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Pilgrim, priest and ponderer. European living in North East England. Retired parish priest, theological educator, cathedral precentor and dean.

Sunday, 26 January 2014

For Holocaust Memorial Day

Tomorrow is Holocaust Memorial Day, the anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz in 1945.  It’s a day to remember the millions who perished at the hand of the Nazis and in the other genocides and acts of ethnic cleansing of modern times.  We need it to strengthen our resolve to build a more peaceable world in which every member of the human family is equally valued and where prejudice has no place.  We need it to reinforce our prayer that what happened in Armenia, in Germany and in Europe, in Cambodia, Uganda, Rwanda and Bosnia and is still happening in Southern Sudan, the Central African Republic, in parts of the middle east will not happen again, anywhere, ever. 

In the Nazi holocaust, two thirds of all the Jews in Europe perished. Survivors carry the physical and emotional scars with them in memories that can never fully be healed.  It is part of my own psyche too, as a ‘second generation survivor’ as we are called.  Almost too late, my grandparents got my uncle and my mother out of Germany before the borders were closed.  But for that, they would have been transported to Treblinka, Dachau or Auschwitz with other members of the family.  This country took them in. Thank God for British kindness to the stranger, the refugee, the asylum-seeker.

The holocaust was and is a defining experience in the life of Jewish people today, and probably always will be. It has become part of the long story that defines that community and its capacity to survive extreme persecution. The Passover haggadah tells of how the Hebrews were resident in Egypt. Pharaoh made slaves of them, piled on the oppression until they managed to flee for safety across the Red Sea at the hand of Moses and Aaron. Escaping to a land of safety across the water was precisely my mother’s experience. The Festival of Purim recalls how Queen Esther, the Jewish consort of a pagan king, acts with supreme courage to save her people from extinction.  Yet another feast, Hannukah, commemorates a fierce persecution of the 2nd century BC when a Seleucid king Antiochus Epiphanes desecrated the temple in Jerusalem and exacted a terrible price on Jews who would not bow to his will and abandon their covenant. This time it is Judas Maccabaeus, the ‘hammer’, who saved them. These are not the only holocausts written into the history of Judaism.

This background helps us to see why ‘holocaust’, Sho’ah, literally a whole burnt offering of flesh, stands as a symbol of genocide.  Our question must be: what do we say and do in the face of it? I don’t mean the Jewish holocaust only, but every genocide where the same story gets acted out in new places and new ways. The inventiveness and dark imagination of evil seems to know no limit. 

In the Hebrew Bible, the ‘Old’ Testament as we call it, many texts try to grapple with the question of why human beings suffer. The greatest of them is the Book of Job. It tells of a devout, religious man who finds himself progressively afflicted with terrible diseases, has his house and home destroyed, loses all his children. Mrs Job asks why how this could possibly have come about. ‘Curse God and die!’ But this is precisely what he will not do. He is baffled, like she is, but he chooses to stay with the unanswerable questions while all along knowing that he has done nothing to deserve this personal holocaust of his. And then, says the story, his friends come along to keep him company as he sits among the ashes. Although they will utter plenty of thoughtless nonsense later on, they are at least wise enough to stay silent to begin with, not just for a few minutes but for an entire week, ‘for they saw that his suffering was very great’. 

There is something we can learn in that picture of friends standing by silently. When we are in the presence of suffering, it’s not that the words fail us, or not only that. It’s how best we stand in solidarity with suffering human beings, honour them in their ordeals.  Silence is not passivity.  When we go to the site of a terrible atrocity, we know that we are not simply onlookers, sightseers of history. There is ‘work’ to be done here: mental, heart-work, spiritual work that should change us, transform our attitudes to suffering and injustice, empower us to act for the victim, the voiceless and the weak. 

A few years ago my wife and I went to the Bay of Naples to visit Pompeii, the Roman town destroyed by the eruption of Vesuvius in AD79. It was a human disaster on a vast scale. To see the moulds taken of men, women and children found in the rubble, showing them bracing themselves helplessly against a relentless, unpitying, power is deeply moving. But with millions of people visiting the site each year, you now have to run the gauntlet of a ‘shadow’ money-spinning city of fast food outlets, hawkers of tacky souvenirs, lurid entertainments of every kind that has grown up outside the gates. It does not prepare you to visit the site of a tragedy. Our guide took us round in an irritating jokey way that was far more interested in erotic paintings inside the prostitutes’ house than in human suffering and grief. We wanted somewhere to be silent, like Job’s friends, try to take in what a momentous place it was, this arena of suffering and grief. The least we could do was to remember silently.

