נַחֲמוּ. Thus, one may note, the “comfortable words” in the Eucharistic Rite of various versions of The Book of Common Prayer (beginning with 1549) are clearly intended to invigorate God’s people, not merely to give them a consoling pat on the head!

Saint Nicholas of Myra: text of a sermon preached by Robert MacSwain in the Chapel of the Apostles on the 6th December 2017

For the Proper: Proverbs 19:17, 20-23, Psalm 145:8-13, 1 John 4:7-14, Mark 10:13-16


You disgust me. How can you live with yourself?

You sit on a throne of lies.

You’re a fake.

You stink. You smell like beef and cheese.

You don’t smell like Santa.

Yes, the classic “You Sit on a Throne of Lies” scene from the great 2003 film Elf, starring Will Farrell as Buddy, the human being who grew up at the North Pole believing himself to be one of Santa’s elves—despite the fact that he’s twice as big as everyone else.

In this famous scene he unmasks—or rather un-beards—a department store Santa as an imposter, not the real Santa Claus at all, whom Buddy of course knows personally. But while Buddy’s righteous anger at the hapless impersonator is certainly amusing, to me this scene is not quite as funny as Buddy’s unfortunate later encounter with a very pre-Game of Thrones Peter Dinklage as a children’s book author whom Buddy innocently calls an “angry elf” with calamitous results.

Now, if Dr King were preaching on St Nicholas of Myra, I’m sure he would tell us all about the actual history of this fourth-century bishop who was born in modern-day Turkey, persecuted under Emperor Diocletian, attended the Council of Nicaea (where according to tradition he was so angry at Arius that he slapped him), who was famous for his pastoral concern for the poor and vulnerable, whose generosity gave rise to many pious stories and legends, and who later became the patron saint of children, students, sailors, brewers…among other occupations…as well as various cities and countries. St Nicholas actually made the news earlier this year when archeologists announced that they may have found his intact tomb in Myra, where he was bishop, rather than Bari in Italy where it was long thought his relics had been taken. But wherever his remains lie, Nicholas died on December the 6th in 343, so today marks the one thousand six hundred and seventy-fourth anniversary of his death.

St Nicholas is often valorized as someone who combined a firm commitment to economic justice with a rigorous doctrinal orthodoxy. Hence our texts from Proverbs—“Whoever is kind to the poor lends to the LORD” (a remarkable thought!)—and the First Letter of John, which explains how the eternal love of God became incarnate in Jesus (paradigmatically, the first Christmas present): “God’s love was revealed among us in this way: God sent his only Son into the world so that we might live through him.”

So there is indeed much of value to be said about Nicholas. But as a mere theologian rather than a church historian, my primary interest this morning is focused less on the historical St Nicholas of Myra as on the figure he later became, namely Santa Claus. And, in particular, the way in which in popular culture the disputed existence of Santa Claus is often used—more or less obviously—as a proxy for debates about the existence of God.

This sotto voce association between God and Santa goes back at least to 1897, with Francis Pharcellus Church’s famous editorial, originally titled “Is There a Santa Claus?”, responding to a letter from eight year-old Virginia O’Hanlon. Virginia wrote that some of her “little friends” disbelieved in Santa and thus asked the newspaper editor if he was real. The first two paragraphs of Church’s response go like this:

Virginia, your little friends are wrong. They have been affected by the skepticism of a skeptical age. They do not believe except they see. They think that nothing can be which is not comprehensible by their little minds. All minds, Virginia, whether they be men’s or children’s, are little. In this great universe of ours man is a mere insect, an ant, in his intellect, as compared with the boundless world about him, as measured by the intelligence capable of grasping the whole of truth and knowledge.

Yes, Virginia, there is a Santa Claus. He exists as certainly as love and generosity and devotion exist, and you know that they abound and give to your life its highest beauty and joy. Alas! how dreary would be the world if there were no Santa Claus. It would be as dreary as if there were no Virginias. There would be no childlike faith then, no poetry, no romance to make tolerable this existence. We should have no enjoyment, except in sense and sight. The eternal light with which childhood fills the world would be extinguished.

Now the great irony here is that Church himself was a skeptic and atheist, but when confronted with a question from an eight year-old he could not bring himself to speak what he regarded as the real truth to poor little Virginia: namely that there is no Santa, we’re all going to die, and life is ultimately meaningless. And thus despite his personal cynicism Church wrote what has become, according to the Newseum in Washington, DC, “history’s most reprinted newspaper editorial, appearing in part or whole in dozens of languages in books, movies, and other editorials, and on posters and stamps.”

Although it is never cited directly, basically the same perspective as Church’s editorial forms the basis of the classic 1947 film Miracle on 34th Street, in which a man calling himself Kris Kringle and claiming to the one true Santa Claus meets a divorcée named Doris (played by Maureen O’Hara) and her daughter Susan (played by a young Natalie Wood). Early in the film, Doris’s love-interest Fred is shocked to discover that Doris is raising Susan to be completely rationalistic in her approach to life. So Fred asks Doris, “No Santa Claus, no fairy tales, no fantasies of any kind. Is that it?” And Doris replies, rather briskly: “That’s right. I think we should be realistic and completely truthful with our children, and not have them growing up believing in a lot of legends and myths, like Santa Claus for example.”

