Christmas I: Clothe Yourselves with Love

December 27, 2015. First Sunday after Christmas

Above all, clothe yourselves with love. (Col 3:14)

Clothe yourselves with love. On the day after Boxing Day, this third day of Christmas, Paul’s word to the church has an ironic ring. Because we are certainly, around Boxing Day, thinking about clothing ourselves…but we are not, perhaps, thinking much about love.

On December 26 we drove to Guelph to celebrate Christmas with our Guelph family. We were sailing along the 401 beautifully…and then we hit Halton Hills, and the outlet malls. And the 401 turned into a parking lot. For at least 2 kms we crept along in the company of the shoppers until finally the outlet mall exit appeared and most of our fellow-travellers peeled off to sit, again, on the exit ramp. We are all eager to clothe ourselves on Boxing Day: this is what you do, when Christmas is over and the sales have begun.

The problem is this: Christmas is not over. It has only just begun. This is the third day of Christmas; it goes on for 12 days—12 days of feasting and cider and carols and chocolate; 12 days to mark this truth: Christmas day is only the beginning. On it a love is born so deep and so broad and so high…and so concrete… that it will take not only the next 12 days but the rest of our lives to learn it.

There is a Christmas ad making the rounds on Facebook, put out by St. James Church in London, England. Maybe you have seen it…

A little girl looks through her telescope into the sky. She sees only the moon. Dear God, she writes, do you exist? Dear God, do you love me? She folds her message into a paper airplane and launches it to the moon. But it crashes on her roof, again and again, until there’s a whole fleet of paper airplanes marooned on the shingles, and she leans out her window and heaves a great four-year-old sigh. Then from the sky a baby appears—a real, quite adorable, baby. In a manger, floating down from heaven on balloons. The baby lands in front of her Christmas tree. “From God,” the card says, “with love.” For God so loved the world…

See how real the love of God is! See how concrete. It is as real as a baby held in your arms, as demanding, and as full of grace. Like a baby, the love of God born among us in the child Jesus makes a claim on our lives.

This love, the claim it makes and its surprising concreteness, is told already in the Old Testament.

Hannah, in today’s reading from 1 Samuel, is given a child after years of waiting and longing. And the first thing she does, when her baby is weaned, is to give him up.


She takes him to the temple and gives him into the service of the Lord. “And the child was young,” 1 Samuel says. The love that God has given into her life in the child born to her is expressed, for Hannah, in this act of giving up the child. God’s gift to her calls from her an answering gift, a difficult self-giving.

Hannah goes to visit her child every year at the temple, and she makes for him every year a little robe. Every mother; every grandmother knows the love Hannah has poured into that little robe. Hannah clothes her child with love.

The love of God that is born among us in the child Jesus at Christmas time does not ask us, first of all, to go out and buy some clothes for ourselves. The love of God at Christmastime asks us to think not about ourselves, but about others; to give not to ourselves but to and for others, because God has given himself to us.

“Above all, clothe yourselves in love.” 

This is the gift Christmas offers us: That we may know ourselves loved, really, truly, in the particular every day, by the grace of God in Christ Jesus, and that we may love in our turn.

That we may love not only with our hearts—though that is where love starts, that is where Christmas starts, in the joy of this birth that fills the heart, joy sung to the skies at Christmastime in carols and candles and prayer—that we may love not only with our hearts but in our lives.

This is Paul’s vision, in the beautiful reading from Colossians that we heard today. Paul sees in the love of God given to the world so concretely in the outstretched arms of his son—arms of the baby reaching out from the manger; arms of the man reaching out on the cross—Paul sees in the love of God born (borne) thus in Jesus in and for the world, the possibility of a new community, an answering love, a people shaped by grace.

It is a community clothed concretely—and not sentimentally—with love. It is the community of Good King Wenceslas, who went out into the snow and the howling wind on Boxing Day, the Feast of Stephen, to take food to a poor man. Why do we sing about Good King Wenceslas on the day after Christ’s birth? Because he lives the love that is born among us in Jesus at Christmas. It is a love known in flesh and wine and pine logs and a hard slog through driving snow, because the Word was made flesh at Christmas. The first thing we are called to do in our love for the baby born in Bethlehem is to go out and feed the hungry man; to light a fire in a dark place, to stretch out our hands to bless in the flesh, as God in the flesh has blessed us.

“As God’s chosen people therefore,” Paul says, “holy and beloved, clothe yourselves with compassion, kindness, humility, meekness, patience.” Bear with one another, and if you have a complaint against anyone, forgive each other.

This is what love means; this is what Christmas means. Feed each other. Be kind to each other. Be patient. And forgive. Paul places forgiveness at the heart of Christian community—because that is what Christ did for us. The baby whose arms reached out to the world from the manger became the man who stretched out his arms for the world on the cross. It is no accident that Jesus in Luke’s gospel goes up with his parents to Jerusalem on the feast of the Passover. He will not go to Jerusalem again on the feast of the Passover until he goes to the cross.

The love of God for us known first in the child whose arms reach out to the world from the manger is the love that is known finally in the arms lifted up to bless and to forgive on the cross. Forgive each other, today, tomorrow, the next day— because that is what God does in Christ for us. This is the claim of love.

