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 stlaurencecowley@gmail.com. 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. 

https://www.justgiving.com/Claire-George5/

http://www.stmatthewschurch.org/edonate



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.

http://fireworkschurch.blogspot.co.uk/search/label/Teddy%20bear%20travels

*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.”
(vv11-12)

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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Monday, 8 September 2014

Born to be Queen

                                              Blessed Virgin Mary from the Ghent Altarpiece

Taking the damsel by the hand, he saith to her: Talitha cumi, which is, being interpreted: Damsel (I say to thee) arise.  And immediately the damsel rose up, and walked: and she was twelve years old
Mark 5:41-42

It is the beginning of salvation, the origin of every feast for behold! The Mother of the Bridegroom is born. With good reason does the whole world rejoice today
St Peter Damian

Theologically speaking there is little that can be said about the birthday of the Blessed Virgin Mary on September 8 that cannot also be said about her Immaculate Conception on December 8. But when a child is hidden in the womb what is said about it has an abstract theoretical feel about it. Which is no doubt why people apparently find it so easy to justify, or pretend to justify, abortion to themselves. When the same child emerges into the world she or he becomes very real indeed. Hence, while the birthday of our Lady is less solemnly celebrated by the Church than her conception the feast of her nativity has a much more joyful feel about it. The birth of a child should be a joyful occasion and certainly Mary's parents, St Anne and St Joachim, were more than glad and after them the Church for all ages has joined in their celebrations. It is the case though, sadly, that historically and still today in many parts of the world the birth of a baby girl has been a cause for sorrow or at least disappointment.

The practice of female infanticide was, if not universal, at least very widespread indeed. That it has become less so in the past couple of thousand years is in no small part due to those religions which the secular world habitually refers to as misogynist. I will come to Christianity in a moment but in the first place I will say that it is (and I choose my words with care) to the eternal credit of the founder of Islam that, appalled by female infanticide, he condemned outright and forbad without equivocation the practice. Taking his usual robust approach to matters he brought about an end to the practice among Arabs and wherever Islam went afterwards it extended its protection to baby girls. Whatever the subsequent lot of women under Islam might be they have at least escaped a violent death at life's outset. By contrast atheist China with it's One Child policy has seen a sharp increase in female infanticide as well as abortion on grounds of gender over recent decades.

Christianity from the outset has also set its face against the killing of infant girls. Or, to put it in positive terms, has always held that women no less than men are members of the Kingdom of God. I shall return to the Blessed Virgin shortly but first I will consider an interesting episode from the life of her Son. Three of the Evangelists record the miracle within a miracle story of the daughter of Jairus and the woman with an issue of blood. For the sake of simplicity I will confine myself to St Mark's account (Mark 5:21-43) Briefly the story is that Jairus, 'one of the rulers of the synagogue', asks Jesus to come and heal his dying daughter. On the way a woman with a long standing 'issue of blood' touches His robe and 'forthwith the fountain of her blood was dried up.' Meanwhile the daughter of Jairus dies but undeterred our Lord and his entourage proceed to the house and raises the girl from the dead.

Neither the woman nor the daughter are named so we can take them as representative figures. The woman's illness, which is gynaecological, would have rendered her ritually unclean under the Law of Moses. St Mark tells us that she had suffered it for 12 years and thus been excluded from the assembly of the people and worship in Temple or synagogue for all that time. She was doubly offending against the Law by mingling with the crowd around our Lord and by touching Him because anyone who came into contact with her would themselves become ritually unclean. Yet Jesus says nothing of all this. What He says is Daughter, thy faith hath made thee whole: go in peace. By calling her daughter, by healing her of a uniquely female complaint and by disregarding the purity laws of Israel Jesus is making a strong affirmation that nothing bar sin excludes a person from the Kingdom of His Father, not gender, not illness, nothing. Moreover Divine Providence by including together in one episode a 'ruler of the synagogue' with one who had been excluded from that same synagogue for the same number of years that his daughter had been alive was making the point that His ways were not Man's ways but were founded on values that looked into the things of the Spirit more than the letter of the Law and certainly more than the sex of His children.

