Friday, 19 December 2014

Mary & the Birthdays of Jesus

              Christ Appearing to the Virgin by Follower of Rogier van der Weyden 1475

And Simeon blessed them and said to Mary his mother, “Behold, this child is destined for the fall and rise of many in Israel, and to be a sign that will be contradicted (and you yourself a sword will pierce) so that the thoughts of many hearts may be revealed.”
Luke 2:34-35

I saw the Blessed Virgin as very full of years, but no sign of old age appeared in her except a consuming yearning by which she was as it were transfigured. There was an indescribable solemnity about her. I never saw her laugh, though she had a beautiful smile
Anne Catherine Emmerich- Life of the Blessed Virgin Mary

Historians are undecided about the date of the Nativity of our Lord although as a sort of reflex action they are almost unanimous in denying that it was 25 December as if giving credit to the wisdom of the Church was somehow a violation of their professional duty. Likewise there is some dispute about when the Catholics first started to celebrate this event as a dedicated Feast. Some say it was earlier and some later. What I think we can be fairly sure about though is that the Blessed Virgin Mary knew the date and that every year as it came around she would have pondered in her heart the events of the first Christmas and the significance which they bore. Of particular poignance for her must have been the Christmases which she marked in the years between her Son's Ascension and her own Assumption. We cannot now enter into her thoughts, memories and prayers but we can consider those matters which most likely occupied her reflections and which perhaps should occupy ours also.

Our Lady was unique in many ways and led a unique life. Not the least singular facet of it was that she witnessed the death and burial of her Son, His return to life and His Ascension into heaven. These experiences could not but be present before the eyes of her memory every time she marked the anniversary of His birth. Each Christmas for her would be a kind of palimpsest where each recollection of an event or emotion from that night in Bethlehem would uncover a thousand thousand others associated with the life of her beloved Jesus.

It is easy for Christians and sometimes even the Church to overlook St Joseph and his part in the Nativity seeing him as some kind of bit part player, an extra in the scene. We can be sure that this is a fault of which our Lady was never guilty. To her Joseph was a tower of strength, a friend, a faithful loving companion, the first man to hold her Jesus in his arms, to look tenderly at Him, to love Him wholeheartedly. To recall the first Christmas for Mary would also be to recall Joseph's steadfastness in marrying her despite her pregnancy, his support and care for her and the unborn child on the journey to Bethlehem and for mother and newborn during the flight into Egypt. They shared the agony of the hunt for the lost boy Jesus through the streets and Temple courts of Jerusalem. Most of all, perhaps, they shared year after year the hidden life of working, living in a community, raising a child to manhood being lovers of God and lovers of neighbour in that greatest of all trials the seeming triviality and mediocrity of the everyday. No doubt also his presence at this intense moment of life would bring to mind the time when this just man departed from it going to his eternal rest enfolded in the love of the Virgin and the Saviour the two most important people in his life. And this points us to an essential truth about Christmas. It is a family celebration, Mary would not recall the child without recalling too the foster-father. We who are adults seldom pass a Christmas season without revisiting our childhood feasts, the parents, siblings, cousins, grandparents, uncles, aunts and others who welcome or not trailed through our seasonal rejoicing and accompany us still in our fondest memories. Welcoming a child into the world is a time for bringing families together and in Jesus we welcome the universal child, our destinies and the destinies of all who are dear to us are bound up in His. If our adult selves have dispensed with the large family gatherings of the not-so-distant past we should at least bring together in our prayers those we will not or cannot bring together in the flesh.

If St Joseph is backgrounded in our Nativity scenes and cribs the shepherds and Magi are not. Whilst our Lady may have held these things in reverse order in her heart her Christmas memories would certainly not have neglected them. Most of all, I think, it would have been the shepherds whose memory she treasured. Partly because they were present on that wonderful world transforming night as the Magi were not. Partly also because the Mary who sang-
He has shown might with his arm,
    dispersed the arrogant of mind and heart.
 He has thrown down the rulers from their thrones
    but lifted up the lowly.
 The hungry he has filled with good things;
    the rich he has sent away empty.
(Luke 1:51-53)
would cherish above all the devotion of the poor humble folk. Filled with the thrilling joy of the Angels song and the bright good news the shepherds had only their adoration of the infant Jesus to give. It was indeed the first gift that Jesus received. How could Mary not be delighted? And who could imagine that this delight would fade with the mere passing of years? The arrival of the Wise Men with their welcome gifts and their acknowledgement of the celestial significance of her child would serve too to remind the Blessed Virgin that her child was not hers alone, He was a Divine child and His life would have a purpose and meaning greater than that of any other man born of woman. These visitors with their backstories of Angels and stars point us to two more Christmas truths. Christmas is not just a private event it is a community one, preeminently the communion of the faithful but the office parties, the being kind to annoying strangers on the bus because its the season of goodwill, remembering to check that the frail neighbours are ok, giving alms to the homeless and treats to the carol singers are all part of the community Christmas and not the least important part either. The second truth this points to is that Christmas really and truly is a religious feast. The Son of Mary is the Son of God, born of a virgin, Saviour of the World. The Angels rejoiced for a reason, the star shone for more purposes than one, a guide to the Magi and a sign to us. There may have been days when our Lady did not recall shepherds or wise men, donkeys, oxen and cribs but there was never a day when she did not rejoice in the God from whom and for whose purposes her greatest gift had come. And Jesus is His greatest gift to us also.

                                          Christ Appearing to His Mother by Guercino 1629

In the events of the Nativity of our Lord we can discern all three of the theological virtues, faith, hope and love. It is safe therefore to infer that they would all have been present in Mary's Christmas meditations. It seems to me that of these three hope is the chief and characteristic feature of the season of Advent and its culminating festival. As our Lady encountered layer after layer in that Christmastide palimpsest of memory I think also that for her hope was its key note. Inextricably linked with the Bethlehem events was that scene nine months before when the Archangel Gabriel had said-
"Behold, you will conceive in your womb and bear a son, and you shall name him Jesus. He will be great and will be called Son of the Most High, and the Lord God will give him the throne of David his father, and he will rule over the house of Jacob forever, and of his kingdom there will be no end.”
(Luke 1:31-33)
So from the moment He was Incarnated in her womb Mary's Son carried her liveliest hopes, for the liberation of Israel and the world from the dominion of sin and death and for the bringing of unconditional love into not only her own life but into every life. And that birth attended as it was with heavenly signs, followed as it was by the prophecies of Simeon (Luke 2:25-35) confirmed, strengthened and made present those same hopes. Even the attendant features, giving birth in poverty, fleeing into Egypt, the Massacre of the Innocents could not dim a hope founded on such sure foundations and now sustained by the living, breathing, joy-giving presence of that tiny infant, flesh of her flesh, who had become the centre and purpose of her whole life. Nor could the perhaps weary years of toil and obscurity when that child was growing before her eyes into the man who would fulfil all that she had been promised and more besides.