This is what God gives us, in the child born at Christmas. He gives us the ability to love as he has loved us—in flesh and blood, with wine and pine logs, with small (or large) acts of forgiveness and trust.

Paul sees springing greenly from the manger this Christmas a whole people, the people of God. He sees for us the joy of Christmas growing greenly not just these 12 days, but every day of our lives.

“Let the peace of Christ rule in your hearts,” Paul says to his church and to ours—that peace to which in Christ’s arms stretched out you are called. Love each other, and feed each other, and forgive.

And sing! Sing together, and sing in your hearts. Sing as you sing at Christmastime, every day of your lives. For Christ is born of Mary, and gathered all above, while mortals sleep the angels keep their watch of wondering love. Sing with psalms and hymns and spiritual songs; let your lives be a thanksgiving-song to God.

This is my prayer for Christ’s people: that we may be Christmas people, now and always. That we may sing the joy of the love that has come among us at Christmastime; that we may live, in flesh and blood, an answering love.

Above all, clothe yourselves with love.


Gerard van Honthorst: Adoration of the Shepherds

Advent, ISIS and Apocalypse

Advent II 2015

St. John the Baptist in the Wilderness - Joshua Reynolds

“Make straight the way of the Lord!” John the Baptist cries, striding out of the desert in the fifteenth year (Luke tells us) of the reign of Tiberius Caesar, driven by the word of God. Advent gives us the prophet and the apocalypse, the revelation of God on earth.

“Look! I am sending my messenger before my face to prepare the way” (Mal 3:1). Suddenly the Lord whom you seek will come to his temple, and he is like a refiner’s fire.

Advent announces the coming of God among us, to purify and to save.

It is a promise for God’s people: he will purify the descendants of Levi. And it is a promise for the world: all flesh will see the salvation of God. John the Baptist went into all the region around the Jordan, proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins. (Luke 3: 3, 6; cf. Isa 40:3-5 LXX; Mal 3:3).

Forgiveness and salvation: this is the prophet’s word this Advent, hope rising over the world in the coming of the Lord. This year of all years it is important to hear the hope that beats under every word of Luke’s gospel, announcing God’s coming, the revelation of God’s reign.

For we have seen other visions of the apocalypse this year, and they are full of horror. The Islamic State bathes the Middle East in blood as it announces the nearness of the end and seeks with every infidel’s and sinner’s head cut off to provoke the apocalypse.(

This is the crude brutality of evil, and there is no room for God in it.

For God comes as light into our darkness—this is the Advent message; God comes in truth and in love, and God comes for the sinners first of all.

Impelled by the word of God John the Baptist announces the salvation of God…precisely to the sinners and infidels. Repent! he says to the crowds who come out to hear him, this “brood of vipers.” Come, and repent, and be baptized. Do you not know, he says to the sinners and infidels, that the evil-fruited tree cannot stand in God’s sight? So come! Be baptized for the forgiveness of your sins; become the tree that bears good fruit. And this brood of vipers comes. “What shall we do?” they say. The prophet holds out to them the possibility of a purified life. Give your extra coat this winter to the street-person who has none. Share a meal with a hungry mother and child; give a home to a Syrian refugee. John the Baptist speaks to the brood of vipers—to each one of us—and invites us into God’s salvation. Even the tax collectors, even soldiers who serve the armies of Rome, come to hear him and be forgiven. John the Baptist announces the apocalypse, the revelation of God among us, and it looks like justice and mercy for all.

This is the shape of God’s coming, the apocalypse we await: justice shot through with mercy, God’s truth naming the harm that we do and in His love forgiving it, reclaiming our hearts (reclaiming our world) for grace. John the Baptist announces the dawn, the Sun of righteousness rising over the world, and he invites the whole world—tax collectors, infidels, sinners all—to come in.

ISIS, by contrast, finds the infidels and sinners and cuts off their heads.

In Iraq, The Rev. Canon Dr. Andrew White (called “the Vicar of Baghdad”), for years Anglican chaplain in Iraq, faced the wholesale slaughter of his own congregation (1200 killed recently by ISIS, including children because they said they loved Jesus). An experienced hostage negotiator, formerly director of the Centre for Peace and Reconciliation at Coventry Cathedral, White invited the leaders of IS to come to the table. Share a meal with me, he said, and let us talk.

“You can invite us to dinner,” ISIS said. “But we will cut off your head.”


There is a dinner in John the Baptist’s story too. Herod throws himself a birthday party; entertains his guests with a feast and with Salome, daughter of his sister-in-law…and wife. Salome dances; she pleases him; he promises her anything. “Give me the head of John the Baptist on a platter,” Herod’s wife’s daughter says.

“We will come to your dinner and we will cut off your head.” The Islamic State’s feast is Herod’s: violence and fear spread abroad in the land.

We announce this Advent a different feast.

Immediately after Luke tells of John the Baptist’s death, Jesus speaks to the crowds. He tells them about the coming reign of God. Some are sick, and he heals them. All, by the end of the day, are hungry and there is no food; just five loaves and two fishes, and 5000 people. Jesus takes the loaves and the fish and looks up to heaven and blesses them; he breaks them and gives them to his disciples and they give them to the crowd. “And they all ate and were filled,” Luke says (9:11-17).