That Jairus is desperately concerned about his daughter's life and that he is an official of the synagogue is also no coincidence. There is a prayer used by some Orthodox Jews which goes  "Blessed are you, Lord, our God, ruler of the universe who has not created me a woman."  While this postdates New Testament times we can take it as a fair reflection of what Jewish thought at the time of Jesus actually was. In Jairus we have a man who is both Orthodox and desperately concerned about his daughter, so concerned that he turns to Jesus for help. Again Divine Providence is indicating to us the transformation which the Gospel brings about. The 'ruler of the synagogue' who values the life of his daughter so highly is stepping beyond the strict bounds of his worldview to find our Lord because He it is who make no differentiation between men and women, clean and unclean when it comes to giving His aid and His Spirit.    

The Gospels also record that our Lord's mission was, as it were, bookended by women. The first to become aware of the Incarnate Jesus was Mary His mother. The first to become aware of the Risen Jesus was another Mary, the Magdalene 'Apostle to the Apostles.' This profusion of witnesses to not only the value of women but to their centrality for the whole Christian project may seem a commonplace now to people in the West but that is only because the slow burning Christian revolution in human values has become the common currency of Western Societies. It is, indeed, the decline of Christianity which once again exposes female life to destruction in the form of abortion and it is precisely those societies most historically Christian (or presumably Muslim) where parents would not dream of aborting their children just because they were girls.


There is a tendency to project preconceived narratives onto Mary. Some feminist and liberation theologians look on the Mary of the Magnificat as a feisty class warrior or prototype for Rosie the Riveter. Rival schools of thought think of her as the archetypal non-feminist, meek, submissive, obedient, colourless. Others, more orthodox, think of her primarily as a remote empress who wields great power but is not warmly engaged in the lives of ordinary Christians. Of all the Marian feasts though perhaps her birthday is the time to think of her most of all as just herself.

Mary is characterised as the New Eve. Like her ancestress (literally or metaphorically as the case may be) she was free from Original Sin and enjoyed from the beginning a close relationship with God. She was also endowed with free will which meant that like Eve she could theoretically have made a serious misstep. That she did not in fact do so was not the result of some mechanical preprogramming which reduced her to the status of robot. Rather her life was always a fruitful interaction between her unique personality and the grace of God. Mary was richly human. What she was and what she became rested in no small part upon her sex. The first human after the Fall (literal or metaphorical as the case may be) to achieve perfection was a woman, it was Mary. The way she lived her life as a girl, as a teenager was the necessary and indispensable precondition for the salvation of the world. When we consider her life and achievements we can read the end into the beginning. Mary, however, lived her life day by day and walked by putting one foot in front of the other. That is, she was like us. The choices which she made, to love God and neighbour, to  resist temptation, were made as she went along her way and flowed from who she was. She loved because she was loving, she shunned sin because she was virtuous. She smiled because some things made her happy. She wept because some things made her sad. She got invited to weddings because people enjoyed her company. She could give instructions to other peoples servants and be obeyed because people knew her to be wise and judicious. She could be concerned about wine running out both because she was kind and considerate towards those around her and because she liked to see people having a festive time. Mary did not become courageous on the day she stood by the Cross of her Son, she was courageous all her life. She was not looked up to as mother by the disciples of Jesus only after His formal charge to Saint John on Calvary but before also and not just by the disciples. The Magnificat was not the only song she sang, the only poetry she composed.

Mary exists beyond the pages of a book or the pictures in a Church. She was and is three dimensional. She has her own thoughts, she is who she is in herself not simply as she exists in relation to others. It is true that the singular graces she received flowed from the merits of her Son Jesus Christ. But that she put these gifts to such good account is to her credit and as a result of her freely entered into cooperation with God as daughter of the Father, spouse of the Holy Spirit and mother of the Son. She filled those threefold roles with herself, not with a dead compliance by rote to a preordained script but with the life and liveliness of a woman.