In those Christmases which the Blessed Virgin kept between His Ascension and her Assumption it would not have been possible to think of the crib without recalling the Cross. The life which had lain naked and vulnerable in her soft arms at Bethlehem had before the end hung naked and vulnerable once again upon the hard arms of the tree of death on Calvary. The hope which had entered the world from Mary's womb seemed to be buried in the sepulchre of the garden. But if Jesus had died indeed the hope in His mother's heart had not died with Him. It was built on the testimony of the Angels in Judea, the star seen in the East, the Son whom she had come to know as no other creature would or could come to know Him and love as no other creature would or could love Him. This golden thread running through her life could not be snapped. And privately, delicately, filially He returned to her. A joyous moment, a transport of delight an outpouring of love beyond the power of imagination, a second Christmas. Of His appearances to the Holy Women  and to the Apostles the Gospel speaks but of this moment there is a discreet and respectful silence and who can wonder?

St Luke records (Luke 24:51-52) that after the Ascension the disciples experienced great joy. Mary is certainly included in that description. And yet, and yet...she was a mother, she had seen her Son die an agonising, horrible death. Such a Son, such a death. And more than this He was now hid from her sight until it should be the will of God for her own life to come to the end of its mortal, terrestrial journey. No one was more nourished by the Spirit in prayer than the Mother of God, no one enjoyed a more close relationship to the Father than she, no one experienced the sacrament of the Eucharist in a more complete manner than she. However, the final, complete and eternal reunion with her Son, body, soul and spirit was not yet accomplished. The plenitude of happiness awaited her but had not yet come. The time to cease exercising the virtue of patience was yet some distance into the future. As Mary celebrated these Christmases of the interregnum years reflecting on her Son's entrance into the world of Men how powerfully she must have felt the hope that the time was near when she would enter fully into the world of heaven. How longingly she looked for her birthday in the Kingdom of God so that she could resume that fully human loving relationship that she had brought into the world on that birthday which we now call Christmas. As in so many things Mary is here our prototype. Sustained by hope, filled with longing the Christian should ever look to that time when we shall see Him face to face and know Him even as we are known. (cf 1 Corinthians 13:12)

Don't forget to read my Nativity fable Adoration of the Pangolins downloadable from Wattpad.

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Wednesday, 17 December 2014

Et Incarnatus Est

                                          The Newborn by Georges de La Tour 

And the Word became flesh and dwelt among us
(John 1:14)

And to the angel of the church in Smyrna write: ‘The words of the first and the last, who died and came to life.'
(Revelation 2:8)

The extreme adaptability of humans can be a mixed blessing. Their ability to exist and even flourish in extremes of nature caused by climate or terrain is a valuable survival tool. Their ability to do the same in the face of abnormal conditions caused by human folly or sin as in a tyranny, a religious cult or even a workplace run by incompetent managers is both a survival mechanism and a brake on effecting change. When something extraordinary becomes the 'new normal' it can take an extra effort to see just how unjust, unfair, dysfunctional or plain wrong it is and an even bigger effort to persuade people to do something about it.

Sometimes this adaptability has a more subtle effect still. When the Christian doctrine of the Incarnation began to be proclaimed it immediately provoked strong reactions. Jews thought it a horrible blasphemy, Greeks a foolish absurdity. From the moment of their first encounter with it they realised its revolutionary implications for the world of thought and religion and reacted accordingly. So radical were these implications that even many who were attracted by the figure of Jesus rejected them and most of the heresies which the primitive Church had to battle, from Gnosticism to Arianism, aimed quite precisely at removing the doctrine of Incarnation from the Christian credo.

However with the spread of Christianity and the passage of time Incarnation became the new normal. It's implications did not stop being revolutionary but these implications for the most part did stop being considered. Humans adapted to the extraordinary by banalising it, ignoring it or denying it under a form of words which implied accepting it. It belongs, however, to the peculiar genius of the Catholic Church that it is this doctrine above all others which she has held patiently, doggedly and unapologetically before the eyes of the faithful and the world these past two millennia or so. It is this which lies behind the myriad images of the baby Jesus and the crucified Christ, behind the cult of Mary and the saints, behind the relics, the shrines, the pilgrimages and most of all behind the holy sacrifice of the Mass as the 'source and summit of Christian life.' To the extent that we simply consider these things severally and together as just being the Catholic 'brand' the stuff that Catholics do then we miss the point that it is not just what Catholicism does but also what Catholicism is. To see why this is so we need to step back several paces so that we can encounter the doctrine of Incarnation as if for the first time.

From ancient times it has been an accepted psychological fact that people are often wracked by severe internal conflicts. St Paul expresses it in this fashion 'What I do, I do not understand. For I do not do what I want, but I do what I hate' (Romans 7:15.) Conventionally this has been understood as the lower self battling against the higher self. It would still be so regarded indeed were it not that judgmentalism has become the only unforgivable sin in the modern West. The classic understanding saw the flesh at war with the spirit, the appetites with the intellect, the irrational with the reasonable. The model has much to commend it, so much so that secular social science renamed it 'deferred gratification' and adopted it to its own use. Hovering behind this paradigm is the 'why' question, why are we conflicted?, and the 'how' question, how can we resolve or escape from this conflict?

One answer, which comprehensively embraces Greek philosophy, Indian religion, Gnostic heresy and arguably some understandings of Protestantism is to see the spirit of a person being a different entity from the body of a person. The particular body which a person inhabits is an accident of history but the spirit and that alone is the essence of person. The spirit not the body has a relationship with God (or is identical to Him) and endures to eternity. This means that the object of the spiritual life is to leave the body behind. What the flesh does is either inimical to salvation or satori or God realisation or whatever or else it is irrelevant depending on your cult of choice. Gnosticism (inspired by Zoroastrianism) took this line of thought to its logical conclusion by suggesting that God only created spirit and that the material cosmos had been created by an evil demiurge. Everything material was wicked and spirits had fallen from the spiritual realm to become captives in the material one. Matter was despised and liberation from it was the only project worth pursuing. The Cathars expressed this idea by holding nothing to be more abhorrent than a pregnant woman representing as she did a newly captive spirit and procured abortions as the means by which the spirit could be set free to return to God

Not all such approaches go to the extremes of the Cathars but they do necessarily lead to either a passivity in relation to the body or an active hostility to it. The obverse of this view might be termed Dionysian which suggests that the appetites of the body exist to be served and that the apparatus of intellect and reason fulfils its purpose chiefly by delivering satisfactory sensual inputs to the body. This might be called a practical philosophy and whilst it has few advocates it certainly has innumerable adherents.