As we commemorate the victims of holocaust today and tomorrow, I hope we can find some way of being reflective and thoughtful, perhaps, if we are people of faith, saying a simply prayer like kyrie eleison, ‘Lord have mercy’, or the Lord’s Prayer, ‘save us from the time of trial and deliver us from the evil one’. If our nation could be quiet, like it is on Armistice Day, if we could collectively stand alongside the victims of every place, it would help us to act with more compassion and justice in the future, to speak out for the voiceless, to take in those who flee from terror like my mother, do all we can to make this world a better place for our children and grandchildren.

The gospel reading spoke about how Jesus began his public ministry by calling people to repent, to turn away from what was dark and destructive and turn towards the light of grace and truth dawning on the world. He spoke of it as the kingdom of heaven drawing near. He called people to follow him, say yes to this world made new. Perhaps those who felt the heavy hand of imperial Rome crushing the life out of them found a new hope rising up before them. And we say: if only those who still harbour cruelty in their hearts could hear this, could feel the stirrings within of another, better, kinder way to live!  

At the end of St Matthew’s Gospel, Jesus prays from the cross, ‘My God, my God, why have you abandoned me?’  That is the agonised cry of so many who sufferer, not least those who like him are victims of other peoples’ cruelty. But St Luke tells the story differently. He has Jesus utter one of the most extraordinary prayers ever breathed.  While he hangs there, mocked and ridiculed by his persecutors, by the bystanders, even by the man dying on the cross next to his, he prays: ‘Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do’.  Face to face with death, another voice, kind and merciful, invites us to turn back towards the light. There is light and hope for those who sat in darkness, a redemption so universal in its scope that includes even the perpetrators of evil who sit in the darkness of their own making. And we who stand in silent solidarity with victims bearing witness to all that is wrong need to be fortified by the announcement that the kingdom of heaven is near. Faith says that the long-awaited dawn the prophet foretold is breaking. The Saviour, Christus Victor, has overcome the world.  

St Chad’s College Durham, 26 January 2014
Isaiah 9.1-4; Matthew 4.12-22

Thursday, 23 January 2014

A Long History of Care: Founders' Day at the Hospital of God, Greatham

It is a long history that we commemorate here at Greatham each Founders’ Day. When Robert de Stichill founded the Hospital of God in 1273, he no was no doubt influenced by the example of his Cathedral Priory in Durham where he had been a monk. He dedicated this chapel to St Mary and St Cuthbert, like the Cathedral: perhaps he wanted to invoke the tradition of Benedictine hospitality that lay at the heart of the Priory’s daily work and ministry. The care of the poor and needy was always a call of monks living under Benedict’s Rule. ‘Welcome everyone as if they were Christ himself’ it says.

This was why Greatham was not simply a ‘hospital’ in the medieval sense, a place of safety, sanctuary and care. It was a hospital of God. Its business was to imitate and live out God’s own hospitality to those who most needed his protection, the people the Hebrew Bible speaks of as his special treasure, the poor. Bishop Stichill was undertaking a project of love: that is what this place represents. ‘Let mutual love continue. Do not neglect to show hospitality to strangers, for by doing that some have entertained angels unawares’ it says in our reading this morning.

In Durham, the visible survivals of the Priory’s hospitality are scant: the foundations of the guest hall underneath what are now desirable flats in a heritage setting; the remains of the infirmary beneath the Archdeacon’s house.  The monks’ dormitory itself survives, of course: its great length running along an entire range of the cloister and its grand 15th century timber roof make it one of the great rooms of England. It tells you something not only about the size and wealth of the Priory but about the importance it attached to accommodating the community properly.

But you have to go to France to see a ‘hospital’ in the Greatham sense whose whole reason for being was to serve the sick and the poor. This is the Hospices de Beaune in Burgundy, one of the best architectural statements of medieval charity I know.  There, a room the size of Durham’s dormitory has beds in cells along its walls and, at the far end, an altar where once upon a time the great Last Judgment triptych of Roger Van der Weyden used to hang, a proper focus for the infirm and dying who lay facing it along the length of the dormitory.  It reminded guests that it was God himself who received and entertained them. It was his kindness and care that was expressed through the hands of the staff who looked after them. Like Greatham, that charity continues to serve the sick and needy today.

