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Michaelmas 2018-19

Regular services: The Cambridge Mission will be celebrating the Holy Communion from Divine Worship: The Missal at St Edmund’s College Chapel as a Sunday Vigil on Saturdays at 4.40pm on a regular basis during Term. Wine afterwards in the SCR, by all means followed by a group excursion to a pub on Mount Pleasant. For Michaelmas 2018-19 this means from 29th September through to 1st December. Lent and Easter Term dates will be provided in due course.

Additional services: Will be announced as and when and added to the list below.

  • Monday 24th September – Sung Mass for Solemnity of Our Lady of Walsingham, Fisher House, 6pm. Celebrant: Fr Allen Brent. Fr Simon Chinery in quire.
  • 9th October – John Henry Newman, a simple gathering for Evensong from the Customary 
  • 8th November – All Saints of England, Sung Eucharist, Fisher House, 5.30pm. Celebrant: Fr Thomas Mason.

More dates for the diary:

Choral Evensong at Christ’s. On 21st October at 6pm, the curate from the Other Place’s Ordinariate Mission, Revd Dr Michael Ward, is preaching at Christ’s College Chapel. Do come along to hear him.

Apologia (a Fisher House apologetics and social event) on the evening of 6th November will be a talk by Fr James Bradley on Our Lady. Fr Bradley is a priest of the Ordinariate at Holy Family church, Southampton, and is chaplain to the University of Southampton.

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Homily, First Sunday of Advent

A sermon preached by the Rev’d Professor Allen Brent in St Edmund’s College Chapel, First Sunday of Advent 2018

We begin this Sunday the season of Advent in which we reflect on Death, Judgement and the Future Life, and on Advent 1 in particular, in the context of Christ’s Second Coming to Judge the world. The gospel passage that we have just heard read, about staying alert, is about Christ’s coming to judge the world. The passage occurs in the apocalyptic sections of the synoptic gospels.

Jesus prophesies his second coming as the Son of Man. That figure, in Jewish literature, was not a human being of flesh and blood, but a supernatural figure who appears in glory at the end of time, attended by the host of angels, to judge the world, before whose awful presence the stars are swept away, with the sun becoming darkened and the moon turning into blood. The powers of nature are shaken and all things collapse into the primeval chaos, with the stars falling, with natural disasters, with the very powers of nature being shaken. And into this scene of chaos, of a nature without life or order as it had been before God spoke in creation, the Son of Man comes to create the cosmos anew and eternally.

It is important to note that this scene is not one of destruction but of re-creation. Many images of creation in the Old Testament do not describe God creating out of nothing, but of a struggle between a God of love and of order seeking to order a primeval chaos of disorder and destruction. The earth was ‘waste and void’ as the Spirit of God brooded over the face of the waters nurturing life and order over their raging and destructive storm. And the human imagination had constructed mythological symbols of this conflict between life and order and chaos and destruction in term of a Chaos Dragon, Tiamat whom God slays and from her carcass creates the world. And apocalyptic literature describes the whole of nature and of human society collapsing into its original chaos before creation. These symbols taken from a mythical past, in the apocalyptic imagination, come to express an imminent historical future. The powers of nature would be shaken, stars fall, the sun is darkened, the moon turns to blood, dragons and other kinds of beasts arise out of the depths of a storm tossed and chaotic ocean, and all things return to their original disorder and chaos. And so the Son of Man comes, not simply to judge, but to create the world anew.

So often Christ’s judgement of the world has been literally understood, and the words of the apocalypses are taken or try to be taken literally, by many sectarian groups. Christ’s second coming in glory to judge the world has been represented as the fulfilment of events prophesied that will play themselves out like a disaster movie.

But the description of Christ’s coming and the final judgement are not to be read as a disaster movie at the end of which heroes and heroines are rescued. Christ’s judgement of the world is part of the mystery of death, judgement, and the future life, a mystery that we seek to grasp by means of shadows and images, by means of parables and allegories.

There is a parallel to be drawn between the end of the world’s history and the end of our personal history for both are concerned with death, judgement and the future life. Both are about when time itself comes to an end, rather than any moment in time. They are about timeless moments in which past, present and future become fused into one. They are about passing from the present and temporal into the eternal, they are about what a young German Catholic theologian of the nineteen seventies named Joseph Ratzinger described as the ‘transformation of time.’ For Christ’s judgement of the world, according to St John, is something that begins in the present, that is beginning to take place in the here and now, in which Christ the light of the world shines in the darkness, and in which those of the light come to his light, and those of the darkness shun his light, and the sheep and the goats begin in the here and now to separate themselves from each other. The judgement is no longer wholly future but has begun to take place in the present. The mystery of the last things, whether of the death at our personal end or at the end of the world’s history is a mystery that hangs over our lives in the present ‘now.’