Mary was born to be Queen but is was not a crown given to her simply by virtue of who her parents happened to be. She came to her realm through struggle and sorrow, and some great joys and happinesses too. She was crowned Queen of Heaven by her Risen and Glorious Son because she had triumphed in her task. The power of God shone through her because she, Mary, made every effort she could to let it do so. To become a channel of perfect love is no easy task. No one has succeeded at it like Mary did not only because no one has been so graced as she but also because Mary, the daughter whose birth we celebrate on September 8 every year, was the one, unique, irreplaceable Mary, she was herself. In her we see that it is only in dying to self that we realise who we actually are. This paradox of life springing from death which reached its climax through Mary's Son first entered the world as Jesus's mother. In being dead to worldliness and alive to God all her life Mary shows us that nothing is more human or more unique than a person who opens themselves entirely to God. Each flower is different from each other flower yet each is entirely submissive to God. So it is with us, submission to God enables Him to shine through us refracted by us in the perfectly unique way that He desires to be seen in us. Perfect submission, Mary's submission, kills the false promises of individualism but fulfils entirely our true individuality.

It would be trite and contrary to the experience of most of the world to say that for Christians all girls are born to be Queens (though the Scots words for girl, as it happens, is quean.) But it is true that all girls are born with the possibility of achieving perfection. The Church believes it, the Scriptures proclaim it and history demonstrates again and again that Christianity survives and flourishes wherever women are fully engaged in its life. In celebrating Mary the Church, which is more than half female, should never forget to celebrate her daughters also. And in defending the honour of our Lady and the Marian dogmas we should never cease either to defend her daughters whether they are attacked by the violence of armed men or the violence of poverty or exclusion from education or in suffer any other way  simply because they are women. Remember always There is neither Jew nor Greek: there is neither bond nor free: there is neither male nor female. For you are all one in Christ Jesus. (Galatians 3:28)    

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Saturday, 6 September 2014

This Contemplative Life






I have collected together some representative posts from this blog and turned them into a free, downloadable ebook on Wattpad This Contemplative Life which includes-


  • Christian Meditation
  • Who Needs #Buddha?
  • The Bible and the Virgin
  • Controversies and Random Thoughts
  • Mary, Mother of Christians, and Her Daughters
And much more besides.


Also, for reasons too complicated to go into, I have written a short (1500 words) Christmas fable about two scaly anteaters, Harum and Scarum, a happy donkey and the Nativity of our Lord. This is the Adoration of the Pangolins also in downloadable form.

The result of all this is that you can now take me with you wherever you go. Surely an offer you can't refuse.








Monday, 1 September 2014

Independence for Scotland?

                                       Tuscan School, The Martyrdom of Saint Andrew
For we have not here a lasting city, but we seek one that is to come.
Hebrews 13:14

For we ha'e faith
in Scotland's hidden poo'ers
The present's theirs
but a' the past and future's oors.

Hugh MacDiarmid 

This is a spiritual blog not a political one, forbye which most of the people who read it will never come within a thousand miles of Scotland. So what for am I writing a post anent the Scottish Independence referendum of September 2014? Firstly, because I'm Scottish about which more later. Secondly, because it seems like a good test case for considering the relationship between spirituality and patriotism or nationalism. After all if, for example, Christians hold that the 'one thing necessary'(Luke 10:42) is to 'seek first the Kingdom of God' (Matthew 6:33) then you would think that they would look with a lofty disdain on merely earthly kingdoms.