In the face of the evil that haunts this world—Herod and Islamic State, their twisted feasts and desire to destroy—we proclaim the feast of Christ.

Bread for the hungry, healing for the sick, and the sick at heart. A table to gather round, a table for all, and Christ himself the gift.

This is our apocalypse, the revelation of our God. At the table we know him, in the bread of life there given, in the faces that gather round, children and sinners and women and men, this great community of grace.

In the gift we know him, this bread, this balm, this love.

He does not take our life. He gives his life for us.

And he asks us to do the same. In John the Baptist beheaded we see his coming; in the Vicar of Baghdad; in the four young boys who died; in the love that is gentle and true. This is the coming of the Lord.

As a child he comes, Mary encircling salvation in her arms. Gently he comes, in truth and in love; and gently we go this Advent to meet him, with love in our hearts and without fear.

And all flesh will see the salvation of our God.



John the Baptist, by Joshua Reynolds

Salome and Head of John the Baptist, by Caravaggio

Madonna and Child, by Filippo Lippi



Holy Cross Day

Italy 2013 1187

Holy Cross.

We are so used to hearing these words together that I’m not sure we hear what a strange pair they make. The cross: Rome’s most terrible sentence of death. Ugly, slow, agonizing; a public humiliation. And now we call it holy? It’s an extraordinary claim: that in Christ even the cross is made better. That this world’s worst may be made better…in the death of Jesus the Christ. Do we get it? I am not sure.

This week I saw a sign as I was walking down the Danforth.

“Make your day better: Buy a graphic tee!”

It struck me this week–because it speaks to the deep-seated longing that we mark on Holy Cross day. Make your day better…make your life better…make your world better. Surely that is what we all want. Such an outpouring of compassion there has been, and of anguish, over the past couple weeks, since the picture of the little boy dying on the other side of the world hit everyone in the heart. Make this day better. Let there be peace. We long for the better day.

It is the other part of that sign on the Danforth that is the problem. Because it is not going to happen that way. No amount of graphic tees, no amount of buying them, can make this the good day, the good world for which we long. And there is, it seems to me, a terrible kind of blindness in the way our real pain for the suffering of the Syrians coexists in our daily life with this other thing, this turn to ourselves (make YOUR day better); this desire to seek a better day in the things that we can have. It is not here that happiness is found: not while a boy lies dead on the Turkish shore; not now and not ever. Because the tee bought for me and my better day ignores the pain that is out there—and so it does not speak of love; there is in it no sign of our love for the suffering people, and it cannot make our day, or anyone’s, better.

Jesus offers us another way. Jesus offers us a different sign, to wear like a t-shirt over the heart. Jesus offers us the cross. It is the sign that is true, for it does not ignore the pain that is out there, even as it announces the better day.

Just as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness: this is where the cross begins. It begins in the place where the people reject God. It begins with the grumbling we do against the difficult purpose of God. “Why have you brought us up out of Egypt to die in the wilderness?” God’s people say. “For there is no food and no water—certainly no graphic tees—and we detest this miserable food.”

I have always found that line funny: there’s no food here–and it tastes terrible!

It is a ridiculous complaint: God has delivered them from slavery in Egypt and brought them safely through the Red Sea; God has given them manna from heaven and water out of the rock. And they look back to the fleshpots of Egypt, the fish, the melons, the onions and garlic”and now there is nothing at all but this manna to look at” they say, in Numbers 11.

Freedom…or garlic? Which would you choose?

It is ridiculous—and it is human. The rejection of God’s purpose never does make sense. For no matter how difficult God’s way is (and often it is indeed difficult, leading us into a wilderness on our way to worship our God), God is with us always. Our God is the one who can part the Red Sea, a priest said to me in Cuba, in the days of Castro. Our failure, to trust, to follow, to leave behind the old life that binds us, is ridiculous—and worse; it is poisonous, in the face of God’s faithfulness.

“Then the Lord sent poisonous serpents among the people and they bit the people, so that many died.” And the people said, “We have sinned against the Lord” (Num 21:6-7, paraphrased).

But it is human.

The newspaper cries pity for the Syrian child, and beside it the sign says “Make your day better: buy a graphic tee.”

And the serpent creeps into the garden, into the wilderness, calling our hearts away from God’s purpose, calling our hearts away from God’s love, turning us in on ourselves. This is sin. And it poisons our lives.

In the wilderness the people die. Is there then any hope?

“As Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so the Son of Man must be lifted up” (John 3:13). If our inability to follow in God’s way poisons our world; if the cry of the sweatshops and the starving and the fleeing and the lost—a whole culture desperately seeking happiness in a t-shirt—if the cry of the lost still rises from earth to heaven, that is not the final word. For God hears the cry of his people, then and now and always. Precisely in the place where we are lost; precisely in this death we mete out to ourselves and to each other, this wages of sin, God comes to meet us. The Son of Man is lifted up like the serpent in the wilderness, God’s love meeting our agony, this harm that we do.