The imagery of apocalyptic events expressed one great truth, one great human intuition, and that was that the forces of chaos and randomness were not destined in the end to prevail, that Christ’s presence in his world would re-order all things anew. How he will do this is part of the mystery of creation, of its fall and renewal. But does not this also parallel our personal existence and the end of our individual life? We blossom and flourish and enjoy a life of order and well being, but that is destined to break up, in Shakespeare’s immortal description of the seven ages of man, at the end of ‘this strange eventful history, is second childishness and mere oblivion, sans teeth, sans eyes, sans taste, sans everything.’ Our individual nature breaks up like the created order of the apocalypse, descending once again into a primeval chaos. And what our belief in the life everlasting testifies too, is our conviction, deep rooted in our human intuition, that the forces of randomness and chaos will not have the last word, will not finally prevail.

Human beings, in the mystery of this life of ours and the human drama that is being played out are neither angels nor daemons. For all the ghastly wrong that human beings do, we cannot concede that anyone is beyond redemption, that there is anyone that cannot choose life rather than death, heaven rather than hell. Neither angels nor daemons we live out the mystery of this life of ours, between life and death, heaven and hell, struggling against judgement and death and its chaos, and seeking life, healing and eternity.

And our future hope is for final redemption in the Christ who has come and who will come, who bears the scars of Calvary through which he has vanquished death and chaos, and who comes to us as the Alpha and the Omega, our beginning and our end, at the end of our personal history and at the end of human history.

May God give us grace to meet Christ in his coming to us.

 

Homily, Christ the King 2018 (Year B)

A sermon preached by the Revd Professor Allen Brent in St Edmund’s College Chapel, Christ the King, Year B

Today we celebrate the end of the Church’s year with the festival of Christ the King, celebrating Christ’s final coming as king of the nations and Lord of the ages. The image of Christ the King, and the Last Judgement is expressed starkly in Matthew’s parable of the Sheep and the Goats. Here the King presides at the seat of judgement, sending those whom he judges off on his right hand or his left as his judgement separated the sheep from the goats.

But this is not the scene with which we end this Liturgical year in St John’s gospel this evening.. The scene for this year’s lectionary is of Christ the King, in chains before the judgement seat of Pontius Pilate, Pontius Pilate, representative of Rome’s imperial power over the nations of the world. Jesus stands before him, not as judge and ruler of the world and of the ages but as the man of Galilee, in weakness and in defeat. How many pretenders to a crown, how many rebels against Roman rule, had stood in that position before a Roman emperor or before a magistrate that represented his imperial power? What kind of king was this?

And in this scene, St John reveals the nature of Jesus’ kingship and its contrast with the kingship of this world. It is a nettle grasped in the Fourth Gospel that the Synoptic Gospels, the first three Gospels, prefer to circumvent. These gospels repeat often Jesus claim to be Son of Man and Messiah but only use the title of ‘king’ once in the words written above the cross by the mob. But St John admits that Jesus fled from the crowds after the Feeding of the Five Thousand because he feared that they would come and make him a king by force. And so Christ as Christ the King, according to St John, now before Pilate declares the character of his kingship.

Jesus declares that his kingdom is not of this world otherwise his servants would fight that he be not arrested. And in perplexity Pilate, with all the cunning of political debate and the art of forensic rhetoric replies in triumph ‘ah, not of this world then…. So you are a king?’ Brilliant cross examination, brilliant eliciting of an admission of guilt. But the man of Galilee, in weakness and in defeat, responds ‘for this purpose I was born, for this I came into the world, that I might bear witness to the truth- all who are of the truth hear my voice.’ It now becomes clear and Jesus makes his case. His kingdom is not of this world, he is from a higher world where truth is found, where the unchanging realities of truth and goodness are to be found, only to be poorly reflected in this transient and changing world of sense and of sight. He is the king of that true and real world that he brings into this world of time and space, of sense and sight. And all who are of that world, where true and sure, unchanging realities are found, hear his voice.

And Pilate, with a politician’s contempt of anything that is not practical cynicism, sneeringly asks ‘what is truth,’ and turns his back on Jesus. And in so doing he turns his back on him who is the Way, the Truth, and the Life.

And it is here that we experience St John’s highly developed sense of irony.

