Preparing for Holy Week
Posted on the 2nd April 2020 in the category Resources
Yesterday a notice was published by the Bishops of the Society https://www.sswsh.com/news.php drawing attention to a series of professionally-produced videos that have been prepared to help direct our thoughts and prayers at key moments in what the Orthodox call the “Great and Holy” Week, beginning with Palm Sunday this weekend.
They were produced at a moment when the capital was rapidly succumbing to the virus, and travel was becoming very restricted. Thus the Bishop of Fulham had to fulfil the task of presenting these videos on behalf of all the Bishops of the Council. May I express my – and our – debt to him and to those who helped and shared in the preparation of the videos for their timely action.
We continue in our prayers for the Church in London where the virus is still as yet more intense than for the rest of us; and we ask their prayers as outbreaks escalate in other regions and cities.
May the Lord draw his Church together in a communion of faith and prayer in the coming days and weeks.
The videos will be made available at the following times here.
Posted on the 29th March 2020 in the category Resources
Today, Passion Sunday, when our thoughts and prayers are turned decisively toward the events of the Lord’s passion, I shall celebrate the Eucharist at home. As I do so I shall of course give thanks for the priests and people in my care, and ask you to pray with me for the sick, for all medical personnel, and all those suffering from the virus. And because Holy Week is approaching, I ask you to pray with me for all priests throughout the world: that in the coming days they may be alongside the sick and fearful by whatever means way they can, to encourage them with the strength of the Word of God and grace the comes from the Eucharist.
Gospel (John 11)
Now a certain man was ill, Lazarus of Bethany, the village of Mary and her sister Martha. Mary was the one who anointed the Lord with perfume and wiped his feet with her hair; her brother Lazarus was ill. So the sisters sent a message to Jesus, ‘Lord, he whom you love is ill.’ But when Jesus heard it, he said, ‘This illness does not lead to death; rather it is for God’s glory, so that the Son of God may be glorified through it.’ Accordingly, though Jesus loved Martha and her sister and Lazarus, after having heard that Lazarus was ill, he stayed two days longer in the place where he was.
Then after this he said to the disciples, ‘Let us go to Judea again.’ The disciples said to him, ‘Rabbi, the Jews were just now trying to stone you, and are you going there again?’ Jesus answered, ‘Are there not twelve hours of daylight? Those who walk during the day do not stumble, because they see the light of this world. But those who walk at night stumble, because the light is not in them.’ After saying this, he told them, ‘Our friend Lazarus has fallen asleep, but I am going there to awaken him.’ The disciples said to him, ‘Lord, if he has fallen asleep, he will be all right.’ Jesus, however, had been speaking about his death, but they thought that he was referring merely to sleep. Then Jesus told them plainly, ‘Lazarus is dead. For your sake I am glad I was not there, so that you may believe. But let us go to him.’ Thomas, who was called the Twin, said to his fellow-disciples, ‘Let us also go, that we may die with him.’
Jesus the Resurrection and the Life
When Jesus arrived, he found that Lazarus had already been in the tomb for four days. Now Bethany was near Jerusalem, some two miles away, and many of the Jews had come to Martha and Mary to console them about their brother. When Martha heard that Jesus was coming, she went and met him, while Mary stayed at home. Martha said to Jesus, ‘Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died. But even now I know that God will give you whatever you ask of him.’ Jesus said to her, ‘Your brother will rise again.’ Martha said to him, ‘I know that he will rise again in the resurrection on the last day.’ Jesus said to her, ‘I am the resurrection and the life. Those who believe in me, even though they die, will live, and everyone who lives and believes in me will never die. Do you believe this?’ She said to him, ‘Yes, Lord, I believe that you are the Messiah, the Son of God, the one coming into the world.’