For there is nothing more cruel than a cross. The cross stands over our world as an indictment, sign and sum of all the evil that we do. Here is the suffering of the Syrians; here is the suffering of the Jews; here is the pain of all the crucified people since the world began and also the will of the world to crucify and to ignore: here it is, written on this wood.

And it is here that God meets us. On the cross God’s Son raised up, the body of Jesus, the beauty of Jesus now covering this wood: covering our sin with his love, covering our pain with hope.

What wondrous love is this, O my soul, O my soul? The hymn sings.

What wondrous love is this,

that  caused the Lord of bliss

to bear the dreadful curse for my soul. (Common Praise 400)

On his back bearing the harm that we do, covering our pain with his love.

Holy Cross! Can there be any name stranger and more wonderful? For the instrument of sin has become the instrument of God’s love, and death is swallowed up in victory.

Holy Cross. It is a contradiction in terms. And it is the sound of hope. For it is so true. It does not ignore the pain there is in this world of ours, the harm that we still do. It is to that pain that it speaks. For there, precisely there, the face of Christ rises too, suffering with us, suffering for us, radiant with grace. Did e’er such love and sorrow meet, or thorns compose so rich a crown? Sorrow and love together, in the face of Jesus Christ. That is why the cross is beautiful. For the harm that we do is not the last word, and there is a greenness that leaps at the heart of things.

There is such joy in the cross. Pray that we may wear it always as a sign over our hearts; pray that it may be written on our lives. Lift high the cross. May we find in it this world’s better day.

St. Augustine of Hippo


St. Augustine, Bishop of Hippo (d. 430 AD)

Feast Day August 28

You have made us for yourself, and our hearts are restless until they find their rest in you.

These words of Augustine’s come back to me more and more, a kind of refrain that stands before and behind and in the midst of all the strivings of life, reorienting our hearts, pointing them home.

Augustine knew about restlessness, the striving heart. His Confessions – often called the first modern work for its acute awareness of the inner life – opens with these words, and tracks a life that has been, as Augustine looks back on it, from earliest childhood a search: his for God, (though he did not know it; though indeed he often acted directly in contradiction to it), and God’s for him. He was, as his translator Pine-Coffin says, “a great sinner who became a great saint”—that is, Augustine might say, he was a man like any of us, who found and was found by the grace of God.

His Confessions are just that: the confession of his own capacity to resist God, to resist the good that touches the world with beauty in spite of all human blindness to it. Yet they are confession in another sense too, the confession of God’s grace, a song of praise to the one who seeks us always, to draw us in.

Augustine was born in 354 AD in North Africa (Thagaste, now in Algeria) to a pagan father and a mother, Monica, of deep and patient Christian faith. He loved his mother tenderly and she him, and he has no doubt that the long slow dawn of his adult faith owed a great deal to her faith, her love and her prayer.

“I was a great sinner for so small a boy,” he says (rather winsomely) of his childhood. “I did not care for lessons”; he would rather be outside playing—or later at the games or at the theatre or pursuing the latest girl. Beatings, because he did not know his lessons well enough, were “my one great bugbear” and inspired an early devotion (though evidently not more study!): “I used to prattle away to you (O Lord) and though I was small, my devotion was great when I begged you not to let me be beaten at school” (Confessions 1.9). He was jealous when his friends beat him at games; he loved Latin and hated Greek (and grammar in general) and lived, to his later dismay, in a fog of 16-year-old lust.  He sounds in fact like any other boy: and that is in part his point. “Was the master who beat me very different from me?” he asks. “If he were worsted by a colleague in some petty argument, he would be convulsed with anger and envy, much more so than I was when a playmate beat me at a game of ball.” We were punished for our games, Augustine says, “by men who played games themselves”: grown-up games called business (1.9). Though they were right to insist on the discipline of learning, they were entirely blind as to the point of it all.

We are all estranged, Augustine argues, from our soul’s true good; even when we see what is good we use it to the wrong end, and our efforts to find satisfaction in the pleasures of life without the God who is the source of all true pleasure leave us empty. “Idleness poses as the love of peace: yet what certain peace is there besides the Lord? Extravagance masquerades as fullness and abundance: but you are the full, unfailing store of never-dying sweetness” (2.6).

It is the incident of the pear-tree—he and his friends climbing the neighbour’s wall and raiding his ripe pears one night—that sums up for Augustine the estrangement of the human heart. A pear is beautiful, and good to eat; but it was not for its beauty or his own hunger that Augustine wanted it. The boys fed the pears to the pigs. He stole, he says, for no reason at all, simply because it was forbidden. “Could I enjoy doing wrong for no other reason than that it was wrong?” (2.6)

Augustine paints a powerful picture of a world gone awry, beautiful and blind. Yet his very next word is joy. “How can I thank God?” he says—for I can recall these things now without fear. “You melted away my sins like ice…You have forgiven me all” (2.7). Over against our recalcitrance, even the plain choice for evil, stands the grace of God; sorrow and joy meeting together, our confession always also praise.

Augustine still had years to go in his walk away from the heart that enjoys what is wrong to the heart that joys in God, years of scorn for the Bible (so much less impressive than Cicero’s polished prose and the beauty of Virgil), scorn for a philosophy that allowed both a good and omnipotent God and the presence of evil; years spent in Carthage and Rome among the rhetoricians, polishing his tongue with (Augustine says) no thought for his soul; years spent as a Manichean.