For Pilate throughout has thought that he is the judge. He is here now passing sentence upon Jesus before him in bonds. But what he has just done is not judge Jesus, not passed sentence upon him, but rather he has judged, he has sentenced himself. He has seen the light of the world, and turned his back on him who is the way, the truth, and the life. It is Jesus who is working his judgement of the world in this scene.

In St John’s gospel it is made clear that the coming of the kingdom of God is not wholly future. Jesus continually talks about ‘judgement,’ ‘being lifted up or exalted’, ‘being glorified.’ But the Christ of the Fourth Gospel claims that the judgement of the world is not wholely future, it is beginning now in the present. Jesus judged the world, not by raising his voice and majestically condemning or acquitting, but by his presence. The light shines in the darkness, but the darkness cannot overwhelm it. Jesus claims not to judge, yet human beings are judged by their reaction to the Light of the World, the Word made flesh walking amongst them. As the light shines in the darkness, so those who hate the light flee from it, those of the light come to the light. The Great Assize, the separation of sheep and goats does not simply take place on the Last Day. It is happening now before our eyes, in the present. Jesus speaks of the ‘hour that is now come for the Son of Man to be glorified.’ It is now that the ‘prince of this world will be cast out.’ Not once for all at some final judgement day but now that process is beginning, already it has become to happen. And that happens when Jesus power and glory shines forth from the cross.

In the Fourth Gospel, when Jesus speaks, groups begin to form in perplexity and make various and different responses that forever misunderstands or understands only partially the claim that Jesus makes.

Jesus frequently makes the claim that the Son of Man must be lifted up, or the Son of Man must be glorified. And the Jews in perplexed exasperation frequently ask the puzzled question, what do these words mean, who is this Son of Man. The Son of Man must be ‘glorified,’’ will come with clouds and great glory on the Last Day. The Son of Man must ‘be lifted up.’ Of course, on the Last Day, Christ will be exalted, the Ruler of the Nations, Christ the King. But St John makes clear that Christ’s coming is not wholly future, it begins now. And at the last Christ was to be seen in weakness and defeat, finally a bloody dying figure ‘lifted up’ upon a cross. And if we have eyes to see it, this is the beginning of his victory, of his glory, and of his reign. Is the human reaction to turn away in disgust or contempt? Or is it to grasp the mystery and fall down on our feet in worship and adoration. The cross judges us, you see, and we sentence ourselves by the way that we respond.

‘If I be lifted up from the earth, I will draw all people unto me.’ The Son of Man would gather the elect on the last day. But when we lift up the cross as this triumphant sign, when we proclaim Jesus’ real presence in the bread and wine of our sacramental life and in the waters of baptism, then we come, from all nations and all culture, to the banquet that is the Mass that is the foretaste of the marriage supper of the Lamb, the Kingdom prepared for all human kind.

May Christ give us his grace to welcome his coming to us at this Advent and Christmas.

 

Sermon for 33rd Sunday in Ordinary Time (Trinity XXIV) – Year B

A sermon preached by the Revd Professor Allen Brent in St Edmund’s College Chapel, 33rd in Ordinary Time, Year B

Jesus’ claim to be the Son of Man was a radical claim. But we have since the second century grossly misunderstood what Jesus meant when he called himself the ‘Son of Man.’ So often we interpret this term as referring to our Lord’s humanity, as in the hymn ‘where cross the crowded streets of life where sound the noise of race and clan, above the noise of selfish strife, we see thy face O Son of Man.’ And we see that face ‘in haunts of wretchedness and need, on shadowed thresholds fraught with fears’ and so on.’ The Son of Man has become for us a description of our Lord as a man amongst men.

But for Jesus’ contemporaries the Son of Man was not a man amongst men. The Son of Man was rather a figure that would come from the open heaven at the world’s end, sitting on a throne, with clouds and great glory. Before his awful presence the sun would be darkened and the moon and the stars flee away. And on his throne of glory he would judge the nations. According to Mark’s account of Jesus’ trial, the cause of his judgement according to Jewish Law was not that he claimed to be the Messiah, who would be born as a man amongst men but for his claim ‘Hereafter you will see the Son of Man, seated at the right hand of power, and coming on the clouds of heaven.

St Justin Martyr is responsible for one of the greatest distortions of the Christian hope of Christ’s coming. Justin is responsible for a sharp dichotomy found also in a Cramnerian prayer that contrasts Christ’s first coming in lowly humility but his second coming in glorious majesty.

