Monday 15 August 2016

The Blessed Virgin: Sleeping and Waking

Jesse Tree icon at Guildford Cathedral
The Lady Chapel of Guildford Cathedral contains within it an icon of the Jesse Tree. At the heart of its branches is the Mother of God with her Son, the focal point of the icon, enthroned upon her lap. Jesse sleeps at the foot of the tree. He sleeps not inattentively but in a generative repose of deep sleep as Adam did. Out of Adam’s side a rib was taken to create the mother of all the living, Eve, and out of Jesse’s side comes the tree from which the New Adam is descended and the mother from whom he is born.

St John of Damascus calls Mary New Eve. This title, which predates John, alludes to sleep since this is used to ‘correct’ the action of the first Eve. So, as Kallistos Ware says, ‘where Eve is disobedient, Mary is obedient. Where Eve is unguarded and inconsiderate, listening all too readily to the deceitful words of the serpent, Mary is watchful and prudent, only accepting the Archangels’ message after she has carefully questioned him’.[1] So for John, Eve brings the ‘sleep of death’ upon humankind, but Mary is, ‘initiator of life for the whole race’.[2] Mary’s is the ‘unwedded bride’ or ‘Bride without bridegroom’ she is the Wise Virgin who watches for, and points out, the bringer of the New Wine (John 2.5)and resists the Eve-like sleepy behaviour of the foolish bridesmaids in the gospels who fall asleep.

Icon of the Dormition of Mary
The Eastern Church proclaims that, ‘Neither tomb nor death overpowered the Mother of God, unsleeping in her prayers, unfailing hope in intercession’.[3] This proclamation is for the feast of the Falling Asleep of the Mother of God, the Dormition. It recalls the declaration of the Saviour at the bed of Jairus’ daughter, ‘she is not dead, but sleeping’ (Luke 8.52). This is the proclamation made to all who hear the voice of Mary’s Son, ‘Very truly, I tell you, the hour is coming, and is now here, when the dead will hear the voice of the Son of God, and those who hear will live’ (John 5.25). She who is declared by the angel to be ‘the favoured one’ (Luke 1.28) falls asleep and the human body of one of God’s creatures is ‘crowned with mercy and loving kindness’ (Psalm 103.4).

It can now be said:

The virgin of the Magnificat, on whose lips is placed the message that God is exalting the humble and casting down the powerful, finds her life confirmed and glorified by the Father of Jesus. Mary’s assumption – seen in the light of Jesus’ resurrection – is hope and promise for the poor of all times and for those who stand in solidarity with them; it is hope and promise that they will share in the final victory of the incarnate God.[4]

For John of Damascus Mary is ‘Ladder of Jacob’. She is the ladder whose two extremities touch earth and heaven whilst Jacob, and humanity, sleeps. She was awake and alert, though fearful at first, of an angel who stepped off the ladder to call her to be mother of the Saviour.

Mary is not a goddess, not immortal, but as John of Damascus teaches emphatically, she who fell asleep was raised as expression of love.[5] It is out of this love, and echoing Song of Songs that, John places on the lips of Mother and Son these words, ‘Into your hands my child, I commend my spirit, says the Mother to her Son as she dies; and her Son replies, ‘Come, my blessed Mother, into my rest…Arise, come, my beloved, beautiful among women’.[6]

At the coming of sleep we entrust ourselves into the hands of God and pray that we will sleep in peace ready to be raised to the life of the new day, as Mary in her Dormition was swept up, like Elijah (2 Kings 2.1-12), to the very presence of God. Hence why the Church for centuries has associated sleep with the maternal care of Mary.