There were years to go before the moment when, weeping in the garden for his failure of faith he heard a child’s voice calling as if in play, “Tolle, lege”; pick it up and read it. And he picked up the Bible and read, and found in it finally the Word that would enable him to give himself to God; the Word that would be his fascination and his joy for the rest of a long life.

There were years still to go…yet Augustine’s life, as he retells it, is from the very beginning a dialogue with the God to whom he would not turn. From the beginning God sought him; God, in whom abides all that there is, teaching him through all that there is, even by the beatings his teachers doled out, even through his own recalcitrant heart, calling him to Himself.

Confession is a thing compounded of tears and of joy, the knowledge of our persistent distraction from God; the knowledge of God’s persistent love. To confess is also to sing.

You have made us for yourself, and you do not cease to stretch out your arms, in sorrow and in love, until we shall come in.

Most of all the Confessions is a song of praise, wonder at the beauty Augustine has found in spite of himself.

You are great, O Lord, and greatly to be praised (Ps. 145.3): these are the book’s first words and the great discovery of Augustine’s life. It is not games or thrones or sex or possessions or the thrill of the forbidden fruit; it is not this for which we are made. We are made to sing God’s praise, for love of the God who loves us, and seeks us, and does not let us go.

Sing and walk, and walk and sing, and sing and walk; these are also Augustine’s words. Life is finally a love-song to our God, and we are given the grace to sing it.

Collect for the Feast of St. Augustine:

Lord God, the light of the minds that know you, the life of the souls that love you, and the strength of the hearts that serve you: Help us, following the example of your servant Augustine of Hippo, so to know you that we may truly love you, and so to love you that we may fully serve you, whom to serve is perfect freedom; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and for ever. Amen.


Augustine (earliest known representation): 6th century fresco, Lateran, Rome

Conversion of Saint Augustine: Fra Angelico

Feast of the Transfiguration

August 6

Right in the middle of Mark’s Gospel (and, in Luke, at the moment Jesus turns his face toward Jerusalem and the cross), Jesus stands on the mountain and is transfigured. At the centre of the good news there is this word: God with us, in Jesus Christ.

Matthew says it: “And they shall call his name Emmanuel, God with us” (1:23; cf. 28:20).

Mark shows it: “And he was transfigured before them, and his clothes became dazzling white – like no fuller on earth could whiten them – and Elijah appeared to them with Moses and they were talking with Jesus. And a cloud overshadowed them and a voice came from heaven: ‘This is my beloved son; listen to him.'”

Moses went up the mountain too. The cloud overshadowed him and the Lord spoke out of the cloud to give his people the Law and the Tabernacle: God’s covenant and his presence with his people (Exod 19-24). Now God speaks again, recalling his covenant promise and confirming it, announcing his presence with his people in a new way. “This is my beloved son: listen to him.” In the days of Moses God spoke to his people through an intermediary. Now God speaks in his own son. In the days of Moses God spoke through the commandments: God’s will, God’s nature, God’s purpose known in the words of the Law. Now God speaks in the man Jesus Christ. And the Word became flesh and tabernacled among us. And we have seen his glory, glory as of the only Son of the Father. The heavens have been torn open and the disciples look with unveiled face upon the glory of God shining in the man Jesus Christ.

Paul calls it a new creation (2 Cor 4:6): “For the God who said, ‘Out of darkness light shall shine’ has shone in our hearts for the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ.”

So do Luke and Mark. In Luke it is the eighth day: day of the resurrection. In Mark it is on the seventh day that Jesus goes up the mountain: it is, again, the completion of creation. The Word spoken in the beginning is spoken again and finally: out of darkness light shall shine. In Jesus the Christ, the light shall shine.

That was God’s purpose in the beginning (and God said, “Let there be light.”) It is God’s purpose in the end. And the Word became flesh and dwelt among us and we have seen his glory, glory as of the Father’s only Son, full of grace and truth. This is my beloved son, God says as the face of Jesus shines on the mountain. Listen to him.

For the darkness is very great, now as it was in the beginning. People hurt and destroy on all God’s holy mountain, and the blind demons, the deaf demons, the demons of greed and lust and power, the demons of fear, stop our ears and close our eyes and cast us headlong into the fire. We turn away from the light. We turn away from our God, and when he stands in the midst of us in his Christ we reject and condemn and crucify him.

It is no accident that the Transfiguration follows immediately upon Jesus’ passion prediction. “The Son of Man must undergo great suffering and be rejected by the elders, chief priests and scribes, and be killed, and on the third day be raised” (Luke 9:21; Mark 8:31). It is no accident. For the light shines in the darkness: it is for this that the son has come. This is the nature of the light. This is the purpose of God. Lighten our darkness, we beseech thee, O Lord: in the birth and death and resurrection of Jesus Christ, God hears his people’s cry.

And so Jesus stands in the midst of us, bright with the life of God, bright with the love of God, in the midst of our darkness offering us light.

He does not disdain to walk with us, even in the darkness, even all the way. His light and our darkness brought together in his cross, our life lifted up in his body and in his blood. This radiant cross.