                                                       Deposition of Christ by Caravaggio 

Into all this comes the child Jesus, fully human and fully divine. Unlike a prophet or an enlightened teacher He is not simply a person filled with an abundance of spirit or who has more fully realised His essential nature concealed by the material barrier of Maya. Nor is He an Avatar of divinity who is human only in appearance or only temporarily. His humanity and His divinity are united eternally. The Logos of God is never not one thing with Jesus. Jesus is never separate from the Logos.  Because of the Incarnation the material universe in general and the human body in particular can be considered as part of the solution rather than as part of the problem. Bodies are not barriers to union with God or to salvation but an essential part of the equipment necessary to achieve these aims.

Certainly the flesh can fall under the dominion of sin (so can spirit and intellect of course) but it is not sinful by nature. Taking the classification of higher and lower functions the flesh is inherently vulnerable to temptation because of its greater distance from the seat of reason and spirituality but in the battle to control it inevitable victory belongs neither to good or evil. The body is always in a position to be retrieved from the dark side and more than that to become a positive force for good in the struggle for the triumph of light. Incarnation means that the whole person and every person can be saved and enter into a perfect relationship with the Divine Source of life. The Church, of course, counsels asceticism for her children and the world, the flesh and the devil are often highlighted as the enemies of salvation. This represents the important principle of balance between, in Aristotelian terms, excess and defect. The untamed flesh is an enemy, the tamed flesh is an ally. For the Gnostic or the Buddhist or even perhaps the extreme Lutheran the notion of 'tamed flesh' is inadmissible.

For God to enter so fully into the human condition, to become embodied, He begins His journey from within a body. That is, the project of Incarnation to be complete requires Jesus to be not only Son of God but also Son of Mary. His conception is miraculous but His gestation and birth follow the normal human pattern. He is as we are but without sin. There is no part of the human journey from conception to death which has not been divinised by His touch and which we also can therefore divinise by putting on Christ through faith. What the Cathars found abhorrent the Catholic finds to be suffused with the prospect of glory. And so we see, as I noted at the start, the cult of Mary is a celebration of the Incarnation of God through her. The cult of the saints is a celebration of the Incarnation made present in their lives through the actions of their bodies The relics, the shrines, the pilgrimages all point to the fact that material objects and places can, properly used, be not barriers to spiritual progress but, because of the Incarnation spiritual superhighways. And the supreme expression of this is the Eucharist where Divinity is not only made present under the appearance of bread and wine but is consumed and incorporated by the faithful. It is, perhaps, this sacrifice of the Mass which causes the greatest scandal to the greatest number of critics of the Catholic faith; atheists, Muslims, Jews, Protestants (or at least their most logically consistent spokespersons) all for different reasons find the notion appalling, revolting, disgusting, ludicrous and any number of other epithets you could think of. Good. I'm glad that this is so. It shows that the Church is faithful in its adherence to the central saving truth of its faith. When those who reject the doctrines of the Church approve of it worship and liturgies then it will be a sign that the Church has lost its way.

Non-religious readers who have made it this far may say that Incarnation is nothing more nor less than an elegant solution to a non-existent problem. Modern psychology has described and explained these internal conflicts and proposed solutions to them which do not require the notion of spirit or spirituality. It is not only beyond my powers to address this comprehensively but it would unduly try the patience of those poor souls who have already spent so much time with this blog which they started under the impression that it was a jolly Christmas story. I will just say that psychology is a useful science and has given us many tools which are helpful in healing troubled souls. What it hasn't done is disproved God and, moreover, to the extent that material techniques are useful in addressing spiritual needs it can be argued that it confirms more than it refutes the notion that divinity can find a home in the bodies of men and women because Jesus has made all things possible

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Saturday, 13 December 2014

Sense & Sensuality

                                     Allegory of Modesty and Vanity by Bernadino Luini

And the servants of the goodman of the house coming said to him: Sir, didst thou not sow good seed in thy field? whence then hath it cockle? And he said to them: An enemy hath done this. And the servants said to him: Wilt thou that we go and gather it up?  And he said: No, lest perhaps gathering up the cockle, you root up the wheat also together with it.

In the last time there should come mockers, walking according to their own desires in ungodlinesses. These are they, who separate themselves, sensual men, having not the Spirit

Because I have a short attention span I've always had a soft spot for the Very Small Books in the Bible. I'm especially fond of the Old Testament books of Ruth and of Jonah. They are good stories and, apart from their religious content are full of little vignettes of human emotion from tender love to extreme crabbiness. The Very Small Books of the New Testament are more 'difficult' since they lack narrative and touch on deep spiritual and theological themes which you can't really get to grips with unless you have a good working knowledge of the ideas contained in the rest of the NT. Nonetheless the Catholic Epistle of St Jude the Apostle has several things going for it, its only 25 verses long, it illustrates the wheat and tares parable of our Lord and it is attributed to the patron saint of lost causes who is an appropriate patron for this little cottage blog that dreams of international stardom.

Essentially the letter concerns the presence within the body of Christ of those who do not truly belong to it. While it hints that there may be doctrinal disputes involved ("denying the only sovereign Ruler, and our Lord Jesus Christ" v4) it firmly lays the blame for those disruptive tendencies at the door of disordered desires. Like the Didache but less explicitly it presupposes that there are two ways, that of life and that of death the former rooted in the spirit and the latter in sensuality. St Jude gives a list of historical precedents for this kind of thing finishing with a threefold peroration-
Woe unto them, for they have gone in the way of Cain:
 and after the error of Balaam they have for reward poured out themselves,
 and have perished in the contradiction of Core
This echoes the first verse of the Book of Psalms
Blessed is the man
    who walks not in the counsel of the wicked,
nor stands in the way of sinners,
    nor sits in the seat of scoffers
Except that St Jude casts in a negative way (woe unto them) what David had cast in a positive one (blessed is the man.) It is significant that the three examples which he highlights relate examples of human vices specifically and directly to religious actions. The story of Cain (Genesis 4:1-16) displays anger and envy which leads to murder, this stems from the fact that the sacrifice offered to God by Cain's brother Abel is more pleasing to God than Cain's own offering. Balaam acts as a prophet-for-hire, that is although he has received a great gift from God, that of prophecy, he is willing to misuse that gift on behalf of the enemies of God if they pay him enough (Numbers 22.) Greed then is one of the traits that can lead us onto the way of death, doubly so perhaps if we abuse our God given charisma in the service of wickedness.

