Category Archives: Spiritual

The eternally begotten Son

TheotokosLast week we focused on the eschatological dimension of our faith in Christ – its relation to the end of this world. As Advent begins, we turn to the identity of Jesus as the eternally begotten Son of God.

During Advent we prepare for the feast of the Nativity. According to the Catechism, by this preparation we share in Israel’s long expectation of the messiah, and renew our own desire for Christ’s second coming (CCC 524). Our participation in the hope of Israel has an added dimension: we look not merely for the one who will restore the kingdom to Israel, but for the one who will reconcile humanity to God and so restore all of creation. The One whose birth we celebrate and whose return we anticipate is not a human king, but the eternally begotten Son of God, who is God: ‘God from God, light from light, true God from true God.’ The creed could not be clearer about the divinity of Jesus Christ.

The Creed helps us to consider this mystery and to meditate on it – an important practice for all Christians in a context in which our faith can be elbowed aside by the cultural expectations of gifts and party food. Although some of the advertisements encourage good works consistent with Christian faith — to be generous to those in most need, and to look toward the poor and neglected — the words of the creed draw us back to the foundations of our faith. Our concern for others is not a response to the evocative images set around us in the media but is an integral aspect of our
grateful response to the eternally begotten Son ‘who came down from heaven’ to save us. He himself is the gift for which we should long; he is the treasure of our hearts to be shared with others.

Part of a series by Medi Ann Volpe

And his kingdom shall have no end

Christ the KingThe creed answers the question, ‘who is Jesus?’ from three angles. First, the creed tells us who Jesus is from eternity: Son of the Father Almighty. But unlike human sons, who are like and unlike their fathers, Jesus is of the Father’s being, like the Father in every way. He is fully God.

The second angle is historical: we declare that Jesus was born, suffered, died, rose again, and ascended into heaven. In this, the briefest of narratives, we affirm what Jesus did for us and for our salvation.

The solemnity of Christ the King invites us to consider Christ from the third angle, the eschatological, that is, with reference to the end (ta eschata are “the last things” in Greek). This phrase in the creed quotes Luke 1:33 and Isaiah 9:7 to assert that even though Jesus will hand the kingdom – that is his people – to the Father, and even though God will be “all in all” as 1 Cor 15:28 tells us, Christ will continue to reign with the Father, united with his Body the Church in the unity of the Holy Spirit.

But Christ the king is also judge of his Body and of all humanity, and “judge” can be a fearful image. Our fear should only ever be a holy fear, though, not a terror. When Peter, in his boat full of fish, recognised Christ, he exclaimed, ‘Depart from me, O Lord, for I am a sinful man.’ Yet Jesus responded to Peter’s admission of sin with mercy, and called Peter to be his disciple. So also Jesus reveals us to ourselves even as he is revealed to us, and as he spoke to Peter he speaks to us as well: ‘Fear not.’ As we say the creed today, let us do so in confidence of his mercy and his power. Faithful is he who calls us, and he will lead us into his glory.

Part of a series by Medi Ann Volpe

One God, the Father Almighty

Baptism of the LordTaken in isolation, reference to the all-powerful God might be frightening rather than comforting. After all, in the contemporary world power is suspect, and absolute power all the more so. But God’s power is not corruptible, and it cannot be considered in isolation from three truths about the divine.

Firstly, the one in whom we believe, ‘God, the Father Almighty,’ is the Lord who is slow to anger and rich in mercy, near to the brokenhearted, and the saviour of all those who are crushed in spirit. God is love — boundless love that surpasses all we can imagine. Secondly, the power of the Almighty is the power of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. We have seen this power: Jesus shows us the Father (John 14.8-10). He shows us compassion and love, and he makes use of the divine power in laying down his life and taking it up again, for our sake. God’s power comes to us in the eternal mercy this Father shows his eternal Son.

Finally, ‘Almighty’ means that God’s power is unique, unrivalled and beyond our comprehension. The emphasis on the oneness of this God in the creed reflects a theme Christians inherited from their Jewish origins (Deut 6.4), and it shows us that above and beyond all power in this world is that of the Father Almighty. But this power is something that exceeds our capacity to imagine. The greatness of this power is in its ability to love and to give life without loss, to create and recreate. Yet, far from being a stony and distant strength, the almighty power of God has drawn near to us in Christ and remains with us in the Holy Spirit. As nothing exists that could challenge the Almighty, that makes us very safe indeed.