Jesus weeps with Mary and her friends
When she had said this, she went back and called her sister Mary, and told her privately, ‘The Teacher is here and is calling for you.’ And when she heard it, she got up quickly and went to him. Now Jesus had not yet come to the village, but was still at the place where Martha had met him. The Jews who were with her in the house, consoling her, saw Mary get up quickly and go out. They followed her because they thought that she was going to the tomb to weep there. When Mary came where Jesus was and saw him, she knelt at his feet and said to him, ‘Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died.’ When Jesus saw her weeping, and the Jews who came with her also weeping, he was greatly disturbed in spirit and deeply moved. He said, ‘Where have you laid him?’ They said to him, ‘Lord, come and see.’ Jesus began to weep. So the Jews said, ‘See how he loved him!’ But some of them said, ‘Could not he who opened the eyes of the blind man have kept this man from dying?’
Jesus raises Lazarus to life
Then Jesus, again greatly disturbed, came to the tomb. It was a cave, and a stone was lying against it. Jesus said, ‘Take away the stone.’ Martha, the sister of the dead man, said to him, ‘Lord, already there is a stench because he has been dead for four days.’ Jesus said to her, ‘Did I not tell you that if you believed, you would see the glory of God?’ So they took away the stone. And Jesus looked upwards and said, ‘Father, I thank you for having heard me. I knew that you always hear me, but I have said this for the sake of the crowd standing here, so that they may believe that you sent me.’ When he had said this, he cried with a loud voice, ‘Lazarus, come out!’ The dead man came out, his hands and feet bound with strips of cloth, and his face wrapped in a cloth. Jesus said to them, ‘Unbind him, and let him go.’
The plot to kill Jesus
Many of the Jews therefore, who had come with Mary and had seen what Jesus did, believed in him. But some of them went to the Pharisees and told them what he had done. So the chief priests and the Pharisees called a meeting of the council, and said, ‘What are we to do? This man is performing many signs. If we let him go on like this, everyone will believe in him, and the Romans will come and destroy both our holy place and our nation.’ But one of them, Caiaphas, who was high priest that year, said to them, ‘You know nothing at all! You do not understand that it is better for you to have one man die for the people than to have the whole nation destroyed.’ He did not say this on his own, but being high priest that year he prophesied that Jesus was about to die for the nation, and not for the nation only, but to gather into one the dispersed children of God. So from that day on they planned to put him to death.
Jesus therefore no longer walked about openly among the Jews, but went from there to a town called Ephraim in the region near the wilderness; and he remained there with the disciples.
Now the Passover of the Jews was near, and many went up from the country to Jerusalem before the Passover to purify themselves. They were looking for Jesus and were asking one another as they stood in the temple, ‘What do you think? Surely he will not come to the festival, will he?’ Now the chief priests and the Pharisees had given orders that anyone who knew where Jesus was should let them know, so that they might arrest him.
The Gospel of the Lord.
Praise to you Lord Jesus Christ.
Homily: The Beginning of the Cross
The story we have just heard is one of the most astonishing in the amazing gospel of St John. The last great ‘sign’ that Jesus did—that is, the last great flaring forth of God’s glory—before Jesus’s triumphant entry into Jerusalem, and the trigger for all that followed.
St John’s writing gives us so many points of departure in this story for our reflection. It prompts simple and searching questions like: What is death? what is life? how shall we die? how shall we live? And it increases our understanding of Jesus as he contemplates the days ahead:
I encourage you to read it this week, John chapter 11. Read it daily even – leading up to what the Orthodox call ‘Lazarus Saturday’, the day before Palm Sunday, when Jesus leaves the beautiful hill of Bethany, crosses the valley, and enters Jerusalem.
As I said, it is a deeply thought-provoking, even alarming story, and includes one of the harshest criticisms of Jesus that we hear anywhere in the Gospels. It is from his friend Mary, the sister of Lazarus: ‘If you had been here, my brother would not have died. So where were you?’ In the wake of any kind of suffering, disaster and loss, including the flaring forth of an unseen new deadly disease such as the world is experiencing, and we are experiencing, it's the question that springs to everyone’s lips, even to Christian lips.
