York Minster, as the Cathedral is known, was built over the remains of the Roman Garrison. It was here in the year 306 than Constantine was proclaimed Emperor. This late 20th Century statue shows the Emperor dressed for battle, gazing at his broken sword.
The hilt or handle of the sword forms a cross with the blade. In hoc signo vinces – in this sign you will conquer – were the words that accompanied Constantine’s vision of a cross in the sky before the decisive victory that took him from contender for the throne to acknowledged Emperor of Rome.
Constantine, seventeen centuries on, seems to us more of an action man than a contemplative, but if his adoption of Christianity as the religion of the Empire was politically expedient, it must also have spoken to his heart. We can follow his gaze and, looking at the broken sword, ask ourselves under what sign, what banner do we strive? Which Kingdom do we serve? What are we aiming for? And how would we recognise victory? Are we like the man in the background, too busy on our phones to stop and stare? Let’s look at the broken sword and say:
We adore Thee O Christ and we praise Thee, because by thy Holy Cross Thou hast redeemed the world. Amen.
Lines: only five
evenly spaced and ongoing
there is always room in the universe
for infinity’s seed to germinate, and on the left
of the five lines, the treble sign, inward and reverent,
moves roundly, a pregnant woman, her sweet baby coiled
in her sheltered space: music of life, notes tip-toe on their lines
and spaces, sharps, flats, trills and runs patter and boom, blooming and falling.
Our L’Arche pilgrimage was like winding a section of Blake’s golden string, only those of us at the back of the group were following arrows chalked on the pavement by the frontrunners. What ten-year-old would not enjoy the chance to draw graffiti without getting into trouble?
In Dover I ended up walking with D, who may be slow, but speeds up to slow ahead when someone holds his hand. Having a banner to carry also helped him along.
Now D does not speak, though he has a vocabulary in Makaton signs (which I must learn again, not having used them for forty years). We were walking beside the River Dour in Dover when a duck started berating us. So I quacked back. D began to laugh, so I quacked even more. So did the duck.
Then D began making little grunts in time with my quacks. He’d got the joke and joined in. We were both still smiling when a few people caught up with us and mentioned lunch. At which point D’s feet found wings!
I think I passed through Jerusalem’s wall that morning.
We know that Christian missionary saints believed God would commit to the flames of hell those not baptised into the Church, even when living in good faith. They were saints – but they were mistaken. Christian missionaries forced converts to renounce all their previous ways of striving after God, making them adopt Western ways that had nothing to do with religion. Much cruelty was inflicted through the inability to distinguish between cultural and social customs, and religious convictions.
Modern Social Sciences make it easier for us to accept this as missionaries sought to try to understand the different cultures and ways of thought of non-Christian folk, and they began to understand non-Christian religious convictions from the way the people saw them. Like being less than impressed looking at stained glass windows from outside – so different when seen from inside.
The patristic scholar Jean Daniélou proposed seeing the great Eastern Religions as being pre-Christian but leading to Christ. Their followers are saved by their commitment, the hope that seeks a future fulfilment. The fact that these people live after Christ [today] is not important, because their experience is before Christ as long as they have not heard the Gospel in a form that makes sense to them. While there is one Hindu living the Hindu tradition in good faith and with conviction, we cannot speak of the Hindu religion as false.
It is not only through their sincerity in striving after God as best they know how, that God comes to meet them; it is also because their striving is true. Our religious language is symbolic in a special way. It describes realities we have hardly glimpsed, and cannot comprehend. In the Jewish tradition it was important not to make images of God – because all images are false, the only image of God is the human person. So they speak as though God is a human person – masculine gender, a father-figure, who can get angry and change his mind. These characteristics are not literally true of God – but are true in another sense – they are true of our experience of God.
Other faith communities also know that language about God cannot be literally true. They express their experience of God. Asian faiths tend to be more contemplative than those of the Western world; they leave symbols in their symbolic form rather than seek explanations. Hindus say when you have images you understand you are making only a remote comparison, but when you have explanations you might be misled into thinking you understand much more than you do. God cannot be understood.
When the first Christians claimed a new covenant, they were aware of how the word new had been interpreted in the prophetic writings. Later generations spoke of old and new covenants – with the presumption the old was past its sell-by date. This is mistaken, the facts of history contradict it. The Jews have been faithful to Covenant in large numbers, even to the point of martyrdom; and Scripture tells us that God does not desert those who are faithful.
Some believe the issue is simple. If the Jews had really been faithful they would have recognised Jesus as Messiah, and have been part of the new covenant. But since they do not recognise Jesus as Messiah, we can assume they are unfaithful to the covenant. For this reason history left them behind as forever lost.