Christ’s second coming in glory to judge the world has been represented as the fulfilment of events prophesied that will play themselves out like a disaster movie. How I recall my misspent youth at the age of 14 in the derelict streets of the East End of London, reading avidly sectarian tracts assuring me that the Rapture will soon take place, in which Christ’s true believers, his true church, would be snatched away before the tribulation woes that would befall the world, enabling us to return with him triumphantly in glory once those woes were past. The prophecies of Daniel could be ransacked with clues about what was going on between Israel and the Arabs in the Near East, the Suez crisis had that eschatological significance, but they were clearly events of this order of time and space. It would all unravel like a disaster movie.

But Mark reminds us that the description of Christ’s coming and the final judgement are not to be read as a disaster movie at the end of which heroes and heroines are rescued. Our meeting with God and with Christ is not here literally described, nor are their formal judgement.  Christ reads his claims in the parable of the fig tree, and speaks of an event that is not in this temporal order of things. All these events are veiled in parable and in imagery that contains a mystery, and are, like the events of our personal life and death, are veiled in mystery.

If the final judgement is when time ends then it cannot take place in time like the events of a disaster movie. In a sense it is a parallel not a substitute for the end of our personal history at our death. Like the end of our personal history, the world end is a timeless moment, a moment when past, present, and future become fused into one in the mystery of faith where we walk by faith and not by sight. It is the kind of experience into which we enter when we enter into the liturgy of the Mass. For here too, in the celebration of the Eucharist, past, present and future merge mysteriously into one. We sing the Gloria (though not in advent), the song of the angels at Christ’s birth, we sing the agnus dei with John the Baptist at the beginning of Christ’s ministry, we join with the crowds on Palm Sunday when we sing ‘blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord.’ We recall the words of Christ at the Last Supper, proclaim his death and resurrection and his coming again. Here Bethlehem, the Triumphal Entry, the Last Supper, the events of the cross and resurrection are, in the mystery of faith, fused into one. Before the 4th century, every Sunday was a celebration of Bethlehem, Palm Sunday, Maundy Thursday, Good Friday and Easter, before the Church engaged in the process that Dix once described as ‘the sanctification of time.’ Liturgical moments are timeless moments in which past, present and future are, in mystery, fused into one, and the hour of our death and the hour of the end of human history is such a moment.

Such an experience of liturgical time is a human and not simply a Christian experience. The Australian Aboriginal experience of the dream time, where the participant on retreat in the dessert believes that he meets with his ancestors is an experience of past, present and future fused into one.

And whether we view the end of our personal history, or of the end of the world’s history, the Biblical imagery of the apocalyptic drama  surely correspond with a deeply felt human intuition, that the forces of randomness and chaos will not have the last word, whether at our personal end or that of the world and of history.

May God give us grace to grasp this life of ours, and the mystery in which it is given to us.

Sermon for 32nd Sunday in Ordinary Time (Trinity XXIV) – Year B

A sermon preached by the Revd Professor Allen Brent in St Edmund’s College Chapel, 32nd in Ordinary Time, Year B

Our Lord focuses on the widow who gives all the wealth that she has in her Temple offering to God. And at the centre of our faith stand symbols of the offerings of the poor and how precious they are in God’s sight. Those offerings give us images of God’s free and unqualified love, where nothing is held back, Christ’s emptying of himself, making himself a thing of no reputation, born in the poverty of a Jewish refugee family. It is not accidental therefore that our Catholic Lectionary conjoins the theme of this self-offering with Christ’s sacrifice on our behalf, offered once and for all and for ever, whose fruits endure eternally through the eternal high priest who has thus offered himself: this was the theme of the Epistle this evening.

At the offertory we mix wine with water on the symbolism of which there has been much reflection and much meditation, and it is here well to make the point that no one interpretation ever exhausts the meaning of a symbolic ritual act. Does not the act of mixing water and wine commemorate the blood and water that flowed from our saviour’s side when pierced by the centurion’s lance? Well, yes. But there is more, and there are other features of what comes down to us in the Catholic Church of the world and of the ages.

In the third century, the Church’s liturgy was still in embryonic form, taking root and finding its form in the divine society protected by the divine grace of the Petrine ministry. The offertory process then was somewhat different from what we have developed and also since the second Vatican council partially and perhaps in token restored. Before communion wafers and wine were provided by the funds of the community as a whole, individual members of the Laity brought up their own bread and wine. These they brought, in order to be received by the deacons and consecrated by the priest-bishop. The Laity in its entirety all collectively formed the offertory procession. Indeed, one expression for being ‘in communion’ was ‘to join the procession.’ In the legend of Hippolytus that depicts him as a convert from the Novatian schism, celebrated in Pope Damasus’ great epigraph, depicted Novatian as having to choose ‘in what procession he was to process’ the Novatian or the Catholic procession. Indeed, when St. Ambrose excommunicated the emperor Theodosius the actual form that his excommunication took Ambrose makes clear. He says to the emperor in one address, that if Theodosius does not appear as a penitent, then ‘you will process with your gift to the altar and the priest will refuse your gift.’ To be ‘in communion’ was to be in the procession with your gifts of bread and wine for which you sought consecration.