In the New Testament we frequently find suggestions that in our personal hierarchy of values we should put mundane considerations such as income, family or country low down on our list of priorities. For what doth it profit a man, if he gain the whole world, and suffer the loss of his own soul (Matthew 16:26If any man come to me, and hate not his father, and mother, and wife, and children, and brethren, and sisters, yea and his own life also, he cannot be my disciple (Luke 14:26) And within the historical context of the first century Holy Land the very actions of Jesus bear witness against the nationalism of many of his compatriots. Early in His mission we see Jesus therefore, when he knew that they would come to take him by force, and make him king, fled again into the mountain himself alone (John 6:15)

From the perspective of the Roman authorities the territory was full of Palestinian terrorist like Barabbas (Mark 15:7) who concealed themselves in the civilian population and used them as human shields while committing 'sedition and murder.' From the point of view of many Jews though groups like the Zealots were heroes who fought valiantly against a regional superpower. The fact that they had no chance of success did not matter much so long as they struck a blow on behalf of a people who had been beaten and dispossessed by a powerful foreign foe.There was an expectation that a figure anointed by God, Messiah or Christ means the anointed one, would be able to unify the Jews and turn the disparate groups of Jewish jihadis into a force capable of driving the occupying power into the sea. Many thought that Jesus would be such a figure. He, however, repudiated such nationalism. My kingdom is not of this world (John 18:36) He told the Roman governor Pilate.

The only witness in favour of nationalism in the New Testament comes from St Paul who writes For I could wish that I myself were accursed and separated from Christ for the sake of my brothers, my kin according to the flesh. (Romans 9:3) But even here he acknowledges that 'not all who are of Israel are Israel' meaning that membership of a nation or tribe or clan is secondary to the main business of life which is spiritual. Encountering and responding to the transcendent reality is what matters and anything in the material world which substitutes itself for the deity, such as the Nation, is is to be rejected. What we do in this world, such as loving our neighbours as ourselves, should flow from the divine encounter. Nothing can be put into a separate category where spiritual values do not apply.

Does this mean that Christians in Scotland should ignore the referendum and that they have nothing to contribute to the debate? No, but it means that their contribution needs to come from a distinct angle. There is nothing peculiarly Christian to be said about a common currency or how much oil is left in the North Sea (although there is a Christian angle to the removal of weapons of mass destruction from Scottish soil.) But Christianity does have something to say about community.

There are many things in this world which are both imaginary and real at the same time. Or, more precisely, they are real because they exist in people's imaginations. Money is one such thing. With a coloured piece of paper it is possible to buy haggis and chips but not a bottle of single malt whisky. With a slightly different coloured piece of paper one can buy not only a single malt but also several haggis suppers and a deep fried Mars bar while receiving numerous metal disks in exchange for the paper as well. The intrinsic worth of both bits of paper is identical but the value we ascribe to them is a collective act of the imagination. A country or nation is a similar imaginative creation. If nobody believes that a country exists then it does not exist. If large numbers of people believe that a country exists then that alone will have the power to bring it into being if it is not already established. Nature does not create nations. Geography does not create nations. God does not, in the usual sense of the term, create nations. Contrary to what you might expect economic necessity does not create nations either although it plays a part in forming and sustaining them. And most particularly science does not create nations.
       
A country is an imagined community. It is not real in the sense that no single individual imagines the country to be just precisely, just exactly the way that country actually is. People attribute to the nation a collective sensibility, a shared set of values which it does not possess. They understand it to have a shared history which it has never lived, all historical accounts are highly selective and in any event the past is even more of an act of the imagination than the national community is. Very often a patriot thinks of her country as being mostly composed of people very like herself but no country is very like any one person. Commitment to nation or love of country is an act of faith in an imagined reality. 'Just like Christianity!' the atheists among you will say. However that might be Christianity and Nationalism have this in common they proceed from a notion of Incarnation. Ideas which taken in isolation are mere abstractions take on life when they are clad with flesh. Moreover, from the beginning Christianity was Church, a community. Without Church there is no Christianity. Without community there is no Nation. The Church community is in part a visible, structured thing with rituals and sacraments, it subsists in the Catholic Church, and in part an invisible, spiritual thing, a hermit on a mountain is as much part of the community as a woman at a Papal Mass attended by millions. So too the Nation, whether it has a State of its own or not, exists in both visible and invisible forms. A People without shared rituals and agreed common signs is no People at all.