Such a view leaves all kinds of questions unaddressed. Even if it was perfectly clear that Jesus is the Messiah, we must remember that the Jews of the dispersion had never had the gospel preached to them. For example, exactly when did the covenant go out of date? Was it at Pentecost or at the death of the last Apostle? Also, does the Jewish participation in the covenant not remain in date until the end of time?
The only contact many Jews through the centuries had with Christians and the Gospel was that of persecution and victimisation in various forms of anti-Semitism. And many were told to renounce Judaism in favour of Christianity – if you are persecuted on account of your Christian faith and told to recant, would you see this as an act of God? We must accept the possibility that Jews cannot accept Jesus as the expected Messiah because he is not yet Messiah. We who are the presence of Jesus have not yet produced the promised signs of the Messianic presence. We know what these signs are – the Prophets are full of them, and the Gospels have Jesus quoting them.
The signs of Messianic times are: peace among nations and all people; perfect fraternity; justice for the poor and the powerless; no more violence and enmity; and all coming together to praise the one God in their own ways in peace, without hindrance. When Paul writes of these signs he says there is no discrimination in Christ between Jew and Gentile, between cultured Greeks and primitive Barbarians, between men who had all kinds of rights and women who had none. Today we might add: no discrimination between white or black, gay or straight, rich nations and poor – no annexation of the poor by the powerful.
The signs of the times cannot simply be material events or objective happenings. Such things, of themselves, do not indicate anything. They prompt a suspicion that things are brewing, it does not take very much to be aware of that. Sadly that is where most people stop. Whereas the real signs are human actions, human responses to challenges posed by these events. Only people can create realities pointing somewhere, through their words, gestures and actions. The “signs of the times” are these gestures which allow the Lord to be present. There will always be a connection between events and signs. St. Paul’s journeys depended on the existence of sea-routes, and the communications system established by the Roman Empire. But a study of these phenomena would not suffice to help us understand what was going on. Only people can be signs. Anthony in the Desert, Benedict, Francis, Gandhi, Martin Luther King… were all signs who were intimately involved with what was going on in their own world. Their sign value lay in the pathways they opened up for the Gospel life to move through them, relevantly, into the world.
If we are simply looking for new ways to win people to the church, all we need do is take note of modern resources on offer. Make use of the variety of ideologies at our disposal. But our task is different. A new Church demands freedom from the accretions and accumulations of time. We need to sweep away whatever makes the Word inaccessible. Just as individuals need to be set free from their past, so too do Institutions which are made up of individuals. We will only realise the need for change when we discover people who are not being reached. Recognising the signs of the times means risking letting go of much of the past. If Jesus had taken all the Jewish traditions on board he would have made many more converts, but nothing would have changed and the truth would have remained “safely” locked up.
Mission is not something extraordinary, it does not require the presence of genius; simply ordinary folk prepared to do ordinary things, extraordinarily well. When we rely over much on system and method we end up transmitting ideology, religion or culture, rather than access to Jesus Christ
Image from Saint David’s Cathedral, Pembrokeshire.
With our Lenten season we have set aside our long-running series from Traherne, the Little Flowers of Francis, and from Brother Austin. Let’s remedy that last one! There’s a challenge at the end: ‘I know that I can cope with the past because I am still here! So why risk the unknown?’
We cannot contrast Church and World. They are not mutually exclusive. The Church is supposed to be the community that makes God’s promises already present. When we celebrate the sacraments this is a pledge to what we have committed ourselves as community. There is no work blueprint, we are called to be creative through the possibilities everyday life presents. The Church cannot hand-out a programme to us telling us exactly what to do, how to do it and where. The Bible has no such blueprint. We learn more about the future when we respond to what we already know and are presenting solutions accordingly.
The early Church, seen through Paul’s writing, took slavery for granted as a feature of society – while insisting that the slave-owner respect their human dignity. Centuries later we began to realise that we must abolish slavery itself, because slavery as such is opposed to human dignity. We are also coming to realise that what we often call works of charity can be more crushing than poverty itself, that we can eliminate poverty simply by providing jobs and incomes for all. In the same way war was seen as inevitable, and not only killing but torture was therefore justified. With the formation of the UN we are starting to glimpse that war is not inevitable – Paul VI said to the UN with powerful conviction no more war, war never again.