The episode of Core or Korah is probably less well known these days but it serves the author as a useful hinge since it illustrates both ways, that of life and that of death, thus giving us an early preview of his later positive prescriptions. Basically Korah leads a rebellion against the divine ordinance that reserves the priesthood to Aaron and his family "They assembled themselves together against Moses and against Aaron and said to them, “You have gone too far! For all in the congregation are holy, every one of them, and the Lord is among them. Why then do you exalt yourselves above the assembly of the Lord?” (Numbers 16:3) So Korah and his followers stood with censers swinging to offer incense to God and Aaron and his sons did the same with rather unpleasant results for Korah et al. Here the sin described is envy (again!) aggravated by pride. This example was and is much to the point insofar as it relates to the Church. There are different roles within the body of Christ, the priesthood of all believers does not mean that each believer is called to fulfill the same function as each other believer. Some are called to be Apostles, some presbyters, some prophets, some teachers and so on. To aim at exercising a charism which God has not gifted you with is not obedience unto life but rebellion unto death.

                                                    Allegory of Chastity by Memling

St Jude's prescription for life is twofold, right belief (orthodoxy) as a necessary foundation for right action (orthopraxy.) While history and, no doubt, our own personal lives clearly evidences that there is often no real connection between what we profess to believe and what we actually do the theory here is that what we really and truly hold as our heart-beliefs is reflected in our outward actions, for better or for worse. Thus if we internalise orthodoxy we shall externalise orthopraxy. At this point the non-orthodox among you will begin to get red or purple in the face and evince a desire to jump up and down yelling irately that one does not have to be a Christian to 'do the right thing.' This is both correct and wrong, but not in equal measure. The correctness consists in the fact that heart-belief, to the extent that is good and virtuous, is always and only prompted by the grace of God. When your heart is aligned with His promptings and cooperates with them in your outward actions then you can to a greater or lesser extent be credited with orthopraxy. However, there are limitations to this if your response to grace is made while unconscious of the presence of grace since you attribute its promptings either to yourself, your sound reason, your innate goodness, or to the effects of the good example set by others, perhaps beginning with your parents. This means that the good actions you perform are limited to what, say, your reason finds to be a suitable response to the partly understood promptings of God felt in your heart. What you don't offer then is gratitude and praise to Him who is the source of both your will and your actions, nor can you strengthen yourself in continued good doing through a personal relationship with Him, through faith, in prayer and in the sacraments. Heartfelt orthodoxy is the only basis upon which consistent orthopraxy can be based which is not the same thing as saying that orthodoxy is the only basis for a life of good and generous acts.

So how according to St Jude can we know of what right belief consists? He gives us two hints firstly by talking of the faith once delivered to the saints (v3) and then later where he says be mindful of the words which have been spoken before by the apostles of our Lord Jesus Christ. (v17) It is worthy of noticing that in a short letter saturated with references to the Old Testament he does not suggest that Scripture alone should be the source from which orthodox belief is derived. In part this might be because as well as the biblical sources he uses our Apostle also quotes or refers to apocryphal or non-canonical sources such as The Assumption of Moses, the Book of Enoch and the Testament of the Twelve Patriarchs. It is as if he is saying to the Christian community that there are a wide variety of written sources from which we can draw nourishment some of them contain this or that element of God's revelation to Man and some contain material which is edifying or useful but not revelatory and thus non-binding. The only sure fountain from which we can drink the water of salvation in all its purity is the teaching of the Apostles and the traditions which they have handed down (or for his contemporaries are still handing down since, of course the Epistle he was writing was part of that deposit of faith then being laid down.) In short, the Christian faith is Apostolic before it is scriptural.

Some one thousand eight hundred years later Blessed John Henry Cardinal Newman reflected on this very question. In Apologia pro Vita Sua he wrote  the sacred text was never intended to teach doctrine, but only to prove it, and that, if we would learn doctrine, we must have recourse to the formularies of the Church.  His argument being that the complex, multi-layered, multiple genre containing Bible is not a thing which any individual can safely use to deduce the entire structure of belief from. We require to understand it in the same way that the Apostles guided by the Holy Spirit understood it (and in part wrote it) for which purpose the only available source to us is the continuous understanding of the Church which those Apostles founded and which continues in unbroken succession to this day. More than that in a sermon Faith and Private Judgement he described the process by which the contents of the Christian religion were received by the Church in its epoch of foundation. ...either the Apostles were from God, or they were not; if they were, everything that they preached was to be believed by their hearers; if they were not, there was nothing for their hearers to believe That is one did not analyse their words accepting this and rejecting that, this was a straightforward either/or choice. One cannot describe a religion based on Scripture Alone in the same way that one can describe that religion based on the Apostles because in the former one uses one's private judgement and the final arbiter of doctrine is personal opinion while in the latter it is the opinion of the Apostles which is to say the Holy Spirit to which one submits.        

So, having received the Apostolic faith what do we do with it, how does it express itself in action? St Jude gives us this description You, my beloved, building yourselves upon your most holy faith, praying in the Holy Ghost, keep yourselves in the love of God, waiting for the mercy of our Lord Jesus Christ (vv20-21.) Here the Apostle touches lightly upon a sequence of actions which to fully expound would take more space than this blog has and more knowledge than this blogger possesses. You can discern the three theological virtues of faith, hope and love in what St Jude says and of these three the greatest is love so perhaps the most effectual commentary on St Jude's prescription comes from St Paul-

Love is patient and kind; 
love does not envy or boast; 
it is not arrogant or rude. 
It does not insist on its own way; 
it is not irritable or resentful; 
it does not rejoice at wrongdoing, 
but rejoices with the truth. 
Love bears all things, 
believes all things, 
hopes all things, 
endures all things. 

Love never ends

The sensual man (meaning man or woman) whom our Apostle talks about in verse 19 is one whose love is primarily directed towards himself and restricted to the realm of material things and sensations. Over against this is the way of life, the way of good sense, grounded in the spirit and lived out as a life which is primarily directed outward to God and neighbour. For it is a fact that love of necessity is never a solitary thing, it always requires to overflow from the individual, it can only exist by being shared. To hoard it is to lose it, to spend it is to increase it. To the extent that the Church contains both wheat and tares one of the functions allotted to each grain of wheat is, by love, to transform each sensual seed into a new grain of wheat which will flourish and give forth some thirtyfold, some sixtyfold and some an hundredfold fruits of love and life.

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Sunday, 7 December 2014

Advent and the Problem of Suffering

All that I was, is gone, the ambition, the happiness that was mine swept away like clouds before the storm; my heart is dead within me, a prey to long despairs
Book of Job 30:15-16

He will wipe away every tear from their eyes, and there will be no more death, or mourning, or cries of distress, no more sorrow; those old things have passed away.
Book of Revelation 21:4

Whatever the reality might be the popular image of the pre-Christmas season is that it is a time of happy bustling busy-ness finally crowned with a joyful day of celebration. It may then seems perverse to consider the problem of suffering in the context of this time of the year. Perhaps you will think it less so when I mention that I begin to write this on the 16th anniversary of my mother's sudden and unexpected death on 7 December 1998. Indeed it has been my experience both personal and professional (as a registered nurse) that for a good many people the month of December is associated with either the vivid presence of actual suffering or with memories of it still laden with the power to cause deep pain.