Doris is thus deeply distressed to discover that Mr. Kringle, the kindly old man who looks just like Santa Claus, thinks he really is Santa Claus. Her only conclusion is that he must be crazy—so he is institutionalized in a mental hospital. Fred, a lawyer, takes it upon himself to get him out, which means proving in court that Mr. Kringle is not crazy after all. When Doris and Fred have a big argument about all this, Fred echoes Church’s editorial: “Faith [he says] is believing in things when common sense tells you not to….[Things like] Kindness and joy and love and all the other intangibles” that make life meaningful.

My third and final example is the film I began with, Elf. We are told at the start of the movie that Santa’s whole mission of toy delivery is in grave danger. Santa’s sleigh flies on “Christmas spirit” (let the reader understand) and when “Christmas spirit” runs out due to general cynicism and skepticism, the sleigh is grounded. Each year fewer and fewer people believe in Santa, which has created a serious energy crisis. But if enough people do believe in Santa, the sleigh will fly and presents will be delivered. However, such belief cannot be based on empirical evidence: as Santa says to a little boy in the film, “Christmas spirit is about believing, not seeing. If the whole world saw me all would be lost.”

Now my point here is the simple observation that in Church’s editorial, in the debates between Fred and Doris in Miracle on 34th Street, and in the lack of “Christmas spirit” in Elf, the real topic being discussed, if only subliminally, is not in fact Santa Claus but God. It is God who has been placed in the mental asylum of our intellectual culture, God whose sanity must be questioned within the court of common sense, God whose existence must be justified—if at all—not through hardheaded reason and empirical observation but through…what? What precisely is the operative epistemology at work here in Church’s editorial and these films?

Well, at best it seems to be simple unquestioning faith, but at worst it seems to be merely pragmatic sentimentality and nostalgia for the naivety of childhood. We live in a dry and disenchanted age: our culture has fallen away from genuine religious belief, but we’re still worried enough about our skepticism that the question keeps emerging in rhetoric about “Christmas spirit”: apparently belief in God is like belief in Santa Claus—both are equally crazy or unfounded, but well…who cares? We’ll never know anyway. So pass the eggnog and keep the season bright.

At this point in my sermon I turn somewhat desperately to the thus-far-neglected gospel lesson,

When what to my wondering eyes should be seen

But Mark, Chapter ten, beginning with verse thirteen:

People were bringing little children to Jesus in order that he might touch them; and the disciples spoke sternly to them. But when Jesus saw this, he was indignant and said to them, “Let the little children come to me; do not stop them; for it is to such as these that the kingdom of God belongs. Truly I tell you, whoever does not receive the kingdom of God as a little child will never enter it.” And he took them up in his arms, laid his hands on them, and blessed them.

Well, by St. Nicholas, I have to admit that this is not quite the operative epistemology that I was hoping for. Doesn’t all this “receive the kingdom of God as a little child” business play right into the hands of the sentimental cynicism that I’ve been tracking since 1897? Or is all that stuff sentimental cynicism after all? I mean, what’s the difference between Santa’s response to the boy in Elf—“Christmas spirit is about believing, not seeing”—and Jesus’ response to Thomas, “Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have come to believe”?

We need to tread carefully here, because what might not be good reasons to believe in “Christmas spirit” might actually be good reasons to believe in God or the resurrected Christ. Whether or not it is rational to believe something depends partly on the object of belief and not just on the offered reasons. These are dark and difficult matters. But there is an important difference between, say, Church’s editorial and Mark’s gospel, on how they view the crucial perspective of children.

The world to which Jesus belonged did not value childhood as such, which is why the disciples tried to discourage the parents from bringing their children to Jesus, and so in his words and actions Jesus offers a profound transformation of values: there is something, he says, essential to the character of a child that is necessary for those who would belong to the kingdom of God. So what is it?

I suggest that the childlike character Jesus endorses here is being open and receptive to the Word of God and the Gospel of Christ. The technical term for this in Catholic theology is docility: according to Thomas Aquinas, docility is part of prudence, and is a moral and intellectual virtue necessary for us to learn anything new from a parent or teacher: children and students without docility cannot learn and grow in knowledge. Jesus is not telling us to be child-ish, but he is telling us to be child-like, docile, “for it is to such as these that the kingdom of God belongs.”

By contrast, 1800 years later, Francis Church has a wildly exaggerated view of the importance of childhood: without the innocence of Virginia and her little friends, he says, “The eternal light with which childhood fills the world would be extinguished.” But now childhood itself, rather than Christ, has become the light of the world. And yet in making this claim Church is himself in bad faith: he doesn’t believe what he is telling Virginia, and in fact when the editorial was originally published he refused to print his name with it so it appeared anonymously.

We are called to be a different Church than Church. The light we proclaim is not the light of childhood but the light of Christ. The Spirit we proclaim is not the “Christmas spirit” but the Holy Spirit, for by this “we know that we abide in him and he in us, because he has given us of his Spirit.” And we prove ourselves to be true venerators of St Nicholas of Myra by our compassionate generosity to the poor and vulnerable, the weak and the oppressed, those without voice or agency.

But maybe, just maybe, instead of slapping heretics, tempting as that might be, perhaps we should instead follow Buddy’s friendlier example, reach out our arms and ask them: “Does someone need a hug?” (But remember: if they say no then leave them alone!)