And if occasionally God were to intervene, in this or that place, this or that time, or life, and lift the weight of calamity and fear, to prevent it or to put right, we would surely hear the second criticism, which comes from the bystanders near the tomb of Lazarus. ‘If this is the one who opened the eyes of the blind [last week’s gospel you remember], couldn’t he have stopped this man from dying?’ (11.37) It’s an accusation that comes back so bitterly at the crucifixion, ‘He saved others; but he can’t save himself.’ (Matt 27.42) It’s an underlying current throughout St John’s gospel. Jesus on trial, facing criticism, challenged to explain himself. Here in Chapter 11, at this moment, the love of a friend moans in deep disappointment and fear, ‘If you had been here—if you’d come straight away when you knew—Lazarus, your friend and my brother, would not have died. So where were you?’
The first thing that today’s Gospel reading assures us, then, in our present situation, is that God doesn’t silence us. There is no sense that Jesus wants Mary simply to shut up because she doesn’t understand that Lazarus’s death is, to his eyes, a moment for God’s glory to be revealed. He doesn’t even say, you don’t understand but you will in the length of time. Nor does he say it to us, facing coronavirus. What does he say? He says something amazing, something for which, given the great swirling undercurrent of emotion and of love in this story, Jesus would have had to ready himself. ‘Take me to him.’ It’s an invitation to Mary, ‘Take me where the pain hurts most.’ And she responds ‘Come and see’. And that is a first challenge for us, when the suffering and fear rises in our own lives, suffering and fear also for our neighbours and for the millions across the world whom we do not know but whose plight we ourselves feel. That’s the challenge of the Gospel. When God says, ‘Take me where the pain hurts most’, will we say ‘come and see’, and lay our hearts bare?
And his reaction, when he does in fact come and see is that he weeps. He expresses his solidarity, drawing to himself all the pain of the moment. He says, ‘This is mine too’. He is not the incarnation of a God who is far away in a distant world to whom the sufferings of mankind mean little. He is the embodiment of a God who is close enough to us to say, ‘What wounds you, wounds me’. And on the cross he puts himself closer to what hurts us than we can ourselves bare to be.
But then there’s another shocking turn in the story. Jesus doesn’t stand respectfully at the graveside, he asks, ‘Take away the stone’. ‘You must be joking; it’s been four days now’, says the other sister. And without any trace of rebuke Jesus replies, ‘Don’t you remember me saying, if you believe you will see glory, God’s glory?’
These two reactions, first showing compassion and then speaking about promise, are the second challenge of the gospel for the Church today. Jesus shows how each one of us, and all of us together as a Christian community, should respond to suffering and tragedy, how we should respond today to the suffering and tragedy among us, among our world community.
So of all the things we could learn from this astonishing story, what have we learned? That we mustn’t silence protests against God. We must find ways, any way we can, to meet people in their need and fear and suffering. And that we should weep with them; and weep for ourselves too. And that we should speak of promise, We should be prepared to say to anyone who needs to hear, ‘If you can believe, you will see the glory of a love that even death cannot stop; you will touch the Source of Life for which we all yearn’.
Touching the Source of Life for which we all yearn. That’s quite a promise, and prompts a final thought, ‘What’s the difference between the raising of Lazarus, or the widow of Nain’s son, and the resurrection of Jesus?’ The difference is that we're never given any suggestion that Lazarus or the widow’s son don't eventually die again. By a miraculous release their lifespan was we could say ‘extended’. At Easter, on the other hand, Jesus’s life is not extended. He is raised into the life of God: he can never die again. As the New Testament began to take shape, it was the Church’s awareness of that difference—and it’s connection with the Ascension and the pouring out of the Spirit—that gradually gets clearer. ‘Christ, being raised from the dead’ says St Paul, ‘will never die again; death no longer has dominion over him. The death he died, he died to sin once and for all; but the life he lives, he lives to God. So you also must consider yourselves dead to sin and alive to God in Christ Jesus.’ (Rom 6.9)
Weep then dear brothers and sisters, with those who weep at present, even weep for yourselves; but also, speak of the promise of glory, and the Source of Life.