I come back again and again to Tintoretto’s crucified Christ, this death that is transfiguration, this transfiguration that is fulfilled in his dying. Out of darkness the light shall shine.

Light in our darkness: it is a transfiguration that is ours too. We hold it in our hands, in the Word and in the bread, at each Eucharistic feast. He in us and we in him, one body, so that in our faces too the light may shine—so that in our hearts the light of Christ may shine.

The Word is very near us, on our lips and in our hearts. This is my beloved son: listen to him.

Art: Jacopo Tintoretto, The Crucifixion (Scuola Grande di San Rocco, Venice)

From Easter to Ascension: Now I come to you

Easter 7: Now I come to You

The trumpets sound, the angels sing:

We come this week to the last Sunday of Easter, and on it we are crowned with joy.

This is the day the Lord has made, when Christ the Lamb of God becomes the Lamb upon the throne.

Now the great action that began on Easter day comes to its completion, and Jesus who rose against all expectation from the tomb rises again, into the heavenly glory of God.

It is, this week, the Ascension of the Lord.

And on this week we read Jesus’ great high-priestly prayer, from the Gospel of John. It is the prayer Jesus prays with and for his disciples immediately before his arrest and crucifixion. Judas has gone out into the night to betray him; Jesus knows exactly what is coming. In this moment he says to the Father, “Father, the hour has come; glorify your son so that the Son may glorify you” (John 17:1).

“Glorify your son.” Is that what is happening, in this shameful betrayal, in the travesty of a trial that follows; above all in the cross?

Here is all that is worst about the world; now it unfolds on Jesus’ body: friendship corrupted, truth turned on its head, and the God-given power of the government used to crush and to humiliate, used to deny the power of God.

Here is the wood of the cross, this sin of the world, on which hung the world’s saviour.

And Jesus says, “Glorify your son, so that the Son may glorify you.”

In John’s Gospel it is the cross, always, that is the moment of Jesus’ exaltation. “Now my soul is troubled, and what shall I say: Father, save me from this hour? But for this I came to this hour…And I,” when I am lifted up from the earth, will draw all people to myself” (John 12:27. 32).

His dying is the moment of his “lifting up”; in the cross strangely comprehended the whole glory of God.

“Now I come to you,” Jesus says on the night before he is crucified (John 17:13). “I am no longer in the world. They are in the world, and I come to you.”

It is in the moment of his humiliation for our sake that we see him truly as Lord: rising now to the throne of God, revealed in unity with our Father who is in heaven. It is in the face of Jesus the crucified Christ that we see at last rising like a sun over the world the light of the knowledge of the glory of God.

This is who God is: this one who takes the lost and lonely world on his own back and suffers its lostness, and lifts us up once again and forever into the presence of God.

And when I am lifted up from the earth, I will draw all people to myself.

The Ascension is part and parcel of the great act of grace that began on the cross. That we should be lifted up: that is the end and purpose of Christ’s dying. In this man lifted up on the cross our humanity too lifted up, out of the sin that haunts us, out of the evil that binds us to purposes that lead only to tears; out of our God-abandonment, out of this long dying. That we should find ourselves once more in God’s presence; that we should be found.

I have called you by name, you are mine, God says to his people in Isaiah. “Keep them in your name, which you have given me,” Jesus prays on the night before his death (John 17:10). Jesus accomplishes on the cross the purpose of God: that we should be his. Holy Father, keep them in your name. Jesus goes to the cross so that we may be lifted once more into the holiness of God.

For God so loved the world. This is the love of God, that shines like glory from the face of the Christ. In the very human dying of Christ this world, our human life lifted up, so that we may again in this human life be holy.

“Sanctify them,” Jesus prays to the Father as he goes to the cross. “For them I sanctify myself.”

So that we may again be holy, lifted into the truth of God: that is the purpose that is played out in the trial where there is no human truth. That we may be holy: lifted again into truth, lifted again into righteousness, lifted again into the light of the knowledge of the glory of God.

And it shines from the face of Jesus the Christ.

It is nothing less than the change of the ages, this earth made new, lifted up into heaven. It is this that we celebrate this week as Easter comes to its completion in Ascension.

On the cross it begins, in the Son there lifted up. On Easter we see it: life springing its bonds, now the green blade rising from the buried grain. And on this day, this last Sunday of Easter, it is accomplished in the Ascension of the Christ.

For Christ is risen, and the cross is a throne, and we are lifted up: out of our death, out of our sin, out of all fear and failure and sighing, into the presence of God. Kaine ktisis! New creation! Paul says—in his excitement leaping over all rules of syntax.

It is this we celebrate this Sunday, and each time we walk in procession into our church. Into the church, up to the altar, singing aloud a song of thanksgiving.

In my church the children like to reach out and touch our priest’s hand as he walks by in his flowing robes, following the choir and the Gospel and the bronze cross lifted high. Their faces are shining…this is for them the highlight of the day. And they are right. In this procession our priest is leading us up to the throne of God. This is humanity on its way out of the world into Christ, lifted in the prayer of the Christ, lifted in the cross of Christ, in the body and the blood, lifted out of our ‘own’ life into the life that belongs to God.