To the extent that Christmas is a secular festival charged with no higher moral purpose than to be a cause of universal jolliness and over-consumption then the mere mention of death, pain, affliction and torment can be seen as a crime against the season. The subliminal message is 'don't rain on our parade, keep your sorrows to yourself.' This can poison Advent and Christmastide for many who feel obliged to hide what they cannot comfortably share. As my father remarked some years after our joint bereavement 'The magic has gone from Christmas now.'

Fortunately the Feast of the Nativity of the Lord is not simply a secular festival and Advent is more than a shopping and partying season. The Church sets aside a time for us to prepare to welcome Jesus. And we can give over a part of this time to considering why it is that we need Him, which of His gifts to us should most fill us with gratitude. As part of the seemingly endless Culture Wars in the USA the slogan 'remember the reason for the season' has gained some traction. To the extent that this is simply a political blunt instrument for political conservatives to hit political liberals over the head with its use is regrettable. To the extent that it reminds people that trying to consider Christmas apart from Jesus doesn't really make much sense it is useful. Nonetheless on both counts it misses a valuable point. Sin, death and suffering are the reasons for the season. Jesus came into the world to combat and defeat these enemies of ours, He is a warrior and a healer because we are wounded and under attack from without and within.

During Advent we can identify our wounds and prepare to present them to our Lord that they may be healed or, since their is no permanent healing in this life, at least bound up. It is always useful when asking for gift to ask ourselves why we want or need it. It is no sin to want a new toy or a little taste of luxury or something beautiful but impractical. The innocent  little pleasures of life in moderation are part of the gift of life itself and God Himself gives of them freely filling the world with unnecessary beauty. But it is in an enduring relationship with the giver of the gifts that we are most enriched whether that giver be a parent, a child, a sibling, a friend, a valued colleague or the Creator of all that is.

There is much truth in the cliché that the mission of the Church is to comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable. The temptation which she faces is to overemphasise the first at the expense of the second. A corporate body perceived to be primarily engaged in the business of benevolently consoling the suffering and vulnerable is not apt to become so estranged from the world that it becomes the object of persecution and produce its crop of martyrs. A comforting Church can become a comfortable Church and thus herself in need of being afflicted by prophetic voices which call her back to the task of denouncing the individual, collective and structural sinfulness of the world. The key note for her must be one of balance. She, and we, should recall that very often the comfortable and the suffering are not different groups of people but that both states can exist within the same person. The wife and mother who rejoices in her family may still carry within her the scars of childhood abuse. The father who lights up a room with his ready smile may never forget the brutal torture that forced him to flee his native land.

The theme of balance too applies to those of us who suffer. To endlessly chew over and rehearse in our imagination the same little list of sorrows affords us no benefit, to try to repress and suppress memories of pain does us real harm. Advent and the Christian life in general affords us the opportunity to recall our afflictions in the context of the coming of the one who is our healer. They no longer remain our private property but a become a fully shared experience since the Jesus who was born in poverty and died, abandoned, on a Cross enters into all our anguishes and casts the light of hope upon them. Our hunger will not be assuaged by a six-course Christmas dinner but it will be by the coming into our life of God's Son, Mary's Son, Jesus our Saviour.

We are beset by dangers on every side and for Christians who do constantly recall both their sufferings and their Lord there is a special one. It is a feeling that if they still experience pain, if they are still afflicted then it means that somehow they are not good enough Christians, that if only their faith was deeper the pain would go away. Well, Jesus was a good enough Christian and His pain only ended with death. The Book of Job with which I began this post tells of a man who was so righteous that even God Himself praised Him. Yet Job suffered for reasons neither he nor we can fully understand. Stuff happens. The healing which Jesus brings is real healing but it is not always one that we can fully understand or appreciate in this life and may well leave a residue of physical or emotional affliction that never departs from us. That is not a failure of faith, or a failure of God for that matter, it is a truth which we cannot yet understand but which one day we hope that we shall.

Another thing worth recalling about Job is And cruelly he smote Job; smote him with the foul scab from head to foot,  so that he was fain to sit him down on the dung-hill, and scratch himself with a shard where he itched. (Job 2:7-8)  Job endured what he had to endure but also employed a shard to help deal with the sufferings he was experiencing. So too we should make use of whatever tools are at hand to help us in our need: medicines, therapies, doctors, nurses, counselling, whatever. It is wise to find a way through Christ, with Christ and in Christ to endure what must be endured. It is foolish to endure what we can honourably avoid unless we choose to do so as a voluntary sacrifice.

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Friday, 5 December 2014

The Nativity- A Universal Story

                                 Detail from The Census at Bethlehem by Breugel the Elder

Joseph consoled and encouraged the Holy Virgin. He was so good: he suffered so much because the journey was so painful to her. He spoke to her about the good lodgings which he expected to procure at Bethlehem: he knew of a house belonging to some very honest people, where they could be well accommodated at reasonable expense. He praised Bethlehem in general, and said anything he could to console her. This gave me anxiety, as I knew things would turn out otherwise.
The Nativity of our Lord Jesus Christ by Anne Catherine Emmerich

As we draw closer to the day when we celebrate The Greatest Story Ever Told (the Nativity, of course, as opposed to the Downton Abbey Christmas special), let us meditate upon the importance of narrative truth. Can we please bring back “the journey”? Or at least some semblance of any actual reality? 
Reality TV badly needs a dose of reality by Viv Groskop

This idea, published in the aggressively secularist Guardian newspaper, that the Nativity story is in some ways the model for an account of "the journey" set me thinking about why this might be so,or regarded as so by many. One of the appealing features (apparently) of Reality TV is that ordinary people go on an "incredible journey" from humble obscurity to fame (or at least celebrity) and fortune (or at least enough money to buy a tastelessly decorated house and some bling). An arc which takes our hero from a log cabin to a pink house. This basic plot line has appeared in thousands of format throughout history from the Hobbit to that saying of Napoleon which goes- Every private in the French army carries a field-marshal's baton in his knapsack.