In that procession, bearing the gifts of bread and wine of their own providing, came increasingly the great and the good, the powerful and the cultured, and the wealthy, as the conversion of the empire progressed. But since the second century and even earlier there were widows in the procession, whose widowhood had produced destitution and who formed the first religious orders. But there were orphans too, and the poor in their hopelessness and helplessness. In St Paul’s words, ‘not many wise…, not many mighty, not many noble, are called…’ And I never cease to be moved to tears by that list of names of whom we know very little of those who bore them, the early bishops of Rome, Peter, Linus, Cletus, Anancletus, Sixtus, Eleutherius.. Who on earth were the majority of them. But all that we know about them is that their names were often slaves names. Eleutherius is clearly a freed slave released from his slavery, he is, in Greek, ἐλευθεριος. And Anacletus means, literally, ‘blameless (ἄναγκλητος).’ It was the sort of name you would give to a slave as you gave him his new name, and said ‘this is how I want you to be as my slave, blameless.’ That those names were Greek for the most part and not Latin speaks eloquently of their social class: not many wise…, not many mighty, not many noble, are called…’

They all began their Christian lives in the procession, bringing up their bread and wine for consecration before their ordination. And with them, in a world in which people died early, parents as well as children, there was a multitude of orphans. They came with their bread, but they were children, without money and resources with which to buy wine. So in their jar there was not wine but water. The Church did not reject their offering of water, they took it and mixed it with wine to become Christ’s true blood with their bread his true body. The offerings of the poor are precious in God’s sight: they are to be accepted and honoured. The widow’s mite prevails as an image of self-giving love.

Homily for 8 November 2018, All Saints of England

Homily for 8 November 2018, All Saints of England.

Celebrant and preacher: Rev’d. Thomas Mason. 

“Let us now praise famous men, and our fathers in their generations.”

What an odd feast we have today. A week ago we gathered, along with all faithful Catholics, and we celebrated All Saints’ Day – those thousands of men and women, both known and unknown, whose co-operation with the work of God in their lives meant that, the course of their earthly life completed, they could and did enter directly into heaven and now reign in glory with Christ. Having done that, why would we suddenly narrow down our vision and just look at those around us? Plus, this is England – solid protestant England – this isn’t really a land of saints, is it?

gospel

Today’s feast reminds us of a powerful truth of the incarnation – that our religion is one which has space for both the universal and the particular. Yes, our eternal commonwealth is in heaven; yes, our identity as Catholic must come before any narrower identity, including our nationality. But, at the same time, we are born into a family, or rather into a set of families because it does not merely mean our parents, siblings, and so forth. We have a wider family including the family of our nation. Catholicism is not a religion which denies our nationhood; rather it calls on us to see it through the prism of Christ and his love for all. A proper and properly formed patriotism is not merely legitimate; ultimately is part of the fulfilment of the fourth commandment, to honour our fathers and mothers.

This, of course, does not admit of blindness, whether to claim the rightness of England’s cause regardless how far from the truth she has strayed; or to claim the wickedness and perfidy of others, simply because they are other. All have a claim on our love and charity; but those of our own greater family do have a particular claim. So whilst we honour all of the Saints who ever trod this vale of tears, we are right to recall those closest to us. This is not something peculiar to the Ordinariate either, I’m delighted to see at least one Dominican here. Yesterday the Dominicans celebrated this same feast within their family, the Order of Preachers; and many other religious families do the same.

But my second question remains – England? Formerly protestant and now sæcular England? A land of Saints?

I dare to suggest that the Catholic Church is this land seems at times to have forgotten its former glory here. I speak within a building dedicated to the memory of S. John Fisher, in his time both Vice Chancellor and Chancellor of this university; canonised with S. Thomas More, erstwhile Lord Chancellor of England. Then there’s the forty martyrs, canonised as recently as 1970. All of these are worthy of our love and veneration, I admit to a particular fondness for S. Edmund Campion, a fellow convert from Anglicanism. But dig a little deeper and a magnificent treasure-trove will be uncovered.