What the members of a nation agree among themselves to imagine about themselves becomes an incarnated reality. Christians who are called to be the leaven that leavens the whole must play their part in contributing ideas and values to this shared act of imagination. The loyalty which they have may be first and foremost to the person of Jesus Christ but He is not an abstraction. He is a person and He translates His ideas and values into action in the world. In the national conversation Christians must seek to ensure that the collective imagination becomes tinged with the personality of Christ so that the nation as a whole through its agencies, such as the health service or the foreign office, and each member of that collectivity acts more or less consciously under the influence and inspiration of these values. This should not be confused with evangelism or a mingling of Church and State. It is no business of the State or Nation to demand of its members allegiance to a religious confession as a prior condition of membership of that country. Explicitly recruiting to the Church is a task for the Church alone. But it is the business of Christians to diffuse their values in society and it is not the business of State or Nation to prevent them and to insist that religion is a purely private affair.

Leaving that to one side. Do Christians have a duty to love their country even if they are excluded from the national conversation or if their views are not heeded? The philosopher Simone Weil said that "In the soul of a Christian, the presence of the pagan virtue of patriotism acts as a dissolvent"  What she had in mind was specifically the patriotism of Rome (and also of Nazi Germany which was then occupying her native France) It is a pagan virtue if it is directed towards the notion of the State as an agent of power, as an idol to be worshipped. To love your country in the sense of saying 'we are number one' is morally abhorrent in a Christian. It is to identify might with right and your notion of God with the policies of your country. There is no sense in which Christians can justify sin in the name of patriotism. And to the extent that a country is mired in sin a Christian who wilfully either distorts theology to justify evil or pretends that her countries policies are something other than they really are has departed from Christianity and become an idolator. There is a positive duty of resistance laid upon Christians which always and everywhere trumps patriotism. Where a nation embarks upon a path which Christianity condemns Christians are bound to refuse cooperation at the very least.

Professor Weil, however, joined the Free French resistance out of the love which she bore for France. Patriotism can have many faces. She wrote One can love France, for the glory which would seem to insure for her a prolonged existence in space and time; or one can love her as something which being earthly, can be destroyed, and is all the more precious on that account. These are two distinct ways of loving" Recognising that a nation is a product of imagination, that at some point it comes into existence and at some point it will cease to be. Recognising too that it is no more and often less than the best of the best people who make it up Christians have a duty to strengthen the good, console the weak and defend the right. Their place in the nation is not as apologist nor as traitor but as bulwark. The great gift a nation can offer is stability. Through its institutions and shared values it can, for a time, allow for the maintenance of what most of its members agree to be good. Families can be safe, children can be taught, one generation can share its imagination with another. Christianity places the family at the centre of its project. Country and Church have a shared stake in stability which does not exclude, for example, one country seceding from another as may happen in Scotland. The argument here being that the shared values which Scots imagine that they have will be lost if the Union with an England possessed of antagonistic values persists.    
 
                                                        William Hepburn 1940-2011

Which brings me to my Scottishness. Since I live in partibus infidelium, also known as Exeter, and may, after all never return to my native land it is possible that the only practical impact upon me personally of a 'Yes' vote would be my having to acquire a different passport. Yet, if a nation is an incarnated set of ideas (or dreams) a person from that nation is a bearer of those ideas. Accept them or reject them ones life is never entirely free from an interior dialogue with them. It is usually through the family that those values are first transmitted. My late father William Hepburn, God rest his soul, was a Scottish Nationalist for around 50 years of his life. Had he lived few things in that life would have given him more happiness than to answer the question "do you want an independent Scotland?" with a resounding Yes! I can almost hear him saying "if not this time then next time" I never shared his nationalism, I don't share it now. I am sad beyond words that he cannot crown his act of imagination with a triumphal vote but my imagination is not his.