All of this seems a long way from Joseph and Mary setting out from Nazareth to Bethlehem until we look at the core elements of the story. Our Lady is heavily pregnant and the terrain they must cover is not easy. Thus the journey is a difficult one but they are filled with hope, the child of promise will be born to them when they reach their destination. At journey's end there is disappointment since they cannot find a suitable place to stay. They end up in the poor shelter of a grotto. And then, into the midst of this rejection and poverty a new life is born, angels rejoice, shepherds and wise men celebrate all is life and light, joy and hope. It might be argued that our need to hear this story is so great that imagination has added in details which are not warranted by the extant texts. Without going into the argument about the relative priority of Tradition and Text I propose to look at why each of us feels need to hear the story of "the journey" and why it appears in so many different contexts.

In some ways its obvious that the external elements of the tale are something to which most of us can relate. Very often our lives can be characterised as journeying in hope, facing disappointment and/or rejection and then surmounting those difficulties if not in our own person then through our proxies be these our children, our sports team, our political party or whatever. But then any old quest story would do, and goodness knows we have plenty to choose from, so there is something particular about the Nativity which speaks to us beyond the simple externals of it. The specifically Christian element obviously speaks to Christians and to some extent those culturally influenced by Christianity. That is, we recognise something special in that mother and in that child. They somehow embody both an Everywoman/Everyman quality as well as an emblematic one, standing as signs of goodness and virtue. That is they are paradoxically inspirational figures encouraging us to change ourselves and mirrors of our better selves. Yet even these two combined, the external facts and the Christian content would do not serve to make the story as universal as it is.

There are, I think, two chief elements which combine to universalise the appeal of the Nativity narrative and they are both centered on the figure of Mary. Firstly and necessarily she is pregnant. There are relatively few "journey" stories which feature pregnant women for reasons too numerous to list. One factor would be that pregnancy itself is a journey. Whether our Lady travelled to Bethlehem or not a child would have been born to her, her life would have been transformed. The external details of the trip are simply a reflection in the outer world of a development which in any event was taking place in her inner world. The drama of pregnancy and childbirth is one in which all of us have been involved in, sometimes in more than one capacity. So, insofar as the Nativity describes not only an historical (or quasi-historical for non-believers) event but also an intimate and personal one to each person who hears it then it is a universal story.

                                   Mary and Joseph travel to Bethlehem- Hugo van der Goes

Again, though, pregnancy is so universal that you might think that any old story would meet our need to encounter this tale, to reflect upon it and celebrate it. Another element is required and this is to be found in Mary's virginity. The appeal extends beyond those who will accept this virginity as a dogmatic truth (as I emphatically do) and includes all those who suspend disbelief for the sake of the inner logic of the story with which they are interacting. There is a Catholic axiom that at the Annunciation our Lady conceived Jesus in her heart before she conceived Him in her virginal womb. Her joyful consent to the plans of God was the foundation to everything that followed and has an essential part in the whole economy of salvation. From the narrative point of view this means that the new hope which Mary carries within her has the force of an Idea. That is to say that she is not simply heavy with child but that she is also filled with everything that that child represents and all of this does not depart from her at the birth of our Lord but remains with her and imbues all that she does not only in relation to Him but in relation to all whom she encounters and all that she does.

This axiom universalises the story because it recasts pregnancy and the journey of pregnancy into a form which everyone, male and female, young and old, can personally identify with. Each of us carry within ourselves ideas, plans, dreams, hopes. We constantly seek to bring them out of our head and hearts and into the world. Our journey through life is an attempt to reach our Bethlehem, to give birth to our child of promise, to share it with a rejoicing world. One of the effects of the doctrine of the Incarnation is that embodies abstract ideas into material realities, it draws together two worlds which often seem far apart. This speaks to a real human need which is why, for example, Protestant denominations which resolutely resist the idea of candles and icons, statues and incense because they think physical objects detract from spiritual worship of the spiritual God will annually re-enact or represent the Nativity. For humans ideas are not enough we need to see them inhabit physical space at least once a year for them to remain real and vital to us.        

The universality of the Nativity narrative is a mixed blessing for the Church. Whilst it ensures that the annual outing of the story is guaranteed a huge audience it contains within itself a seed of temptation. The more the universal is emphasised the bigger and more responsive the audience becomes. However, the evangelical purpose of the Church is to convert lives, to change them, not simply to affirm them, to suggest that everything that people do now is just fine. Always the shadow of the Cross over the crib is to be remembered. Mary is not just a representative figure for all those who carry ideas and hopes towards fruition. She carries a specific Idea, a single Word one whose coming is necessitated by our own fallen and broken state, our propensity to selfishness and sin. Jesus comes into the world to heal the breach that we ourselves have created and the reconciliation is effected by His Passion and death at Easter. Sin is as universal as hope and it hovers over the Nativity story as one of its effective causes (the other being God's infinite causeless love for us). In their efforts to broaden their appeal by the use of an archetypal story which is their peculiar possession Christian's must resist the temptation to dilute its message by focussing exclusively on hearts and flowers to the detriment of thorns and broken life's. As perceptive readers will already have noticed the English word universal has the same meaning as the Greek derived word catholic. In its retelling of the Nativity the Church must always aim to recount it as a Catholic story in every sense of the term.

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Monday, 1 December 2014

Advent- The Final Countdown

                                           Hans Memmling- Last Judgement Triptych 

For the Lord himself will descend from heaven with a cry of command, with the voice of an archangel, and with the sound of the trumpet of God. And the dead in Christ will rise first.
1 Thessalonians 4:16

In the secular West there are a number of beliefs which are considered so ridiculous that no persons pretensions to intellectual respectability will be accepted if they admit to accepting those beliefs On religion the default position is agnosticism and, increasingly, atheism. A sort of bloodless Deism which asserts the existence of an abstract First Cause who by no chance intervenes in the universe which it has created is about borderline acceptable in a patronising sort of way. To assert the truth of things like Heaven, Hell, the Resurrection or the Second Coming of Christ and Final Judgement is to consign yourself to the realm of the witless, the uneducated or the credulous. Some Christians, ie liberal theologians, who desire both to be intellectually respectable and belong to the Church or one of the ecclesial communities of the Reformation will suggest that these things are merely symbolic or metaphorical or they will simply not mention them at all and hope that no one notices. The season of Advent presents a particular challenge for such people since the Parousia or Second Coming is one of the main focuses of the Churches liturgy at this time.

The feeling of all these, from atheists to liberals, seems to be that such beliefs were rational enough in more ignorant times but that now 'science' has conclusively disproved them. Of course, science has done no such thing, nor can it since they lie outside of the scientific domain. These beliefs are, however, incompatible, with an outlook called 'scientism' which suggests that everything is within the domain of science and that what cannot be proved by it or aspire to being proved by it cannot be true. The crux of the matter is what one believes about the nature of God. Where one takes as a starting point either that there is no God or that God does not intervene in the universe then it follows that none of these things can be true. If, on the other hand, one accepts the notion of an interventionist God then there is nothing intrinsically improbable about any of these things. They are not a necessary deduction which flows from such a belief, however, we can only know about them (or think we know about them) if one of the forms of intervention which our Deity initiates is a specific revelation of Himself and of His purposes. Science, as such, can neither prove nor disprove any of these postulates therefore scientism concludes that they must not be true but scientism cannot prove its own postulate that everything falls within the domain of science so its opinion is only an opinion and may well be a wrong opinion.