Dom David Steindl-Rast describes the monastic practice of Compline at his community:

At the very end of Compline, it has become a custom for the Abbot to bless the whole community by sprinkling them with holy water, a sort of evening dew. The monks then file into the Lady Chapel for a final hymn to Mary. This hymn changes with the seasons. For most of the year it is Salve Regina; at other times, there are Marian antiphons like the Regina Coeli or the Alma Redemptoris Mater, jewels of chant.
            This custom has always reminded me of children being tucked up in bed at the end of the day by their mother. It brings a smile to my face to think of all those monks sweetly singing at day’s end to their Mother, opening themselves to the anima realm of their psyche, and entrusting themselves to the infinite darkness as maternal. Thus the part of the monastery indelibly linked for me with Compline is the Lady Chapel, where we return to our spiritual womb to be reborn again next morning.[7]

Jean-Luc Nancy’s words could almost have been written as a meditation to be placed on Mary lips as she gazed upon the Christ-Child:

Tomorrow morning, God willing, you will awake again: sleep my child, sleep my soul, sleep my world, sleep my love, sleep my little one, the child will sleep soon, already he’s sleeping, look he goes to sleep with the first night of the world, the divine child who plays with the dice of the universe and of all its centuries, he sleeps with every night that rocks anew, tirelessly the repetition of the first, of the initial nocturnal lullaby where the first day fell asleep with the first sleep.[8]

The new day will come, before which we sing, ‘Ave Regina caelorum’:
Hail, Queen of Heaven, beyond compare,
To whom the angels homage pay;
Hail, Root of Jesse, Gate of Light,
That opened for the world’s new Day

Rejoice, O Virgin unsurpassed,
In whim our ransom was begun,
For all your loving children pray
To Christ, our Saviour, and your Son.

As we prepare to lay ourselves down to sleep let us close in prayer before sleep with the words of St Alphonsus Liguori (1696-1787) entrusting us to the care of Jesus Christ, Blessed Mary and the angels.

Jesus Christ my God, I adore you and thank you for all the graces you have given me this day. I offer you my sleep and all the moments of this night, and I ask you to keep me from sin. I put myself within your sacred side and under the mantle of our Lady. Let your holy angels stand about me and keep me in peace. And let your blessing be upon me. Amen.

© Andrew Bishop, 2016

[1] “‘The Earthly Heaven’ – The Mother of God in the Teaching of St John of Damascus” in McLoughlin, W, & Pinnock, J,. 2002. Mary for Earth and Heaven: Essays on Mary and Ecumenism. Leominster: Gracewing. p. 358.
[3] Kontakion Tone 2 accessed 19th March 2014
[4] Ivone Gebara and Maria Clara Bingemer, Mary, Mother of God, Mother of the Poor, trans. Phillip Berryman, (Maryknoll N.Y.: Orbis Books, 1989),119.
[5] Ware, ‘The Earthly Heaven’, 364.
[6] Dormition Sermon 2.10.
[7] David Steindl-Rast and Sharon Lebell, Music of Silence: A Sacred Journey Through the Hours of the Day. (Berkeley CA: Ulysees Press, 1998, 2002), 109.
[8] Nancy, The Fall of Sleep, 32-33.

Sunday 7 August 2016

'A song to sing': Liberating God, past, present and future

Isaiah 11.10-12.6; 2 Corinthians 1.1-22

‘Sing praises to the LORD, for he has done gloriously; let this be known in all the earth’

+ In nomine Patris…

I am not usually given to quoting lyrics of the Swedish pop group Abba – I usually reserve my references to Abba as the beautiful, intimate Aramaic phrase used by Jesus, and elsewhere by St Paul, to speak of the intimacy of the relationship between each one of us as a child of God in relation to our loving heavenly Father: Abba, Father.

However I want to quote a verse from Abba’s song, ‘I Have a dream’, because the words seem to have a contemporary resonance for many people, especially, but not exclusively, the young. And these lyrics lay down a challenge to those of us within a religious tradition in how we respond to the desires, fears and hopes of our generation and how they are met in Christ.

So Abba sing:

I have a dream, a song to sing
To help me cope with anything
If you see the wonder of a fairy tale
You can take the future even if you fail
I believe in angels
Something good in everything I see
I believe in angels
When I know the time is right for me
I'll cross the stream, I have a dream

In a sense what I want to do is an exercise in Christian apologetics on these lyrics to see how we respond to the contemporary challenge that both our readings tonight can be used to address.

The first reading from Isaiah draws the reader to connect the way God has acted in the past, with the way God acts in the present and will act in the future. The dream, as it were, is of God’s restoration of his people so that they will be blessed by him afresh. This culminated in thanksgiving and praise, thanksgiving and praise that in Isaiah echoes the Song of Moses and the Song of Miriam (Exodus 15) when God had freed the Israelites from slavery in Egypt, which becomes a model, a paradigm, of how God has, can and will act in human lives.