But he did teach me one thing of inestimable value about this debate. He became a Nationalist in the 1960's before oil was discovered in the North Sea. His conviction did not rest upon an argument from material well being. He believed that whether or not Scots were financially better off as a result of independence was not the most important consideration. The current debate among politicians has mostly been about money. The 'No' campaign offers no vision for a better tomorrow, it simply warns against a worse one where voters may be several hundred pounds a year out of pocket. The 'Yes' campaign counter by saying 'no they won't be.' If, however, Scotland does vote for independence it will likely not be about either of these propositions. Scots will be saying that, yes, they know there is a financial risk but, so long as the weak and vulnerable are protected that is not the real point of the thing. They will be voting for a future where the shared values that they imagine that they have will take an assured place as of right in the governance of their country. And they will be rejecting the values which they do not wish to have imposed upon them by distant elites.

Whether they know it or not many Scots who vote 'Yes' will be striking a blow against materialism. Because of the crass nature of the 'No' campaign few Scots will vote for it for other than material reasons. Christian Scots can make hard headed calculations as well as the next voter and there is nothing wrong with voting for the well being of your family and yourself provided it is not at another's expense. But when you vote for money and money alone it is a sign that your horizons are too low. I do not, as I said, share my father's Nationalism but I do share his thrawnness. It is one of the things that we tell ourselves about ourselves that we are a thrawn people. And it is a piece of imagination that to some extent has become a reality. If the 'No' camp thinks so little of Scots that it offers money in place of enduring values then many Scots will say the hell with  them I'm voting 'Yes' whatever the risks may be. Scotland is better than its politicians and it places more emphasis upon things that endure longer than a politician's promises. Independence for Scotland? I say Yes.

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Saturday, 30 August 2014

And It Was Night


                                                           Last Supper- Perugino

After receiving the piece of bread, he went out immediately. And it was night.
John 13:30

The Gospel account given by St John in large part consists of long periods of dialogue interspersed by short narrative sections. It is tempting to consider those sections are simply being bridges leading from one conversation to another put in merely to give some context. As I have mentioned in some of my earlier posts, however, St John's is the most highly structured of all the Gospel accounts and every word usually does duty at more than one level. If we spend time meditating on these narrative passages we can see that each of them carries more meaning than may at first appear and serves the Evangelist's didactic purposes as much as any other part of the Gospel. And so it is with this record of the last few moments that the traitor Judas Iscariot spent in the friendly company of the Apostles. When next they met it would be as enemies.

We can conveniently divide this into three sections beginning with Jesus handing some bread to Judas. The concept of bread is central to the Christian project. It is widely thought, for example, that the chief significance of the birth of our Lord at Bethlehem is that it was a fulfilment of Old Testament prophecy. So much so indeed that atheist and theologically liberal critics suggest that St Matthew and St Luke fabricated their accounts of the Nativity in order to fit in with this preordained schema. The name Bethlehem, however, means 'house of bread.' So we can say that Divine Providence achieved a double whammy by ensuring that Jesus was born in a place which both looked back to historical prophecy and looked forward to His own mission.

Earlier in the Gospel the Christ describes Himself in this way I am the bread of life (John 6:35) and He also said  Don’t work for the food that perishes but for the food that lasts for eternal life, which the Son of Man will give you (John 6:26) As the other Evangelists tell us previously in this same meal He had shown what He meant And He took bread, gave thanks, broke it, gave it to them, and said, “This is My body, which is given for you" (Luke 22:19) So, what we see in this segment of narrative is Judas accepting the food that perishes as his portion when he could have instead accepted the food that lasts for eternal life. It is customary to think of thirty pieces of silver as the price for which he sold the Saviour but St John illustrates here that it was even less than that. Other translations refer to this piece of bread as a 'morsel' or a 'sop'. It was a mere nothing and he preferred that to everything. He was betraying himself as surely as he was betraying our Lord. To add to the burden of his folly and sin he had earlier participated in the Eucharist so that he received the sacred elements of communion falsely and now took what was the object of his real desires, that is the purely carnal, material rewards that an unspiritual life offers.