It seems to me that these couple of words, of God, make all the difference: the Hospital of God. No doubt it was true, when Robert de Stichill founded it, that all charitable endeavour was done for God and in his name: this is what Christendom meant. When we consider how many of our charitable institutions in Europe originated in the medieval vision of a holistic society, whether in education, health care or the service of the elderly and poor, we have to recognise that there was something rather wonderful in the church’s commitment to emulate the generosity of God in its service of humanity.

No doubt there was a lot wrong with those centuries and their preoccupation with temporal power and wealth. Robert de Stichall was one of those who insisted most strongly on wielding his Palatinate power as a prince-bishop, and that should give us pause. But perhaps he redeemed himself by founding this Hospital, endowing large resources to Greatham so that it could care for the needy and vulnerable within his Palatinate realm. We don’t know if he or other prince-bishops had an uneasy conscience about their riches. I am not above helping the wealthy to assuage their consciences by means of substantial charitable giving. And in this place and on this day, we should pray for him as we celebrate our Founder, that he may indeed be resting in peace in gratitude for what his charity continues to do today.

In this Epiphany season, we have been hearing once more the story of the Magi who came to find the infant Christ. Perhaps the gifts they brought him out of their own wealth and power give us an image of a resplendent prince-bishop doing something similar: bending low enough to see and worship the Infant, offering him what he had to give. Can we see in the gold, frankincense and myrrh not simply valuable gifts in their own right, but symbols of the offering of all of life to God in the person of his incarnate Son? The long journey of the Magi, their humility in paying homage to the Child, the generosity of their gifts – it is all in such stark contrast to the fearful, grasping Herod whose clenched fist batters the Hebrew children and drowns their innocence in a bloodbath.  

What use had Jesus of gold? Or frankincense, or myrrh? Not much, I think. In the lovely Epiphany operetta Amahl and the Night Visitors, the composer portrays the Magi as begging shelter for the night at a woman’s hovel where she and her crippled son eke out a parlous existence as best they can. Here, seeing how the gold seduces an impoverished mother, the wise men come to recognise that a Sovereign whose kingship is not from this world does not need these things. All he needs is the homage and love of loyal subjects. The poor cripple-boy wants to make his offering to this new-born Child too. All he has to give is his crutch. As he offers it, he finds that he is miraculously healed. And that somehow feels so much more authentic a gift than all the gold in the world.

And yet, like the bread and wine of the eucharist, any gift offered and blessed through the giving has transformative power. Even poor gold such as the magi offered; like Bishop Stichill’s wealth. This Hospital is the result, still here, still true to its founder’s vision all these centuries later. That is something to celebrate on Founders’ Day. And because his money and resources were offered to God as an act of charity, this this is not just any hospital. It is the Hospital of God. It derives its name and its meaning from why and how the gift was offered. What we do here we do in God’s name, because he is that kind of god: generous, open-handed, far-seeing, compassionate, kind.  It’s not that other institutions in the business of health care and alleviating social need don’t demonstrate real excellence and utter commitment. They do, and we thank God. But I want to say that the excellence and commitment of the Hospital of God has a particular quality, a character that derives from its name, its founder’s intentions and its long, long history of care. 

It is hard to put into words, but I believe we know it when we see it, because we can recognise the hand of God in it at a conscious level. ‘Recognised or not, the Deity is always present’ wrote Carl Jung above the entrance of his clinic at Z├╝rich. God is present, if unrecognised, in so much wonderful care exercised by thousands of people day after day across the nation.  But it is especially wonderful when God is acknowledged as the source and inspiration of what we do when we offer hospitality and care for people in name of the Christ who is the same yesterday, today and for ever. For then, strangers become friends, and angels, and we know that we belong to that larger fellowship of those who rejoice with us, but on another shore and in a greater light. To that place of glory and unending happiness may God bring us all.

Founders’ Day at Greatham Hospital, 23 January 2014
Hebrews 13.1-8, Matthew 2.1-15

Sunday, 12 January 2014

My Child, My Beloved: a Baptism Sermon

I sometimes think that going into the new-year, facing the January blues, is a bit like travelling into a strange country. We had got used to 2013. We were at home in it: it felt familiar even if we didn’t always like what it brought. January means a doorway. I know it’s only turning a page on the calendar. Yet it does feel like crossing a threshold where we have to learn to navigate a landscape that will take time to read and understand.

Throughout life there are thresholds to negotiate. Some like new-year are common to us all; some – birthdays, marriage, a new job, retirement, bereavement - are personal to each of us. But each time we face one of these threshold experiences, when we cross over and glimpse something different on the other side, there is to begin with a kind of exile. It is new, and a bit strange.  It’s like being away from home where habits are different and no-one quite speaks your language. And when exile is forced upon you against your will and you have to make your own way on alien soil, it is deeply painful. Listen to the displaced of the Central African Republic or Syria, to refugees and asylum-seekers anywhere.