The first reading gives us the memory of a dream, and gives us a song to sing. So we Christians have a dream, the ‘glorious liberty of the children of God’ and we have a song to sing, ‘shout aloud and sing for joy, O inhabitants of Zion, for great in your midst is the Holy One of Israel’ (Isaiah 12.6b).

Abba declare that a dream and song to sing will ‘help me cope with anything’. This isn’t so far removed from Peter’s injunction that we should always be prepared to give an account of the hope that is within us. This touches Paul’s language of consolation in our second reading. Consolation in affliction is the greatest of gifts. Paul describes, in the most heartfelt language, his own affliction to the point of feeling ‘utterly, unbearably crushed that we despaired of life itself’ (2 Corinthians 1.8).

But what is the hope that breathes into situations of affliction and utter devastation, the hope that is less superficial than some pop lyrics? The hope is the deep, enduring conviction of the love of God in Christ Jesus which is sealed by the Holy Spirit.

This hope is what carries us into the future. Abba speaks of ‘taking the future’ which is one of those rather meaningless phrases but that many people respond to. It is the sort of pretty vacuous management speak that says things like, ‘take hold of your future or the future will take hold of you’.

That sort of saying strong in commending the importance of human agency and avoidance of fatalism, but is lacking in an account of what gives hope for the future and also the fact that our future is held more widely than simply our own efforts but in a deep conviction in God’s faithfulness.

‘I believe in angels’ sing Abba. Belief in angels is another interesting area where contemporary people are relatively happy to say that they are ‘spiritual but not religious’. To say, ‘I believe in angels’ captures the mystique and etherealness of spirituality, whatever that means, but does not connect the spiritual life to actual bodily existence. This is what is widely known as dualism, the notion of a dislocation between body and soul.

To live your life in the hope not of angels but in the Word Made Flesh makes for what might be called an holistic or whole person approach. We are body and spirit together. Religion is the rooting of the spiritual impulse of humanity into forms and ways of living embodied lives. This is about patterns and disciplines, habit forming in the ways of virtuous living.

This is the opposite of belief in angels, which keeps human minds in a never never land of vague spirituality.

And this is where, curiously, Abba touches on a deep motif of Hebrew and Christian religion and hope: ‘I'll cross the stream, I have a dream

Chapter 12 of Isaiah echoes the songs of Moses and Miriam when they had crossed not simply a stream but the Red Sea, and in the preceding verses the prophet says,

The LORD…will wave his hand over the River with his scorching wind; and will split it into seven channels, and make a way to cross it on foot; so there shall be a highway from Assyria for the remnant that is left of his people, as there was for Israel when they came up from the land of Egypt. (Isaiah 11.15,16)

The ‘dream’, if we can call it that, of God’s people, the people who call God, ‘Abba, Father’ is that the God who has delivered his people through the waters can and will do that again, such that we can sing our own song of God’s salvation.

© Andrew Bishop, 2016

Friday 5 August 2016

Lord, teach us to pray

First preached as a sermon at Guildford Cathedral on Sunday 24th July 2016.
Luke 11.1-13

‘Lord, teach us to pray…’ Luke 11.1

+ In nomine Patris…

Prayer is not unique to Christianity. It is not even unique to the teaching of Jesus. John the Baptist was already teaching about prayer, and the Old Testament is full of it: after all, Jesus’ disciples asked, ‘Lord, teach us to pray, as John taught his disciples’.

Prayer is a basic human desire and practice, deeper than religion, which takes many and various forms. Prayer and versions of it are visible in contemporary society.

For example, it is interesting to see how the practice of Mindfulness has taken off in the last couple of years. It seems so very similar to Christian prayer, especially of the contemplative, meditative type. Mindfulness looks like prayer very well branded! And it is very popular.

A similar bubbling up of a form of prayer is also to be seen in public vigils and the lighting of candles in corporate acts of grief, as we have seen all too vividly in Paris, Nice and Munich.

We also see the discipline of frequency and posture of prayer offered by Muslims in submission to God.