Part of a series by Medi Ann Volpe

Hope and rebuild

It is providential that the readings for Remembrance Sunday this year speak of two widows: the Sidonian widow of Zarephath (1 Kings 17:10-16) and the widow putting two copper coins into the temple treasury (Mark 12:41-44).We do not know how these two women came to be widows: it may or may not have been through warfare. But certainly we know the immense human cost of war through the ages on those who are made widows and orphans. How should the Christian respond to such tragedy?

The stories of these two widows perhaps give us some guidance. The Sidonian widow, bereaved and believing that starvation is just round the corner, shares what little she has with the Prophet Elijah and receives from him a message of hope from the Lord for the future. In the face of warfare we must continue to hope for a better future, both in this world and the world to come.
The widow at the temple gives “all she had to live on” to the temple; we too should give our all for the building up of God’s temple: not so much the physical edifice, but the communion of faith, charity and peace which is the Church. After the destruction of war, we rebuild for a peaceful and faithful future.

We hope, and we rebuild: and thus show a world of despair and destruction a better way.

Saints in the Creed

Most of what the Creed says is about God: we say, “I believe in one God”, and then say lots of things about that God in whom we believe.

But the Creed also relates these truths about God to humanity. It emphasises that what Jesus does is “for us men and for our salvation” and “for our sake”. And it ends by recognising our “baptism for the forgiveness of sins”, our “resurrection from the dead” and our “life of the world to come”.

The Creed may be mostly about God, but it is for humanity. We are sinners who need the forgiveness of baptism. Conscious of the mortality of our bodies, we look forward to resurrection. Recognising that this world is finite and imperfect, we hope for the next.

That hope is expressed in a special way this week. On All Saints’ Day, 1 November, we joyfully celebrate those whom Christ has made holy: those countless people, most of whose names have been forgotten by us, who nevertheless show us the way to God through their prayer and example. They show us hope. Then, on All Souls’ Day, 2 November, we show hope by praying for those others who have died in Christ still needing to be purified in order to come to the fullness of holiness.

The Creed expresses the faith of the whole Church, those who have passed beyond this life as well as those still walking this earth. As we remember them all in coming days, may the whole of the Church be bound ever closer together in expression of the unchanging faith.

Why do we need Creeds?

Council of NicaeaWhen we say the creed each Sunday, we proclaim the faith into which we were baptized. Although we are not entirely certain where creeds come from, we know that catechumens in the early Church had to learn answers to a series of questions about the core beliefs of the Church. They repeated these publicly as part of their baptismal ceremony to attest to their belief. Creeds may have originated in part as a condensed version of these answers, and would have varied locally (one of the most famous surviving examples is known to us as The Apostles’ Creed – it was actually the local creed used in Rome). The Council of Nicaea produced a Creed in 325 and later in the same century the Council of Constantinople (381) produced another which it said expressed the faith of Nicaea, and it is this we use today. Bishops had to sign up to this creed when they were ordained, and gradually, over many decades it came to be used in the liturgy and in catechesis.

Catechumens professing the faith at their baptism did need to have a basic grasp of the creed, but not perhaps for the reason you might think. Gregory of Nyssa, a bishop who was present at the council of Constantinople, worried that a false conception of the Trinity would undermine the Christian at the very beginning of his or her new life in Christ. Why? Not because we have to understand in order to for God to save us, but because we do develop ideas about God in our imaginations. The ideas in the creed help us to develop our faith, hope, and love. Doctrine is not a barrier to keep out those who have difficulty comprehending it (such as children, for example, whom Jesus said we ought to be like), but a gift to keep our imaginations faithful.

Part of a series on the Creed by Medi Ann Volpe

The Creed

Have you ever wondered why we say the creed each Sunday? The Catechism of the Catholic Church tells us that ‘Communion in faith needs a common language of faith, normative for all and uniting all in the same confession of faith’ (CCC 185). The creed is a gift, and an essential part of what constitutes us as a community. When we say the creed, we accept the gift of faith that is the Church’s faith, and we put our trust in the One she names as Lord and Saviour. 