While it is not possible apart from revelation to say very much about how or why an interventionist God might intervene if we once accept in full any single part of that revelation then it becomes possible to infer much of the rest. With the doctrine of the Incarnation this is certainly so. The two central features of this doctrine appear to me to be-
1) Jesus is fully divine and fully human.
2) The life and mission of our Lord necessarily took place in the context of the Jewish people and their covenant relationship with God.
Knowing this we can go on to deduce the universal reality of sin, the necessity of redemption and the final, complete and irrevocable victory over sin and its consequences effected by Jesus. We can also deduce that from a human point of view this remains 'work in progress' since sin continues to hold dominion to a greater or lesser extent within each human heart and the world as a whole. Since this is so it follows that to complete what might be called the visible part of His mission Jesus shall return and put all things to rights. Therefore it is purely irrational to celebrate the birth of Jesus at Christmas but to deny, downplay or ignore the Parousia unless you deny the doctrine of Incarnation and suppose that our Lord was simply a wise Rabbi. Christianity is a coherent structure you can reject it in total or accept it in total but you cannot accept it merely in part unless you wilfully ignore the intellectual and philosophical inconsistencies which flow from such a position.

So, Advent is a time of preparation for the threefold coming of our Lord: past, present and future. We commemorate his historic entry into the world at Christmas, (although strictly speaking His Incarnation was effected at the Annunciation, human life begins at conception) we strive to welcome Him into our hearts at this moment in time and we look to His return and the creation of a new heaven and a new earth. Very often the two things, Parousia and Last Judgement, are considered as one. However we can separate them out to an extent. In this life Christians encounter Jesus under more or less veiled forms, in the Gospels, in the Sacraments, in our neighbours, present but hidden in the life of the Church, in our prayers, in our hearts and so on. One day we shall encounter Him as He is, human and divine, and we shall do so face to face. This will not be a different Jesus from the Son of Mary, from the teacher who walks through the pages of the Gospel, from the One we encounter in the Eucharist. He is the same yesterday, today and forever. The most important question when that encounter takes place is not 'will I be punished?' or 'will I be rewarded?' It is 'will my heart leap for joy, will my love for Him burst forth from me?' If you love Him with a perfect love then you will be content whatever His judgement on you might be. The purpose of Advent, the purpose of the Christian life is simply to prepare for that encounter so that we will say 'I love you Not my will but your will be done'

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Monday, 10 November 2014

Flying Bears

[This is a guest post by Claire George an Anglican/Episcopalian friend of mine)

The Teddy Bear Travels project has three aims.

1. Encourage church communities in different countries and denominations to use the internet to talk to each other.
2. Raise money for charity.
3. Give a child or special adult the joy of receiving a soft toy that has been on a global adventure.

The project works like this.

1. A soft toy is sent from one church or individual to another church abroad.
2. The receiving church photographs the toy and emails the picture to The photo is used in project publicity.
3. The receiving church then has a choice to give the toy to a person, or send it on to another church. This next church is asked to email in a photo and make its own choice about whether to send the toy on to another church.

I'm supporting two charities with this project. I'm asking people to sponsor me for Christian Aid via my just giving page. Or if they wish, they can give a PayPal donation to St Matthew's Episcopal Church in Fairbanks, Alaska, to help with its homeless outreach.

I'm very moved by the plight of Alaska's homeless because it's extremely cold there! I'm also impressed by the church's commitment to Native Alaskan language and culture.

If you want to join in by sending your own soft toys to churches, you're very welcome. 

It would be great if you could email me a photo of the toy you're sending, and ask the receiving church to email a photo of the toy at their end. It would be really good to keep an online list of all the churches that participate because this builds international relationships.

I will be posting Teddy Bear Travels updates on my blog.

*About Claire*

Claire George runs the website for St Laurence Cowley, an Anglican parish church in London. She believes in encouraging geographically dispersed churches to be neighbours and friends on the internet. She has gained from the spiritual insights of Alaskan Christians and wants to see similar knowledge sharing worldwide.

Her ambition is to send a teddy to meet Pope Francis and tour the Vatican Museum.

Tuesday, 16 September 2014

Praying to Saints?

                                                            Venerable Margaret Sinclair

When the centurion heard about Jesus, he sent to him elders of the Jews, asking him to come and heal his servant
Luke 7:3

Enemies of Catholicism suppose (or affect to suppose) that Catholics pray to Saints instead of praying to God. Those who are merely uninformed think that Catholics pray to Saints as well as praying to God. So what is the situation? The idea, briefly, is that Christians on earth ask Christians in heaven to join with them in praying for this or that petition. The two challenges to that proposition which I have encountered most frequently are-

  • Why not just pray directly yourself since Jesus is the sole mediator between Man and God?
  • How do we know that Saints can hear our prayers?
As far as the first point goes there are several possible answers. One Christian asking another Christian to pray for them has been standard practice since New Testament times. The Apostle St Paul wrote You also must help us by prayer (2 Corinthians 1:11) We know that the Apostle prayed directly to Jesus so clearly he did not see intercession by others as detracting from that but rather strengthening it. As he put it to the Philippians  for I know that through your prayers and the help of the Spirit of Jesus Christ this will turn out for my deliverance (Philippians 1:19) Why this kind of intercession might be helpful is something that St James addresses The effective prayer of a righteous person has great power (James 5:16) Which, by the way, raises the suggestion that in the eyes of God some people appear more righteous than others something which more hardline Protestants would deny absolutely. But I digress, the point is that asking others to pray for you is not a sign of your lack of faith in Jesus it is a frank recognition of your own failings. Because I suspect most of us reading this and myself writing it are very far from being righteous it is more than helpful to us to invoke the aid of those whom we know or suspect of being nearer to virtue than we ourselves are.

