Saturday, 28 December 2013

Holy Innocents

Giotto again: Massacre of the Holy Innocents, Lower Church, Assisi (detail)

This image says it all... what we humans are capable of doing to each other.  Kyrie eleison.

And what free, gratuitous love of God to choose to become part of such a broken world and redeem it.  Deo Gratias.

Holy Innocents, pray for us.  Christ Child, forgive us, restore our innocence and grant us peace. 

Friday, 27 December 2013

St Stephen

St Stephen, by Giotto (who else would have given him those eyes?)
And look at the stones... For more Christmassy Giottos have a look here
A little time left before this post is a day late! (I'm writing just before midnight). I think one of the last sermons I preached before leaving Anglican ministry was about St Stephen - don't worry, I'm not going to inflict it on you now (old sermons don't work, I think, and I haven't kept any!) but there are some things I can remember.

We read Stephen's short but dramatic story in Acts 6 & 7: the Apostles decide that it's not right that they should "neglect the word of God" to wait at tables, and so they select and ordain the seven first deacons, including Stephen, to do the waiting bit while they "devote themselves to prayer and serving the word".  (I have to confess that what looks like a split between practical service and the spirituality of the Word of God has always annoyed me just a tad... Maybe something to do with my pride? Or just that I'm rubbish at doing anything practical, as I was reminded when I was asked to cut a cake at our course staff party before Christmas. You've never seen so many crumbs...)

Stephen, who is full of the Holy Spirit, full of grace and power, a worker of signs and wonders - and whose face shines like an angel's when he speaks fearlessly of his faith in Christ; he is humble enough to accept the call of the Church to the ministry of a servant and make it apostolic too, through his faithfulness to God's gifts to him. Look - in Giotto's painting he holds the Gospel book (as a deacon should and would): he may wait at table but he's not neglecting the word of the Lord who said "I am among you as one who serves."  And is he not "devoted to prayer", every bit as much as the Apostles? He is given a vision of heaven opened, of Jesus at the right hand of the Father, and just like Jesus he prays for his torturers as he is stoned to death. The day after we celebrate Jesus' birth we are reminded of both the dignity and costliness of following him. 

St Stephen, you humble, challenge and inspire me. Pray for all who are entrusted with gifts and called to service, and long for the humility to carry it out with integrity and courage. 

And here is how Fra Angelico imagined Stephen's ordination (h/t to Once I Was A Clever Boy, where you can read about the painting):

Wednesday, 25 December 2013

Christmas tree?

I took this picture on my way home - by then it was a  bright wintry morning. 
Well, that was different... The first time I've ever had to climb a tree to get to Mass. The nearest Catholic Church to where I live is about half an hour's walk away across the river and along the side of parkland. I set off for the dawn Mass - leaving while it was still dark, with a bright half Moon and Jupiter as the Morning Star. The light and birdsong grew stronger as I walked... All very beautiful, but I'd forgotten about the damage caused by the recent storms in this part of the country. I picked my way through fallen branches without too much trouble, but then found the path completely blocked by a huge fallen tree (with official red and white tape in case anyone was stupid enough to try to get through). There was no other way - high fences on both sides - and the tree was big enough to need climbing even while lying on its side, so...

I remember being told in confirmation classes about Purgatory (not that it was called that in the C of E, but looking back I'm sure that was the idea) with the example that, if you got yourself dirty on the way to church you'd surely want to clean yourself up before going in.  Well, I arrived at Mass covered in mud, bark and lichen. It was, after all, the Mass of the Shepherds and I expect they weren't exactly tidy when they arrived in Bethlehem. 

A blessed Christmas to all!

Tuesday, 24 December 2013

Heaven unlocked

This is my ecard for this Christmas - I share it now with warm greetings to anyone who's still here... It's a bit of a shock to realise  that I haven't blogged here since Advent Sunday! Not really deliberate or pre-planned and I'm not quite sure why... The reflections and ponderings that have been going on for me over this, my favourite season, have not felt quite ready for the light of day. Not a lack of trust in you, dear readers and fellow bloggers - remember I'm an introvert and it takes me a while (longer than usual in this instance) to know what I'm thinking... And a fair bit of energy has been taken up in keeping the old Black Dog (thanks, GP) to heel - a seasonal hazard maybe?

So, Christmas Eve...  I said Morning Prayer today in a Caffè Nero (other coffee chains are available!) against a background of tinkly sleigh ride music, which unexpectedly segued into For Unto Us A Child Is Born.  It was all lovely!

And here, with my very best Christmas wishes to you, is St Augustine:
For what greater grace could God have made to dawn on us than to make his only Son become the son of man, so that a son of man might in his turn become the son of God? Ask if this were merited; ask for its reason, for its justification, and see whether you will find any other answer but sheer grace.

(Sermo 185). May you experience sheer grace this Christmas!

Monday, 2 December 2013


A moment of distraction and silliness in church (what do you mean, you never have them?)... So can you see the smiley faces in the Kyrie? Is this really what I should have been thinking about while praying for God's mercy on the solemn First Sunday of Advent?

Well, at least it made me think about mercy.  I remembered hearing the late Metropolitan Anthony of Sourozh tell a delightful story: someone once took him to task for the way the prayer "Lord, have mercy" is sung over and over again - seemingly incessantly - in the Orthodox Liturgy.  Wasn't this "vain repetition", or wallowing in sin rather than trusting in God's forgiveness? Metropolitan Anthony replied with an account of his grandfather, who used to say that he liked a glass of wine because it made him feel like a new man. "And this new man, he also likes a glass of wine..." And so on!

So with mercy. Yes, it's a dread and awe-ful thing to stand in our brokenness before the Holy One. "Who may abide the day of his coming?" And yet this is the God who teaches us to walk and takes us in his arms (cf Hosea 11:3) - presumably when we stumble and fall, because you can't learn to walk without doing that. And, surely, with a smile? The taste of God's mercy gladdens us and emboldens us to ask for more, and more, and more... It's even more inexhaustible than our need for it. 

Some say that the Greek word eleison (have mercy) has the same root as elaion, which is olive oil. To receive mercy is to be anointed, for celebration and healing. 

Praise the Lord, my soul... [who gives] wine that gladdens human hearts,oil to make their faces shine,and bread that sustains their hearts.  ( Psalm 104)