It is the new creation that Ascension declares. It is the new creation that begins, each time we come to the Eucharist. Each of us walking in Christ again into the garden, the church becoming the garden of God.

Now I come to you: we feast here with the angels

As with ceaseless voice they cry,

Alleluia, Alleluia, Alleluia! Lord Most High.


Ascension Icon, Pskov Caves

The Trumpets Sound: Hymn 404 Common Praise Hymnal 1998

Let All Mortal Flesh Keep Silence: Hymn 48 Common Praise

Julian of Norwich

The church of SS Andrew and Mary - St Julian of Norwich - - 1547398.jpg

Julian of Norwich

Feast Day May 8

She spent most of her life in an anchorite’s cell, but in this small space she saw and spoke something of the breadth and length and height and depth of the love of Christ that passes understanding.

About the details of her life we know almost nothing; that she was a real person at all we know chiefly from the witness of Margery Kempe, the woman who went weeping through the high-ways and by-ways of England in the early 15th century and visited Julian in her cell because she was famed for her spiritual guidance…and told us about it in her Book, with, of course, tears.  At the age of 30 and 1/2, Julian tells us, on May 13, 1373, she received the Revelations she had prayed for—thus she was born in about 1342. In 1413 she was still alive (the Introduction to the short text of her Revelations, written by another hand, tells us). She says she was ignorant and “knew no letter”; In fact her own writing shows that she knew well the Latin version of the Bible, the Vulgate, and she read widely in the spiritual classics: the Franciscan tradition; Boethius,Thomas Aquinas, William of St. Thierry. If she started out “rude” she became “such a master of rhetorical art as to merit comparison with Geoffrey Chaucer, whose own greatest achievement in this field, his translation of Boethius’ Consolation of Philosophy…she may well have known” (“Introduction,” Julian of Norwich: Showings, 19-20).

Julian’s visions—“All this blessed teaching of our Lord” which was shown to her in three parts, “by bodily vision and by words formed in my understanding and by spiritual vision” (Showings, vii, 135)—are fundamentally ironic and therefore glad, in the manner of a Shakespeare comedy, or even King Lear. They are founded entirely on the Passion of Christ; his bleeding, suffering face stands at the centre of all things, and the problem of sin and the pain of his dying wracks Julian. And yet the vision speaks beauty: the love and the peace of God, the ‘courtesy’ of God, who joys precisely in us. Christ’s cross is Julian’s great consolation, and it renders the world topsy-turvy. Because in it she discovers—impossibly—that it is joy that is the truth at the root of our lives, that sin is really ‘nothing,’ that it is the love, the all-enfolding goodness of God that is finally and always all in all.

And when I was thirty and a half years old, God sent me bodily sickness. In her extremity, her eyes fixed on a crucifix“Suddenly I saw the red blood trickling down from under the crown, all hot, flowing freely and copiously, a living stream…Just so did he, both God and man, suffer for me” (iii, 129). This body of Christ revealed a spiritual sight: his familiar love. I saw that he is to us everything which is good and comforting for our help. Julian continues with the lovely image of Christ as our clothing, wrapping us round: He is our clothing, for he is that love which wraps and enfolds us, embraces us and guides us, surrounds us for his love, which is so tender that he may never desert us (iv, 130). The violence of the cross reveals to Julian of Norwich the tenderness of God.

And in this he showed me something small, no bigger than a hazelnut, lying in the palm of my hand, and I perceived that it was as round as a ball. What can this be? Julian asks.

And I was given this general answer: It is everything which is made.

It is so tiny and so fragile, Julian says. Each of us, so vulnerable and so contingent; this world, spinning in the vastness of the universe. What is to anchor us? And I was amazed that it could last.

And God answers, “It lasts and always will, because God loves it” (iv, 130).

This is to say something not only about us, but about the nature of God. In the hazelnut we see that God is the Creator and the lover and the protector, and we are made (in an echo of Augustine) to rest in him. To be “substantially united to him”: this is love and rest and true happiness, and it is God who brings it about. For he has made me for this (iv. 131).

This is to see also that everything created is as nothing—and those who deliberately occupy themselves with earthly business, constantly seeking worldly well-being, have not God’s rest in their hearts and souls; for they love and seek their rest in this thing which is so little and in which there is no rest (iv, 132). To see only the world is to miss the hand that holds it.

And yet this world, this fragile earth, our island home, and we who live in it are beautiful, the creature and object of God’s love. For God is everything that is good, and God has made everything that is made, and God loves everything that he has made (vi, 134). In humankind which will be saved is comprehended all: for God is in man and so in man is all. So, Julian says, even in the depths of the sea we are held in God’s love; in a beautiful vision she sees herself let down into the bottom of the sea, and there I saw green hills and valleys, with the appearance of moss strewn with seaweed and gravel. And she understood that even if a man or woman were there under the wide waters, if he could see God as God is continually with man, he would be safe in soul and body – and would have more consolation and strength than all this world can tell (x, 193).