Does it somehow offend Jesus if we thus ask others to present our petitions to Him? The episode of the Centurion's Servant (or slave) in Luke (Chapter 7:1-10) indicates that far from being offended He is absolutely delighted. The story is that a Centurion has a servant (or slave) whom he loves and who is gravely ill. It is worth noting that as a Roman the Centurion is not only not Jewish but is actively involved in perpetuating the hated occupation of Palestine by a foreign power. So he sends Jewish leaders to Jesus to act as his advocates. They commend his petition for these reasons He is worthy to have you do this for him,  for he loves our nation, and he is the one who built us our synagogue  (vv4-5) That is both his charity and his works are presented to Jesus as being sufficiently meritorious to earn our Lord's goodwill. The argument seems persuasive enough insofar as our Lord and his entourage then set off to the Centurion's house. However the Roman then sends out a further bunch of advocates, his friends, who say to Jesus Lord, do not trouble yourself, for I am not worthy to have you come under my roof. (v6) And he makes the point that our Lord can simply command that the servant (or slave) be healed and that would suffice to make it happen, which of course it did. Did Jesus get het up because the Centurion chose to appeal to Him in this fashion? What He said was turning to the crowd that followed him,[He] said, “I tell you, not even in Israel have I found such faith.” (v9) 

I think that much of the confusion surrounding this issue stems from a misunderstanding that equates the role of mediator with that of advocate. Jesus is the sole mediator between Man and God in the sense that all reconciliation proceeds through Him and only through Him. Yet although this reconciliation is freely available to all not all will finally avail themselves of it. Some are estranged from God through lack of explicit or implicit faith in the Saviour. Others are estranged through sin which presents a barrier to grace though they may formally acknowledge the importance of Christ. Seeking to overcome these barriers through the assistance provided by the prayers of those who are in a state of grace is not replacing the mediatorship of Christ with that of the Saints it is a seeking by those with an imperfect faith to enter fully into the inheritance promised to those with perfect faith. That is, they certainly place their hopes in Christ, which is wise, but not in their own merits, which is also wise, thus they ask those whose merits are known to Christ to add to the sum of their own prayers and as it were tip the balance from justice to mercy a kind of accountancy that Jesus always smiles upon.

It is perhaps worth mentioning that the equivalent episode in the Gospel According to St Matthew (8:5-13) presents the story as if the Centurion and our Lord had actually met and engaged in a dialogue. I think that this can be explained by the different purposes underlying each Evangelists narrative. St Matthew was writing in the first instance for a primarily Jewish audience, his priorities were to emphasise that Jesus was a fulfilment of Old Testament prophecies and that these transformed the religious mission of the Jews from a national project to an international one with the renewed Israel becoming a beacon to the world-
“It is too light a thing that you should be my servant
    to raise up the tribes of Jacob
    and to bring back the preserved of Israel;
I will make you as a light for the nations,
    that my salvation may reach to the end of the earth.”
St Matthew then, as it were, bigs up the encounter between the heir of King David and the gentile in order to emphatically put Jesus' imprimatur on the mission to the gentiles which is why he includes this passage which is absent from St Luke's account
" I tell you, many will come from east and west and recline at table with Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob in the kingdom of heaven, while the sons of the kingdom will be thrown into the outer darkness. In that place there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.”

St Luke had different purposes and his account of our Lord's mission is often called "the Gospel of Prayer" (don't believe me? Google it.) Therefore he describes the episode with the Centurion in the way that he does precisely because it bigs up the prayer aspect, that is to say, the intercessory prayer aspect. One can easily reconcile the two accounts by considering that the words spoken by the advocates really were the words first spoken by the Centurion which is precisely what you would expect when Saints intercede for you with the addition, as St Luke notes, of extra material highlighting whatever merits you may possess.

                                                            St Margaret of Scotland

Granting that asking people to pray for you is not displaying a lack of faith in Christ but is actually being obedient to the plain sense of the Scriptures people still doubt whether it is legitimate to add Christians in heaven to our list of people that we ask. The question is do they hear our prayers. One school of thought is that when people die they enter into a 'soul sleep' which is to say that they literally snooze their way from death to the final judgement without any sort of awareness of their surroundings. The basis for this idea is the frequent references to people who die 'falling asleep.' But this, I think, only refers to the physical half of the equation, a dead person resembles a sleeping person when we look at them. There are, by contrast, numerous scriptural references to post-mortality people being very much alive to the eyes of God. Here are some-
  • And he said to him, “Truly, I say to you, today you will be with me in Paradise.” (Luke 23:43) Said to the 'good thief' on the Cross.
  • "Have you not read what was said to you by God: ‘I am the God of Abraham, and the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob’? He is not God of the dead, but of the living. (Matthew 22:31-32
  • The Parable of Lazarus and the rich man in Luke 16:19-31 which portrays Abraham, Lazarus and the rich man as all being spiritually alive and aware after their mortal death. It might be argued 'its just a parable' but it would be an extraordinarily misleading one for Jesus to use if there is no spiritual life and awareness among those who have passed on.
  • The Transfiguration (Mark 9:2-8) which includes- there appeared to them Elijah with Moses, and they were talking with Jesus. (v4) Now, Elijah had been assumed into heaven but Moses had unequivocally died and been buried. If Moses could hold a conversation with Jesus clearly he was both spiritually alive and aware of what was going on. I have heard it argued that 'it was just a vision' and not the real Moses but, again, it seems an extraordinarily misleading one if the scriptures want us to believe in 'soul sleep.'
So granting that intercessory prayer is scriptural and A Good Thing and granting that Christians after death are spiritually alive to God and aware what warrant do we have for assuming that they can hear our requests? Sacred Scripture offers no explicit guidance on this subject, asking Saints to add their prayers to ours is certainly not contrary to Scripture but neither is it affirmed by it. What we can say is that it is an ancient practice of the Church. It began with invoking the aid of martyrs whom the faithful have excellent grounds for believing to be in heaven. Protestant critics of Catholicism offer various competing dates for the time when the Church supposedly fell into apostasy. What we can say about praying to Saints is that it predates all of them. The Church which defined the Nicene Creed was a Church that prayed to Saints. Therefore anyone who accepts the one has no logical grounds not to accept the other and practically every Christian denomination does accept the Creed. It cannot surely be the case that the Holy Spirit guided the Church to be so profoundly right in these central matters of the faith but was entirely laissez faire about the prayer life of Christians. The practice then is not contrary to Scripture and is entirely consonant with the beliefs and practices of the Church from practically the get go. Individual Christians may not feel the need to invoke Saints, thats up to them, but they have no grounds to criticise others for doing so nor to suggest that it is somehow non-Christian or displaying a lack of faith in Christ our Lord and Saviour.

Finally, as with faith itself, the greatest proof is experimental. If you ask the Saints to join their prayers to yours then you will yourself discover the wonderful benefits which flow from the practice. Above all invoke the aid of Mary, Mother of Jesus, Mother of Christians, Mother of the Church and you will find that where, perhaps, grace once abounded now it will abound all the more. Going to Jesus through Mary shows no lack of faith in Jesus but at once is an affirmation of your own littleness and of that indescribably huge reservoir of love that flows between Jesus and His mother. There is nothing that He will refuse her and there is nothing containing virtue, charity or hope that she is not bold enough to ask from Him.

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