Star of heaven, please save us from the epidemic
Posted on the 27th March 2020 in the category Resources
The Temple Gallery in London, a specialist icon gallery, has just announced the discovery of an early 19th century Melkite (probably Syrian or Lebanese) icon of the Virgin Mary. Like every icon of the Mother of God this image of Mary has a special title. This one is called The Nursing Mother of God. In Greek it is ‘Galaktotrophousa’ which literally means ‘milk-giving’.
The most extraordinary aspect of the icon, however, is the Arabic inscription along the bottom of the panel. The gallery asked Professor Narguess Farzad, chair of the Centre for Iranian Studies at SOAS, London for help with the translation, which reads:
“Star of Heaven, please save us from the epidemic.
Please answer our prayers, because your Son hears you
and he will not hold back anything from us.
Our Lord Jesus, set us free from death,
because your pure Virgin Mother hears our prayers,
and for the sake of your Mother help us.
For our sake, you pure Virgin,
the hand of Jesus,
you are the saint and the Mother of God”.
We know from our own national story that this coronavirus outbreak is not the first pandemic to strike the whole country so lethally. Simply reading parts of The Book of Common Prayer reminds us of the faith of Christians of previous generations, and the Church’s ministry in such urgent and distressing circumstances. From that simple fact alone we can gain resilience and determination to do what we must to protect one another, reduce the virus’s impact among us, and save lives by our actions.
But the timely discovery of this icon and its inscription from a place of so much recent suffering, reminds us to continue to pray for people and societies around the world, especially refugees. At just the moment that the infection is really escalating in the UK – when we are understandably becoming more anxious for our relatives, friends, neighbours and national leaders – we’re reminded that we’re living through a global experience. It is not too early to hope – and therefore it is not too early to pray – that what we shall have suffered together before this pandemic is over, will help us all learn important truths about how will shall flourish together in the future.
Star of Heaven, please save us from the epidemic
The Melkite Church is related to the Greek Orthodox Patriarchate of Antioch and is mainly in the Levant (Syria, Lebanon, Jordan, Israel and Palestine). Their liturgical and other traditions are shared with Eastern Orthodoxy, but they have been part of the Catholic Church since 1724.
Image is copyright Temple Gallery 2020, reproduced with permission
Feast of the Annunciation
Posted on the 25th March 2020 in the category Resources
On the Feast of the Annunciation
Because there is still some unclarity as to some of the ways in which it is permissible for the bishops and priests of the Church to minister at present, to support the faith of the Church and the public at large, I have decided simply to offer you a homily for your prayers today, a contemplation on the Gospel for the feast of the Annunciation. Naturally I celebrate the Mass each day at home, giving thanks for the clergy and parishes of the Ebbsfleet family especially, and joining you and the whole Church in prayer to God for the needs of so many across the world in the present pandemic.
Gospel: Luke 1.26—38
In the sixth month the angel Gabriel was sent by God to a town in Galilee called Nazareth, to a virgin engaged to a man whose name was Joseph, of the house of David. The virgin’s name was Mary. And he came to her and said, ‘Greetings, favoured one! The Lord is with you.’ But she was much perplexed by his words and pondered what sort of greeting this might be. The angel said to her, ‘Do not be afraid, Mary, for you have found favour with God. And now, you will conceive in your womb and bear a son, and you will name him Jesus. He will be great, and will be called the Son of the Most High, and the Lord God will give to him the throne of his ancestor David. He will reign over the house of Jacob for ever, and of his kingdom there will be no end.’ Mary said to the angel, ‘How can this be, since I am a virgin?’ The angel said to her, ‘The Holy Spirit will come upon you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you; therefore the child to be born will be holy; he will be called Son of God. And now, your relative Elizabeth in her old age has also conceived a son; and this is the sixth month for her who was said to be barren. For nothing will be impossible with God.’ Then Mary said, ‘Here am I, the servant of the Lord; let it be with me according to your word.’ Then the angel departed from her.