Do we need to understand every word of it in order to proclaim it? No. A child learns to say ‘I love you’ long before she really grasps what love is, and yet she speaks truly. So also we say ‘I believe’ as we grow in understanding of the commitment we make together. Nor do we come to understand it in the order in which we speak it. We may feel we grasp more clearly the statements of the second article of the creed, those which remind us of the narrative of Jesus’ incarnation, life, passion, death and resurrection—and so we should. The tender love and compassion of ‘God the Father Almighty’ who might seem rather distant as ‘maker of heaven and earth’ shows forth in all its gentleness and forbearance in the life of Christ. 

The creed offers us a chance, week by week, to meditate upon the faith we have received, and to make it our own.

This is the first in a series of thoughts on the Creed by Medi Ann Volpe.

A 16th-Century Rule of Life

Above all things love God with thy heart.

Desire his honour more than the health of thine own soul.

Take heed with all diligence to purge
and cleanse thy mind with oft confession,
and raise thy desire or lust from earthly things.
Be you houseled with entire devotion.

Repute not thyself better than any other persons,
be they never so great sinners,
but rather judge and esteem yourself most simplest.
Judge the best.

Use much silence,
but when thou hast necessary cause to speak…

Banish from thee all grudging and distraction,
and especially from thy tongue. And pray often…

Resort to God every hour…

Show thyself a sore enemy to vice,
and sharply reprove all vile and reprobrious words
and deeds that be not honest.

Be not partial for favour, lucre, not malice,
but according to troth, equity, justice and reason.

Be pitiful unto poor folk and help them to thy power,
for there you shall greatly please God.

Give fair language to all persons
and especially to the poor and needy.
Also be easy and diligent in giving of alms.
In prosperity be meek of heart and in adversity patient.

And pray continually to God
that you may do that which is his pleasure.

Also apply diligently the inspirations of the Holy Ghost,
whatsoever thou have therein to do.
Pray for perseverance.
Continue in dread and ever have God afore thine eye.

Renew every day thy good purpose.
What thou hast to do, do it diligently.
Stablish thyself alway in well-doing.

If by chance you fall into sin, despair not,
and if you keep these precepts
the Holy Ghost will strengthen thee
in all other things necessary,
and this doing you shall be with Christ in heaven,
to whom be given laud, praise and honour everlasting.

from the Rule of Life collected by Bl Adrian Fortescue. Bl Adrian, a member of the Lay Fraternity of St Dominic at Oxford, died a martyr at the Tower of London on 8 or 9 July 1539.

Laudato si’

St Francis of Assisi

Just as happens when we fall in love with someone, whenever he would gaze at the sun, the moon or the smallest of animals, [Saint Francis] burst into song, drawing all other creatures into his praise. He communed with all creation, even preaching to the flowers, inviting them “to praise the Lord, just as if they were endowed with reason”. His response to the world around him was so much more than intellectual appreciation or economic calculus, for to him each and every creature was a sister united to him by bonds of affection. That is why he felt called to care for all that exists. His disciple Saint Bonaventure tells us that, “from a reflection on the primary source of all things, filled with even more abundant piety, he would call creatures, no matter how small, by the name of ‘brother’ or ‘sister’”. Such a conviction cannot be written off as naive romanticism, for it affects the choices which determine our behaviour. If we approach nature and the environment without this openness to awe and wonder, if we no longer speak the language of fraternity and beauty in our relationship with the world, our attitude will be that of masters, consumers, ruthless exploiters, unable to set limits on their immediate needs. By contrast, if we feel intimately united with all that exists, then sobriety and care will well up spontaneously. The poverty and austerity of Saint Francis were no mere veneer of asceticism, but something much more radical: a refusal to turn reality into an object simply to be used and controlled.

What is more, Saint Francis, faithful to Scripture, invites us to see nature as a magnificent book in which God speaks to us and grants us a glimpse of his infinite beauty and goodness. “Through the greatness and the beauty of creatures one comes to know by analogy their maker” (Wis 13:5); indeed, “his eternal power and divinity have been made known through his works since the creation of the world” (Rom 1:20). For this reason, Francis asked that part of the friary garden always be left untouched, so that wild flowers and herbs could grow there, and those who saw them could raise their minds to God, the Creator of such beauty. Rather than a problem to be solved, the world is a joyful mystery to be contemplated with gladness and praise.

from Pope Francis, Encyclical Letter Laudato si’, 24 May 2015

Sacraments of Initiation

By happy coincidence we are celebrating this week all three sacraments of initiation. Both on Sunday 14 and 21 June we will celebrate the sacrament of baptism, by which a new member enters into the Church.