Prayer is one of those things that is essential to the Christian life, yet for so many Christians, at least in the West, is problematic.  It often seems so unspecific and ethereal, perhaps not rewarding enough or associated with clunky phrases or a burden. We become suspicious of prayer.

Perhaps this is part of the appeal of Mindfulness. It uses many the techniques common to religious prayer but doesn’t seem “religious”. However whilst commendably paying attention to the body and posture it also totally fits the Enlightenment notion, I think therefore I am. It is the modern fallacy: I can conquer things with my own mind and from my own resources. It is in this sense that it is not Christian prayer. Let me be clear that Mindfulness is not bad, but Mindfulness is therapeutic and makes us dependent on self-will, whilst prayer takes us out to seek the will of God.

Another suspicion about prayer is that it can seem manipulative: we hear it in phrases such as, ‘I have prayed about this and decided such and such’ which leaves little scope for dissent or challenge. And how can it possibly work for us to ask for something in prayer?

So it’s  little wonder we ask again, with Jesus’ first disciples, ‘Lord, teach us to pray…’

So prayer may not be unique to Christianity, but prayer as offered by Christians is distinctive and particular. When we ask ‘Lord, teach us to pray’ we are asking that the human urge to pray effects, affects and reflects our relationship with our heavenly Father.

This is what takes us out of ourselves. Christian prayer begins in the simplicity of a relationship with God that can be understood in a generative, intimate way: ‘Abba, Father’. Not my Father, but Our Father.

This prayer takes us to the heart of the mission of Jesus Christ which is incorporation, being grafted, into the very life of God. It is what Eastern Christians term theosis or divinisation. That’s not divination, the reading of signs and omens, but divinisation which is growth into the image and likeness of God; God who gives us the capacity to become who God made us to be.

Prayer is how we seek out the wellsprings of God’s sustaining life and power. Just to say ‘Our Father’ places us into a relationship with the source and wellspring of life, and to drink from that life. This is not formulaic; it is not divination, where spells and ceremonies give access to some divine knowledge; it is not tranquil introspection but rather it is more like divining, the action of seeking springs of water that already exist.

Likewise prayer should never be an echo chamber of our own prejudices, manipulation or self-justification; but is a place where we lay bare before God the very depths of our hearts. We cannot do that alone. This is why St Paul speaks of the Spirit praying deep within us, ‘with sighs too deep for words’.

To use a now outdated image we might think of a radio set that needs to be tuned in to receive a signal. God is the transmitter and the transmission. The signal, God, transmits all the time, and our place in prayer is to tune in to receive that signal.

‘Lord, teach us to pray’ was the disciples’ request and is ours in our own day. And what Jesus offers is a pattern of prayer, and an actual formulation of prayer, against which all our prayer is measured and through which all our prayer flows.

In the Lord’s Prayer Jesus invites us into the relationship that he has with the Father so we say with him, and with one another, ‘Our Father’.

There are many books describing and explaining the Lord’s Prayer. They trace its Jewish roots, its style and shape and vocabulary. Yet, what we do day by day and Sunday by Sunday is to pray it and to breathe it such that it shapes who we are as persons in relationship with God in Jesus’ Name.

We are then drawn in to God’s inner life, such that we can make our requests known to God, so that we can be persistent in prayer, and accept that prayer will change us more than we can ever think we have changed God’s mind.

The ancient document known as the Didache, or the ‘Teaching of the Twelve’, says that we should pray the Lord’s Prayer three times a day (VIII.3). If your life of prayer seems barren, unrewarding or confusing, that would be a very good place to start.

The techniques of Mindfulness - attending to your posture and breathing - are a good way in, but then to pray meditatively and reflectively the words that Jesus taught us. In doing so you place yourself in God’s presence as a precious child of God; you hallow God’s holy Name; you yearn for his kingdom and his power to sustain you day by day. You ask to be shaped and schooled in the ways of forgiveness and to be spared the ordeal of your own making and vanity.

Little wonder then that this prayer, which we delight in calling the Lord’s Prayer, is at the heart of the Christian life and our celebration of the Eucharist and receiving our daily bread: it is the source and summit of Christian prayer; prayer to Our Father, in the name of Jesus Christ, in the power of the Holy Spirit.

‘Lord, teach us to pray’.

© Andrew Bishop, 2016