He went out immediately. There is no gap between a decisive act of the will and its spiritual and moral consequences. We can see this at what you might call both the other end of the Gospel and the other end of the moral universe where the immediate consequence of Mary saying Behold, I am the handmaid of the Lord. May it be done to me according to your word.” (Luke 1:38) is that she conceives with joy Jesus in her heart before she does so in her body. Here Judas has reached the crucial point. He could have gone back on his agreement with the High Priest. His heart could have been softened by this shared banquet with our Lord and His friends. But now he made the final step within himself. He took the bread that perishes and with it he perished himself, all the rest was just an acting out in the physical realm a destruction which he had taken upon himself in the spiritual one. It reminds us that in Genesis God had said to Adam and Eve of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil you shall not eat, for in the day that you eat of it you shall die (Genesis 2:17) The story tells us that the pair lived for many years after they had eaten of that fruit but the Almighty had spoken truly since death entered their souls from the moment that they decided to eat from this tree.

As a completely random aside, the fruit that Adam and Eve ate is generally depicted to be an apple. This puzzles many people since the item in question is never named and it wouldn't necessarily be the first thing you would think of as a Middle Eastern fruit. My guess is that the idea stems from this passage in the Song of Songs Under the apple tree I raised thee up: there thy mother was corrupted (Song 8:5) Interpreting the Song allegorically was a small industry in Medieval times since obviously it's not the erotic poetry it might appear to be. Here the soul of the believer or humanity in general is raised up by Jesus from the corruption inherited from our first parents. And since the corruption took place under an apple tree the agent of corruption must have been an apple QED.


And it was night. St John is not simply acting as a speaking clock here. As death had entered the soul of Judas, both his own and that of his Master, he plunged into deep gloom. This is your hour, and the power of darkness (Luke 22:53 For our wrestling is not against flesh and blood; but against principalities and power, against the rulers of the world of this darkness  (Ephesians 6:12) Jesus had said of Himself I am the light of the world. Whoever follows me will not walk in darkness, but will have the light of life.” (John 8:12) Judas by walking out with murder in his heart left behind the light and found only darkness within and without. Whoever walks in the dark does not know where he is going. (John 12:35)

Looking at the passage as a whole then. We can see that the bread of life, both spiritual and material, comes to us from the hand of God. If we accept only the material we die spiritually. If we accept only the spiritual we would die physically. With gladness and thanks we should accept all that the Lord gives us in order to live fully. More than that 'He gives' and that sets us an example, if we have received an abundance of His gifts then it behoves us also to give, to act as His agents. If we hoard material wealth we resemble Judas, if we give it away we resemble Jesus. If we refuse to accept His gifts then we immediately banish ourselves from His presence. But why would we? Why did Judas? Material things are tangible, we can see them, touch them, use them to satisfy our physical desires. Spiritual things are invisible, sometimes we can be aware of their presence but often enough they are like a seed hidden in the soil, it may be growing and preparing to bear abundant fruit but we are unaware, other than by faith, that this is so. You need neither faith nor love to use physical objects, you need both to fully respond to the spiritual gifts that come to us from Christ Jesus. And finally night is the natural home for those who are satisfied only with the things of death. And this is the verdict, that the light came into the world, but people preferred darkness to light, because their works were evil. For everyone who does wicked things hates the light and does not come toward the light, so that his works might not be exposed. (John 3:19-20)    

         
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