This morning, at around six, my usual time, I woke … singing! In my head you understand; but still, strong enough that for a good couple of hours now I have kept on wanting to burst out:
“Sing, my tongue, the glorious battle!
Sing the ending of the fray …
Tell how Christ, the world’s Redeemer,
As a Victim won the day.”
It is one of the great hymns of Passiontide. (My mind is obviously revving up to sing and to celebrate Holy Week.) It was written by the sixth-century French bishop and poet Venantius Fortunatus. He could probably still hear the echo of the Roman imperial army’s proud, retreating thud thud thud as they finally left France to protect Italy. He certainly knew what the Roman legionaries’ songs sounded like: they were marching songs. And like his other great Passiontide hymn, ‘The royal banners forward go’, ‘Sing my tongue’ strides out like the heavy dogged metre of soldiers’ marching songs. It’s very clear in the Latin original; but we can still hear it in our familiar English translation if you forget (only for a moment, don’t worry!) the plaintive and instinctive plainsong tune. “Sing, my tongue, the glorious battle! / Sing the ending of the fray.” This is the hymn the Church in the West has for centuries sung as, with uplifted hearts, we venerate the cross that stands at the very core of the Good Friday Liturgy.
Inevitably I asked myself, why? Not why was I singing that hymn, but why on the Annunciation of all feasts? Even allowing for Gabriel being urgent and warrior-like, as you can see in the icon that accompanies this homily, the Annunciation hasn’t much to do with the heat of battle. Why, in this time of ‘stupendous struggle’ (to quote another seasonal hymn), struggle for the health and future of humanity through which we are all passing, was my memory connecting the witness of the Virgin Mary, chosen of God to bear his Son, and the glorious battle, ‘mighty and terrible’ waged on the cross? And as I contemplated a phrase came to me from the Magnificat which Mary sang when she went to tell her cousin Elizabeth about Gabriel’s message: “He has shown strength with his arm – scatted the proud in the imagination of their hearts.”
In her contemplation on Gabriel’s message Mary expresses—in the past tense—the certainty she has about God’s wonders: his mighty acts to create and sustain a universe, and to form and nurture a people as a witness of his great power and glory. He has routed the arrogant, she says; overthrown rulers, filled the hungry, dismissed the rich, rescued Israel, remembered his ancient mercy. All because he promised that he would to Abraham and his descendants. And it is in God’s nature to be faithful to his promises. In her characteristic way, Mary, woman of great faith (Mt 15.28), pondered the mighty acts of God (Lk 2.51). She remembered the Lord’s actions and promises of the past in order to open herself to the future: the future in which, through Jesus, God wrought his mightiest acts of power and opened a new age of the Spirit for humanity.
Mary remembered the past in order to open herself to the future.
That is at the heart of living the Christian tradition for all of us. The icon of the feast is labelled ‘the bringing of good news’ – evangelismos – a message which Mary was able to embrace because she knew God could be relied upon. The memory of the mighty acts of God were, in her, the source of hope and prophecy for the future.
This spiritual attitude of faith and hope is the good news that the Church must bring to our present moment, which is, yes, a moment of battle: a battle to preserve one another’s health and lives, a battle for one another’s well-being, and a battle for the future. It is also a battle for our humanity, for what humanity looks like in the light of God. Trusting in God’s mighty acts in the past, trusting him for the human and spiritual resources we need to meet the present darkness, each member of the Church has a responsibility to nurture this hope in them and bring hope in whatever way we can, to whomever we can (safely) reach – confident of his promise for the future.