In this place it would be improper not to mention S. Felix, founder of the See of East Anglia. to whom, I am sure, Bishop Alan, now gloriously reigning as his successor, often turns in prayer. Being in Cambridge I also could not fail to mention S. Frideswide, having founded a convent, she was pursued with nefarious intent by a local noble, Algar. She responded by striking him blind to preserve her purity. She lived out a life of prayer and penance in the convent she founded on the banks of the Isis, and so now bestows her heavenly intercession on the great city and university of Oxford of which she is patroness. Just down the road from here the great ship of the fens, arose out of the monastery founded by S. Etheldreda.

Some have had major national influence; S. Hilda and S. Wilfrid encouraging us to adopt Roman practices such as the date of Easter. S. Edward the Confessor, sitting on the throne for over twenty years and founding Westminster Abbey (yet, somehow, only an optional memorial in our national calendar). S. Thomas Becket whose martyrdom shocked the whole of Europe, and whose shrine was one of the busiest pilgrimage destinations in the whole of Christendom. S. Bede the Venerable, populariser of the calendrical division into B.C. and A.D. – a system now used throughout the world.

incense

Below these A-listers, a vast plethora of locals; most now lost to our memory, or preserved only in the prefix “Saint” added to a town – S. Edmundsbury, S. Neots, S. Ives. You don’t have to believe in the story of S. Lucius, a king of the Britons who appealed for help from Pope S. Eleutherius in spreading the Gospel here; you don’t have to, there’s nothing to stop you doing so though. But the simple fact is that we are not short of such saints to celebrate. Today gives us the opportunity to gather them all together, and to recall what this land once was. A great realm of Catholic Christendom, noted throughout Europe for its devotion, given the high honour of being named as Our Lady’s Dowry.

Once was? Whilst it may not be a land over-flowing with saints at the present – we may live in a society where Catholicism seems to be pushed ever more to the margins, where acceptable norms are ever further from what we know to be the truth of the matter – we can also never live in anything other than hope. England in 597 wouldn’t have looked very promising to S. Augustine, but see what he achieved. In the nineteenth century even after centuries of legal suppression, B. John Henry Newman could speak to the Church springing to life again. What could we accomplish in our lives and work? I do not predict that we will see the re-conversion of England, but I know that unless we take this as our aim, then we certainly will not see it. Seeking to draw the whole nation into Christ, and more than that too, to let Christ and his message of truth and love, flow out into every aspect of our nation’s life. In a few weeks’ time we will celebrate the Feast of Christ the King, and there in the preface will speak of the reign of Christ: “a kingdom endless and universal: a kingdom of truth and life; a kingdom of grace and holiness; a kingdom of peace, of love, and of righteousness.”

mass

In this seeking to bring England home, the Saints, our Saints are key. For us the Saints are not historical figures, once alive but now dead. No, though they have passed from this particular life, they remain alive. Indeed they are more truly alive now than they ever were on earth. Everything we do, we do in the company of the Saints, assisted by their fervent prayers, looking to their example. So let us endeavour to join with the Saints. Let us build our friendship with them. Let us ask them to work closely with us. This is how we may praise famous men and our fathers in their generations.

As we used to pray at Benediction each month (and in some places still do):

O merciful God, let the glorious intercession of Thy saints assist us, particularly the most blessed Virgin Mary, Mother of Thy only-begotten Son, and Thy holy Apostles, Peter and Paul, to whose patronage we humbly recommend this country. Be mindful of our fathers, Eleutherius, Celestine, and Gregory, bishops of the Holy City; of Augustine, Columba, and Aidan, who delivered to us inviolate the faith of the Holy Roman Church. Remember our holy martyrs, who shed their blood for Christ: especially our first martyr, Saint Alban, and Thy most glorious bishop, Saint Thomas of Canterbury. Remember all those holy confessors; bishops, and kings, all those holy monks and hermits, all those holy virgins and widows, who made this once an island of saints, illustrious by their glorious merits and virtues. Let not their memory perish from before Thee, O Lord, but let their supplication enter daily into Thy sight; and do Thou, who didst so often spare Thy sinful people for the sake of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, now, also, moved by the prayers of our fathers, reigning with Thee, have mercy upon us, save Thy people, and bless Thy inheritance; and suffer not those souls to perish, which Thy Son hath redeemed with His own most Precious Blood, Who liveth and reigneth with Thee, world without end. Amen.

Sermon for 31st Sunday in Ordinary Time (Trinity XXIII) – Year B

A sermon preached by the Revd Professor Allen Brent in St Edmund’s College Chapel 

Year B, Sunday 31

The great Rabbinic activity in the schools from around 200 AD probably also applies to what was the case in our Lord’s day. Was there a sovereign legal principle that summed up all other laws? The jovial way of putting this is could you sum up the law briefly and quickly standing on one leg? This would indeed be the philosophers stone: to find a fundamental legal principle from which all others could be derived and would test the right of any statute to be ‘really’ law.