Our first reading envisages just such a situation. The Hebrew community had been in exile in Babylon, struggling, as they put it, to ‘sing the Lord's song in a strange land’. For half a century, they’d had no reason to think their exile was coming to an end, or that their desperate longings to see their homeland again would be fulfilled.  Prophets like Jeremiah had warned that exile would be long and hard, and the people should learn to accept that this was the will of God, settle down and establish themselves in Babylon and more even than that, pray for the welfare of this godforsaken place.  But then along comes another prophet whose name we do not know though his writings are found in the book of Isaiah. He is full of hope for the future. He foretells that the time is coming when the people will return home, and glory will fill the land. Indeed, not only Israel but ‘all flesh’ shall see it together. The land will resound to songs of celebration as all the nations inherit the blessing once promised to Abraham, and the world is rebuilt on the foundations of truth, justice, freedom and love.

And this prophet of homecoming has something specific to say about Israel’s vocation as the people of God. What are they to do and be when they return home? ‘You are my servant, Israel, in whom I will be glorified’. Or as the Greek version has it, ‘you are my pais, my child’. It’s a lovely phrase, but not a new one to Hebrew ears. Two centuries earlier another prophet had declared on God’s behalf in a moving moment of divine self-discloure: ‘When Israel was a child I loved him, and out of Egypt I brought my son’. He went on to record the wayward behaviour of that child. ‘The more I called them, the more they went from me. Yet it was I who taught Ephraim to walk. I took them up in arms but they did not know that I healed them. I led them with cords of human kindness; I was to them like those who lift infants to their cheeks. I bent down to them and fed them.’  What parent or grandparent does not respond to the deep feeling in those words? So now, says Isaiah, the moment has come for the people of the covenant to realise in a new way this vocation to be God’s child, to be those through whom God opens his arms wide and embraces the world. ‘I will give you as a light to the nations’ he says, ‘so that my salvation may reach to the end of the earth’.

Our Christian hindsight looks back across the centuries to those words. It looks back and recognises that only one person has ever truly embodied that vocation. That truest of Israelites, we Christians say, is Jesus of Nazareth, the one who fulfils the ideal of the Lord’s Child, the infant who lay in the manger and whom shepherds and magi recognised as Immanuel; the one who called God Abba, Father, who learned to see himself as the child who must be about his Father’s business. So we are not surprised that at his baptism, when the sky is torn open and the dove descends, the voice echoes these ancient words of the prophet and cries: ‘This is my Son the beloved, with whom I am well pleased’.

Today, as we baptise Alexander and Lucie, we hear those words again. ‘This is my child, my beloved’.  We hear them spoken to Jesus. But we also hear them spoken to the children who come for baptism, and we hear them spoken to each of us. For what is baptism if not to receive the seal of God’s Spirit that affirms that we are indeed children of God? What is it if it is not the sign that God welcomes us home from exile, receives us back from our strange lands, offers us his generosity, stretches out his arms of love and reaches towards us to embrace us, invites us through Jesus to pray with the words ‘Our Father’?  There is no way of life more dignified, more humanising, more fulfilling than living out this call to be God’s beloved child. The voice says ‘this is my beloved child’ and Lucie and Alexander say ‘yes’ to it today, yes to God’s invitation to become more truly a human being, find their truest selves, embrace the path of light and love, and life in all its abundance.

All this belongs to Alexander and Lucie today. In baptism, each of us is made ‘a member of Christ, the child of God, and an inheritor of the kingdom of heaven’ as the old Catechism puts it.  A beloved child of God, the voice from heaven tells us, our names written on his hands: that is what we are when we become members of Christ. Like him, we are in the world to be children, disciples, servants, bearers of light and glory.  Where horizons are dark, and exile threatening, where so many suffer and peace on earth seems distant, where we quickly lose heart and hope begins to fail, baptism is a sign of the God who keeps faith with us. Because of that voice that spoke from heaven, we can safely entrust this world and ourselves to God’s Child who comes to us. With joy we journey on into another year and give a heartfelt welcome to Alexander, Lucie and all who want to walk this Christian way with us.

For if we are God’s children, God’s beloved, we know there is a future worth living for. The world, time, eternity are ours, for we are all Christ's, and Christ is God's.

Durham Cathedral
12 January 2014, The Feast of the Baptism of Christ
Isaiah 42.1-9; Matthew 3.13-end