On Friday 19 June at St Joseph’s Church, Mill Lane, Gilesgate, Bishop Séamus will celebrate a Mass for Confirmation of teenagers from the Durham Parishes, including two members of our own congregations. The candidates will receive the Holy Spirit anew and be strengthened for their role and mission as adult Christians.

And at the 10:00am Mass here at St Cuthbert’s on Sunday 14 June we celebrate the first participation in Holy Communion of two of our children.

This Sunday we finally return to the green of Ordinary Time after the long cycle of Lent and Easter, followed by the great feasts of the Most Holy Trinity and the Body and Blood of Christ. We use green as a sign of the vitality and fruitfulness that there is in the Church throughout the year, and these infants, children and teenagers are signs to us of the growth of God’s kingdom.

In the Gospel, Jesus tells us that the kingdom of God is like a man who throws seed on the land. “Night and day, while he sleeps, when he is awake, the seed is sprouting and growing; how, he does not know” (Mark 4:27). The seed of faith is sown in baptism, strengthened in confirmation and nourished in the eucharist. We give thanks for the gifts of these sacraments and pray especially this week for those who receive them: that their faith may continue to grow and that they may be an example to us all, all year round.

God does not have favourites

The first reading for this Sunday reminds us that “God does not have favourites” and that “anybody of any nationality who fears God and does what is right is acceptable to him” (Acts 10:34-35).

I am writing this text before the result of the General Election and the composition of the new government is known. But, given what the major parties have said during the campaign, it seems clear that tough immigration rules and targets will remain. Indeed, things may yet get more difficult for those who want to come here to live, work, study or visit.

It is, of course, reasonable that a society should protect itself from those who would harm it; but we must remember that welcome to people of all nations is part of what Christianity is built upon. St Peter and St Paul, those pillars of the early Church’s preaching, both became migrants. St Paul was shipwrecked three times and spent a night and day in the open sea (2 Cor 11:25). It is through their efforts to reach distant nations that we can now rejoice in the name of Christian.

Peter and Paul both got to Rome, where they died martyrs’ deaths; many hundreds of people each year do not make it as far as Italy, but drown in the Mediterranean or die in other futile attempts to cross borders. Whether these people are called migrants or refugees, the causes of their situation are complex; but the human tragedy is all too plain.

We have in the last few weeks focussed, unsurprisingly, on what is for the good of our national society; but now the election is over we must remember that our duties to a national society are secondary to our fundamental obligations as human beings and as Christians to cherish, support and welcome all human life. We must urge our newly-elected leaders to make these values a reality.

General Election 2015

This coming Thursday, 7 May, sees one of the most significant responsibilities most of us have in making a decision for the good of our society. The Bishops of England and Wales, in their recent letter, remind us:

“The Gospel is radical and challenging. It is the saving message of Jesus Christ. It is a way of life. It teaches us to value each person: the vulnerable child inside the womb; the parent struggling with the pressures of family life; the person striving to combat poverty; the teacher inspiring students to seek the truth; the stranger fleeing violence and persecution in their homeland; the prisoner in his cell in search of redemption; the child in a distant land claiming the right to a future; and the frail elderly person needing care and facing the frontier of death.

“As Catholics, we are called to work for a world shaped by the Gospel of Jesus Christ. The Gospel proclaims the mercy of God and invites us steadfastly to love God and our neighbour. Our relationship with God leads to the desire to build a world in which respect, dignity, equality, justice, and peace are our primary concerns…

“At this General Election we are asked to think about the kind of society we want here at home and abroad.”

Having heard the candidates, may we take time to pray and ponder this week about how best to serve our society by the way we vote. May the Holy Spirit give us the gift of right judgement in casting our votes, and rest upon the counsels of all those who are elected.

The Bishops’ letter is available at the back of the church or on-line at www.catholicnews.org.uk/election15.