This is no evasion of the real and sudden seriousness of our situation. The acceptance of Gabriel’s message, the letting-go, and the receiving of new resources of grace that it involved, prepared in Mary the route Calvary. The new levels of obedience she learned took her into the heart of the pain and suffering that would be brought into focus in the death of her Son. In a compline hymn for Good Friday sung by Eastern Christians, the Virgin laments, “Where, O my Son, are the good tidings that Gabriel brought me? He called thee, King, God, Son of the Most High; and now, O my sweet Light, I behold thee naked, wounded and lifeless.”
But even in that moment – a moment of shock and bereavement as sharp and deep as any that we may suffer in the coming weeks as we celebrate Holy Week at what may turn out to be the height of coronavirus in this country – memory of God’s mighty acts of God were for Mary the source of hope for the future. All that God had done through the birth of her eternal Son, he will do likewise to bring Jesus to his brothers and sisters: for their rebirth from death, and the shadow of death, to the life and freedom on which the sun does not set.
Pour forth, we beseech thee, O Lord, thy grace into our hearts: that, as we have known the incarnation of thy Son, Jesus Christ, by the message of an angel, so by his cross and passion we may be brought to the glory of his resurrection; through the same Christ our Lord. Amen.
To fulfill the law of Christ: prayer for the Church in London.
Posted on the 23rd March 2020 in the category Announcements
To fulfill the law of Christ
To the clergy and people of the See of Ebbsfleet
From the Bishop
We hear the word ‘communion’ often in the church’s life. It’s a word with many layers of meaning. First it means the unity that we each have in the Spirit with Christ. Then, as a result, unity with one another in Christ, a life while is mutually recognizable, finally, by unity with the faith, worship and life of the apostles, most especially the Eucharist.
Communion carries with it the obligation, strongly present in the New Testament, that Christians should ‘Carry one another’s burdens, and in this way … fulfill the law of Christ.’ (Gal 6.2). Each one makes himself or herself a servant of the others, ‘washing the feet’ of his or her brothers and sisters in response to the Lord’s ‘new law’, his new commandment of love (cf. John 13:1-35). That mutuality is what is represented in the icon shown here – in which a young monk carries an old monk on his back. I want to ask you to exercise that ‘mutual burden-bearing’ in a particular way: in your prayers for the Church in London, because London is ahead of the rest of the country in seeing a steep rise in the number of those falling sick
Therefore, last evening the Bishops of London, Southwark, Rochester and Chelmsford communicated their regretful but necessary decision to close all Anglican churches across the London boroughs, even for private and personal prayer (though the clergy may continue to enter them to pray and to celebrate the church’s liturgy). See https://www.london.anglican.org/articles/closure-of-church-buildings/ The Dean and Chapter of Westminster has decided likewise.
This decision couldn’t be more serious and was taken because of the need, as the bishops put it, to ‘demonstrate how important physical distancing is in saving lives’. Of course it affects Anglicans, but let us not (ever) forget our fellow Christians. London is an environment in which there is the widest possible range of other Christian communities, which minister collectively to a huge international range of the capital’s poorest and most vulnerable.
This will inevitably be a huge blow to the parishes of The Society under the Bishops of Fulham and Richborough, and their clergy who have been taking comfort and sense of purpose from ministering to those who come in through their church’s doors, and making available a safe and peaceful place, where Christ himself may minister through prayer before the Blessed Sacrament. Pray for them; pray for all fellow Anglicans; and – in the same breath – pray for all other Christians in London, and those who have sought shelter, consolation and faith in the capital’s churches.
Yours, in the Lord
Almighty Father, who taught us through your Son Jesus Christ that unless we love one another we cannot fulfil your law: of your goodness and by your grace give us a true concern for the needs of our brothers and sisters in the faith in their witness and service, that in sharing one another’s burdens we may fulfil your law.; through the same Christ our Lord. Amen.