The truth is that the “signs of the times” are those offering the church ever new opportunities to go out and meet others. Individuals may well set out believing they are going to teach, but they will end up learning, as did Paul. The church is given endless opportunities to rediscover itself in ever new light, but they do not happen every day. At certain moments of privilege, the Spirit summons the church to risk: “During the night a vision came to Paul: a Macedonian stood there appealing to him: Cross over to Macedonia and help us”. Acts.16.9.
The “signs of the times” are the external evidence of this call to Discipleship of Christ. Reasoned observation and rational planning have a place. Reason is able to perceive certain things that suggest there are changes requiring further and new steps to be taken. Different moments of time have their own signs. Not everyone sees them. Jesus criticised the Pharisees because their wisdom in this regard was deficient: “It is a wicked and Godless generation that asks for a sign; and the only sign it will be given is the sign of Jonah” – Mt.12.39. There are insensitive people in every age, unable [unwilling] to see the call for something new. To them mission is no more than simply repeating what has already been achieved. This is the fear principle, prompted by the fact that I know that I can cope with the past because I am still here! So why risk the unknown?
Reading the Word and the World, Zakopane, Poland.
The second part of Sister Theodora Mercy Kavisa’s post, celebrating water.
Religious traditions have used the cycle of drought, flood, life-giving rain, and the rainbow to symbolize moving out of Separation from God to Redemption. God sent a great flood at the time of Noah because “the earth was filled with violence” (Genesis 6:11). God rewarded Noah’s faithfulness with dry land and a covenant “between you and me and every living creature” (Genesis 9:12-13).
One water ritual that draws all these elements of life, purification, protection, healing, separation and redemption together is the sacrament of Baptism in which Christians have water poured over them or immerse themselves in water to be cleansed of sin and admitted into the Christian community. The community prays,
“In Baptism we use the gift of water, which you have made a rich symbol of the grace you give us in this sacrament. At the very dawn of creation, your Spirit breathed on the waters, making them the wellspring of all holiness. The waters of the great flood you made a sign of the waters of Baptism that made an end of sin and a new beginning of goodness.”
And yet, too many members of the world’s religions neglect to respect water as a finite natural resource. Many people are in need of an inner, spiritual conversion to appreciate the value of water.
As Christians there are three ways to view the current situation: gratitude for creation, reconciliation with wounded creation, and action that heals creation. We need to confront our inner resistances and cast a grateful look on creation, letting our heart be touched by its wounded reality and making a strong personal and communal commitment to healing it. Remember this the next time you throw out plastic bags, empty cans, empty beer bottles, plastic containers etc. Are you healing or further inflicting wounds on an already bleeding creation?
This celebration of water, slightly abridged, is by Sister Theodora Mercy Kaviza OFS. It is far too easy, for those of us with clean, safe, running water to take it for granted. Sister Theodora Mercy reminds us that it is both gift and necessity. The second half follows tomorrow.
In our bodies, from the rebuilding of our muscles to blood circulation to boosting digestion, one main component is needed, and this is water. We use water to bathe, and for cleansing and purification, because it keeps sickness and bad moods at bay, and rejuvenates the body.
However when we look around and see how we have abused the water sources of the world it is easy to realize that we have totally forgotten how important water is to our very existence. From prehistoric times humans thought that the benefits of water were divine gifts or even that the water itself was a divinity: lakes, rivers, springs and glaciers became places of veneration.
Birds, reptiles and amphibians are born from eggs which are mainly full of water. Mammals too, before they are born, swim in their mother’s womb in a liquid composed principally of water. In the Canticle of the Sun, St. Francis of Assisi praises God for water: “Praised be Thou, O Lord, for sister water, who is very useful, humble, precious, and chaste”.
In Africa, a hot and mainly arid continent, the great rivers Nile, Congo, Niger, Zambezi and the Lakes Chad, Victoria and Rudolf, have always been life-giving. The ancient Egyptians believed their country was “a gift of the Nile” and they venerated the river as a deity.
In the creation story of the Jewish Torah and Christian Bible, God’s spirit first moved “over the face of the waters” and God said “Let the waters bring forth swarms of living creatures” (Genesis 1:2, 20). In Islam, water is the origin of all life on Earth and the Qur’an says water is the substance from which God created the human being (25:54).
The Indians take the Ganges River to be both a symbol of life and a place where one can wash away spiritual impurities, thereby drawing closer to the sacred source of life. In a similar way, ancient Jewish tradition calls people on special occasions to cleanse their bodies spiritually by immersion in a ‘mikveh’ bath. For Muslims, ablution with water, is an obligatory preparation for daily prayer.
Image from St Aloysius’ Somers Town, London. MMB