Field of Dreams: if you build it, they will come!


An address to students from Trinity Theological College, Bristol, at All Saints, Clifton, Monday June 6th 2011

All Saints is a church and parish that stands firmly within the Catholic tradition. Fr Richard has asked me to talk to you this afternoon about what this means. You will understand that this is very much my own approach to the topic, what “Catholic tradition” means to me.

You are theological students, so you will not mind me beginning with theology. Our way of praying and our way of believing are intertwined. I start with a commonplace for Christians: that in Jesus of Nazareth, the Jewish rabbi who lived and died nearly two thousand years ago, God himself, the almighty creator of the universe, came among us as a human being. Jesus was and is the Jewish Messiah, the “Christ” in Greek, in a way exceeding the expectations of his own people, and yet in fulfilment of all that God had been promising and preparing for them.

We understand “God”- the word “God”- to refer to the ultimate Power behind the universe; but as Christians we see the Creator not simply as Power, but as wise and loving. He gives not just existence, but meaning and purpose to the universe. Since wisdom and love are qualities we know as personal, we see God in personal terms: Jesus spoke of God as Father, and taught us to do so. He referred to himself as the Son in a unique way, and his followers soon (as well as using the Jewish title of Messiah) identified him as the Word and Wisdom of God, and a little later expressed the relationship in terms of God existing in three Personae or hypostases, technical terms which for most of us boil down to saying that although we firmly believe that there is and can be only one God, one Divine Being, this God is a dynamic unity of power, wisdom and love, each distinct and yet entirely one.

Enough! Also central to Christian belief is the idea of Redemption. God is almighty, all-wise and all loving: yet the world we see does not always seem to suggest that. It looks as if the actual world is not entirely what a wise and loving creator would want. Thus we see the purpose of God’s entry into the world in Christ as his way of (to use a phrase from computer science and Doctor Who) “rebooting” the universe, giving it a fresh start. And the central action of Christ from this point of view was his free acceptance of death on the cross. It was this supreme obedience- the submission of his human will to the Divine purpose- that undid the disobedience of human wills reaching back to the beginning of the human race.

The New Testament sees this in terms of the Jewish categories of priesthood and sacrifice. Jewish worship was a foreshadowing, a divinely ordained image, of what was to come in Christ. The New Testament is also clear that Christian worship is equally a reflection of and participation in what Christ did once and for all upon the cross. The central act of Christian worship is the Eucharist that Christ instituted on the night before he died, which he explicitly identified with his sacrificial death, and which he commanded his followers to continue.

You observe that the most prominent feature within this building is the altar. It is set apart from the body of the church by rails, it is lifted up on steps, it is protected by a permanent canopy supported by pillars. In ancient times, it would have been veiled by curtains hung between the pillars. We call it an altar, not a mere communion table, because we regard what we do here to be a sacrament, that is a sign or symbol which actually makes present what it signifies.

First and foremost, we regard the Eucharist as the divinely given way in which the once-for-all sacrifice of Christ is made present to us so that we can personally associate ourselves with our Lord in offering it to the Father. Every Mass is the same Mass, just made present in different times and places. In ancient times, a portion of the Consecrated Bread, the Body of Christ, was set aside at the Bishop’s Eucharist and reserved to the next celebration, to signify that the two occasions were somehow one. Similarly, the bishop would send, by the hands of the deacons, a fragment of the Eucharist to the presbyters celebrating in distant churches, to indicate that their Eucharist was identical with his. In this church, as at the cathedral, the Eucharist is celebrated daily: but these are not repetitions, they are simply re-presentations at different points in space and time of the one eternal act of Christ.

We regard the presence of Christ in the Eucharistic elements in a very strong way. That is why we reserve the Sacrament, not just for the utilitarian purpose of taking it to the sick who cannot get to church, but as a permanent focus of our prayer and adoration. On Sunday evenings, after Evensong according to the Book of Common Prayer, we normally have the service called Benediction. The Sacrament is taken from the Tabernacle (we prefer the old Jewish word, with its resonance of God’s Presence with his people in their desert pilgrimage), and place it in a special vessel called a “monstrance”, for “showing forth”. This is placed on the altar so that we may direct our prayers to the mysterious Presence of Christ among us, and receive his Blessing. Again using the ancient Jewish ceremonial we honour it with incense, as we do at Mass. The way we pray expresses what we believe: that Christ is present among us, veiled under the form of bread, but nevertheless really and truly. It isn’t just in our minds.

I will take one further characteristic of Catholic devotion: you can raise other things over a cup of tea in a minute. Everyone knows that Catholics have a great devotion to Mary, the Mother of the Lord. What is the rationale of this? First and foremost, it is a consequence of taking very seriously the truth that Jesus Christ is truly God and truly man. His divinity and his humanity are distinct, but they belong to one divine Person. But when he came among us as man, to redeem us, he did not simply create a human body out of nothing, he took flesh in the womb of Mary. She had to give her free consent for this to happen. Every Sunday, after the main Mass and again before the evening service, we sing or say the Angelus: The angel of the Lord brought tidings to Mary, and she conceived of the Holy Spirit. “Behold the hand-maid of the Lord; be it unto me according to thy word.” And the Word was made flesh, and dwelt among us. Jesus is God, and Mary is his mother. On the cross he bequeathed her to the beloved disciple: “Woman, behold thy son; son, and to the disciple: Behold thy mother.”

St Paul calls Christ the second Adam, the true Adam, man as he was meant to be. Catholic theology sees Mary as the true Eve, woman as she was meant to be. She is “full of grace”, a human being in which divine grace has reached its fullest potential. From her, God himself took flesh. It is because of this that we emphasise her utter sinlessness- wholly derived from the grace of God- and her bodily sharing in the resurrection of her Son at the end of her own earthly life. In Christ and Mary we see both male and female humanity as God intended it to be. We identify ourselves with John, and see her as our mother in the fullest sense, because we are the brothers and sisters of Jesus Christ.

I expect there are other things you will want to raise; but I believe the most important things in specifically Catholic spirituality are its emphasis on the Incarnation, the Word made flesh, with its consequences for both Eucharistic and Marian devotion. Thank you for listening!

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