One would need to begin with the Shema: Hear O Israel, the Lord your God is one Lord, you shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and all your soul and all your strength. It is a familiar prayer said by faithful Jews three times per day. The Shema reveals a proper attitude to God’s law, that should not be followed resentfully and in frustration, repressing natural drives and instincts, so that the law denies us a true fulfilment of our true humanity. But it hardly generates a formal and universal fundamental legal principle because for what does this lead us to legislate on behalf of others? The quest for the fundamental legal principle was unfinished: it needed to continue.

Our Lord in his humanity continued that search, looking at the morass of legal prescriptions and injunctions in the Pentateuch. And there, in the thick of elaborate commandments about animal sacrifices, lying with women who are betrothed, trespassing on other people’s property he read the words in Leviticus 19:18:

 Thou shalt not avenge, nor bear any grudge against the children of thy people, but thou shalt love thy neighbour as thyself: I am the Lord.

Here then our Lord discovered the complete principle. Love for God demanded love for neighbour. But as a legal principle it had to be practical: you could not hold a grudge against your neighbour and love him: love involves forgiveness.

The prize for one of the most inane comments in human history goes to George Bernard Shaw, the crown achievement of many other similar comments of his. In Major Barbara one of his characters speaks for him on the subject of forgiveness: ‘Forgiveness,’ he says, ‘is a beggar’s refuge, you must pay your way.’ And thus for Shaw there could be no healing in the act of forgiving another, no love in return for having been forgiven so much. Forgiveness can be simply rejected as a beggar’s refuge. Clearly as a good Champagne socialist Shaw hated poverty.

Shaw’s tragedy, I often think, was to have paid so little attention to his classical education.

The legend of Electra is well told by those tragedians, Sophocles and Euripides, and well crafted to their dramatic form by which they explored so sensitively and so perceptibly our human condition. The legend was the legend of Electra, the faithful daughter, who when her father Agamemnon returned from Troy was treacherously slain by her mother, Clytemnestra and her mother’s lover, Aegistheus, slain as he bathed ‘like an ox in a manger.’ And Electra kept the memory of her murdered father alive, praying for justice from the gods and awaiting the return of her brother as the agent of justice, or was it revenge? Not, justice, of course, in view of what had been done to her father murdered by his treacherous wife. And justice, not of course vengeance, comes in the form a messenger bringing the ashes of her dead brother, but the messenger is in disguise, he is Orestes very much alive, who proceeds to avenge his father by killing his mother and Aegisthus.

In Sophocles version of the play, Electra can end by extolling the principle of justice in the cosmos, of all nature finally assuming an order in which everything is equally balanced, in which justices and injustices cancel one another out. But when Euripides retells the story in his tragedy things are quite different. Electra remains the heroine to the last but her final speech reaches a different conclusion to that of Sophocles. Her radiant and righteous countenance, receiving her just reward and seeing her father avenged now becomes hideous and distorted as she meditates on vengeance, and sees the cycle of revenge continuing and overflowing with great joy. And the cycle of revenge does continue, since brother and sister have committed matricide, and for which the Furies, the avenging deities, will now pursue them and the tragedy continues.

Electra emerges as a figure needing to be able to forgive, for the act of forgiveness is as necessary for her healing as it is for she who is to be forgiven. She is caught up in a cycle of revenge, of being sinned against and then sinning. To be healed, to be forgiveness she needs to forgive.

It is of course very difficult, for none of us comes with a clean sheet, because we are all caught up in the web of human existence and human history. It is of course especially difficult when one is called upon to forgive someone who has gratuitously murdered the child whom one loved deeply…. and yet not to forgive is to destroy oneself rather than the person who has done the hideously great wrong. And if one were Jewish and had personal experience of the Holocaust, how can one forgive…. and yet someone did, there is a prayer scratched on the inside of the gas chamber at Belsen and the prayer is that those who have done this will be forgiven.

To resolve conflicts we learned that we have in the end to sit down in the end and negotiate: to replace love for neighbour for hate for one’s enemy. In Iraq, in Afganistan, and between Israel and the Palestinians, with the IRA: final solutions are in the end political and not military. Forgiveness in the end is no beggar’s refuge, however much an extremist might claim as he continues throwing bombs: forgiveness is the only means of healing conflict, of learning to love one’s neighbour as oneself.

This was a truth that the great Anglican Archbishop, Desmond Tutu taught us when the South African government appointed him to head up the Truth and Reconciliation commission. The condition for which amnesty was to be given was a complete owning up, you could not cover up, you had honestly to confess, to use a very Catholic word and context, truthfully what one had done. Here was no post modernist view that all truth is constructed so that you can reconstruct the situation in anyway that one wants. Truth was part of forgiveness and part of the healing that forgiveness brings.

As St Francis said in Lord, make me a channel of your peace

For it is by pardoning that we are pardoned.

It is by forgiving that we are forgiven.

It is by dying that one awakens to Eternal Life.

Sermon for 30th Sunday in Ordinary Time (Trinity XXII) – Year B

A sermon preached by the Revd Professor Allen Brent in St Edmund’s College Chapel 

Year B, Sunday 30

Mark 10

The story of Bartimaeus is the story of a persistent beggar who makes his requests repeatedly even though the disciples are anxious to shut him up. He cries to Jesus and pleads to be healed of his blindness, to be delivered from his world of darkness where all is sound, all is touch and smell, but no sight. But if he was blind, how did he know that in fact it was Jesus?

I believe – and I think that it is true – that people deprived of vision develop more finely and sensitively other sensory organs in compensation: their sense of hearing, their sense of touch becomes more refined: they heal and feel more clearly than those who have sight. They have a sensitivity to surroundings and social atmosphere that someone who has full sight lacks. Persons with sight simply record the presence and occurrence of those events and persons to which they find themselves in close proximity. But those without sight possess an increased refinement of the senses of hearing from those who can see. And so Bartimaeus feels the presence of Jesus, and hears his distinctive voice above the babbled enthusiasm of the crowd to whose edge he is confined and pushed back. Bartimaeus feels the presence of Jesus with greater intensity than those who simply see him, he hears the words of Jesus albeit at a distance and though others are talking too. He discerns the meaning of Jesus’ words and presence with greater sensitivity than the others who are present. In one way we can believe that ‘blind Bartimaeus’ discerns a world of divine order and divine things that we who see can scarcely conceive of and grasp.

And in this way Bartimaeus presents to us an allegory of our human predicament, of our search for God hidden in a mystery with which we wrestle in the dullness of our blinded sight. We long ago in human history learned that God cannot be apprehended like the objects of sense and sight can be apprehended. Our polytheistic ancestors could point with assurance to the divine beings and their existence without doubt. The existence of the divine was obvious and could be pointed out to our children. Look, the moon in the sky at night is a person, a god, as is the sun by day a different god. Trees, rocks, rivers in their life and movement were gods and goddesses. Yet like Augustine’s disenchantment with the Manichees, but from the experience of the sixteenth century and onwards, we have progressively come to see that these are objects and not divine persons, and they move and function, not by their individual wills and pleasures, but by the impersonal laws of physics, chemistry and biology. And Stephen Hawking came to the conclusion that the God of the gaps, who once filled the spaces created by human ignorance, where human knowledge was absent, was increasingly banished by knowledge brought by the triumph of a scientific world view.

But if that was the project to find God rather than the project to find that God did not in fact exist, it was flawed from the very beginning for reasons pointed out by St Thomas Aquinas and indeed by our own Nicholas Lash. If we discovered God, Aquinas would say, as we discover the moon or the sun in the sky, or by detecting his presence at the basis of the atom with an electron microscope, then faith would not be meritorious: my acknowledgement of God would be no more than the acknowledgement of the table at which I sit or the glass that I fill with wine: it would not be a requirement to approach God with faith and in love and trust. The traditional arguments for the existence of God are like this. The universe has a design therefore there must be a designer. Find a watch on a desert island and you know that there must be a designing hand that made it and left it there amongst the rocks and trees. But as Hume said, what does such an argument give us. That the universe is by analogy like the design of a mechanism. But it tells me nothing more. It  tells me of a vague designer, but it does not tell me that the designer is morally perfect, the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ. As Nicholas Lash once said, it is like saying that the transcendent creator of all things has chosen to show us his existence by leaving his footprint in the sand.

For the knowledge of God we need eternity, for the vision of God is not given us in this life. We need faith to wrestle with a mystery in all its wonder but in all its perplexity. The psalms that we read in our daily offices are wonderful for this, they show us the psalmist wrestling in wonder, in hope, in doubt, in perplexity, in trust, and in love. But we need too a community of faith, the community of faith that is the Catholic Church. Like blind Bartimaeus, we hear Jesus voice, we feel him near though unseen, and we cry out to the apostles, saints, and angels to bring us near to him.