What, then, of sin? See how I have loved you, the crucified Jesus says. Very merrily and gladly our Lord looked into his side (xiii, 146): for you I suffered my heart to be split in two and to send out all that is in it, and this is a delight to me and I wish it to be so for you. Julian laughs when she sees the cross, because on it “the Fiend” is bested, locked within God’s hands, and even the evil he tries to do works in God’s hands for good. It is true that sin is the cause of all this pain, but all will be well and all will be well, and every kind of thing will be well (xxvii, 225). In the end, sin is nothing—not because we do not sin and suffer, in our sinning, misery; not because Satan does not “prowl about like a lion,” but because God in Christ is all in all.

O wretched sin, what are you? You are nothing.

For I saw that God is in everything; I did not see you. And when I saw that God has made everything, I did not see you….And when I saw our Lord Jesus Christ seated in our soul so honourably, and love and delight and rule and guard all that he has made, I did not see you (xxiii, 166).

Sin is that which is not, because it is not with God.

For this is our end: to be with God. It is this that Christ gives us, with his heart. We are Christ’s spiritual thirst, his longing in love, his joy and bliss. In us is “his home of homes, and it is the greatest delight for him to dwell there” (xxii, 164). For God is love—this is the attribute of the Trinity which God shows her the most—and he has made us for love, for him and in him for each other.

And this is true for each one. Each one of his creatures a hazelnut held in his hand. And this is what he means when he says, Every kind of thing will be well. For he wants us to know that the smallest thing will not be forgotten. We are all meant for the love of God. Therefore this is his thirst and his longing in love for us, to gather us all here into him, to our endless joy (xxxi, 230).

How this can be, when so much is wrong in the world, when there are devils and infidels who are surely meant to be damned, Julian does not know. But this she sees:

Again and again our Lord said, I am he, I am he, I am he who is highest. I am he whom you love. I am he in whom you delight. I am he whom you serve. I am he for whom you long. I am he whom you desire. I am he whom you intend. I am he who is all (xxvi, 226).

I am he. And all shall be well, and all shall be well, and all manner of thing shall be well.

St. Philip and St. James

St. Philip and St. James, Feast Day May 1

One Sunday morning in Oxford, shortly after we moved there for a year when I was about 13, we went to the church around the corner. I remember only two things about that day. It was bucketing rain (for about the 10th day in a row). And the church was called “Pip and Jim’s.” Pip and Jim, or sometimes Phil and Jim: St. Philip and St. James. Where else but in England? I was entranced.

And “Pip and Jim” seems to me still just right.

For Philip and James are the everyday saints. They are saints for the small people, for you and for me.

About James we know almost nothing. This is not James the Greater, booming brother of booming John, sons of Zebedee called by Jesus Boanerges, Sons of Thunder. It is not this James who was a leader among the disciples, with Jesus on the Mount of Transfiguration and in the Garden of Gethsemane.

Nor is this James the Just (though he is often conflated with him), brother of Jesus and head of the church in Jerusalem, martyred there for his faith in Jesus the Christ.

Our James is not, like these two, famous. This is a lesser James. James the Lesser, he is called.

He is one of the 12 disciples, James the son of Alphaeus, named always fourth from the end,. It may have been his mother who stood with Mary Magdalene and Salome looking on from afar the day that Jesus died. It may have been his mother who went then with Mary Magdalene and Salome very early on the first day of the week to anoint Jesus’ body…and found the empty tomb (Mark 15:40; 16:1). His mother too was a follower of Jesus; since his brother Joses is also named, this was evidently a family affair. They had all left their home in Galilee to follow Jesus all the way to Jerusalem, to find there unexpectedly a cross and an empty tomb.

We know nothing about James’ own accomplishments or his character or his thoughts. We know only this: he followed the Lord. He and his whole family left home and hometown and walked with Jesus on a road that claimed everything and took them where they did not expect and surely did not want to go. Three trees on the low sky—as Mary watched from afar, as James with the other disciples fled.

This was the place of dying. And it was, though they did not know it, the place where all life begins

Wet, below the snow line, smelling of vegetation,

With a running stream and a water-mill beating the dark-


and three trees on the low sky.

James (and his mother and his brother) followed Jesus, though he did not always follow well, though we did not know and could not have imagined where his Lord would take him.

Jesus called James, and James followed. That is all we know, and that is all that matters.

For it was for the following that he was called: for the walk away from “his own” life into the life of Christ, for the walk with Jesus to Jerusalem and to the cross and to that empty tomb. This was the walk that proclaimed the victory of God, in Jesus’ cross and Jesus’ resurrection the great victory of life.

James followed Jesus. And so he saw this victory and its strange shape. He saw the power we have to destroy…and we know not what we do…the agony of human blindness, our long separation from God, lifted up to God on that tree on the low sky.

And on that tree he saw God’s answer: I have called you by name; you are mine.

Do not fear, for I have redeemed you.

When you pass through the waters I will be with you, and through the rivers, they shall not overwhelm you; …For I am the Lord your God, the Holy One of Israel, your Saviour….You are precious in my sight, and I love you. (Isa 43:1-4)

Jesus called James out of his life into this new life in Christ. James followed, and that was his triumph. James is our saint, for it is the following that matters. There is such a grace that waits! It is necessary to say simply “I come.”

Come away to the skies, my beloved; arise, and rejoice in the day thou was born…. 

If James reminds us that the following is all, Philip shows us a little about the way.

Philip in John’s Gospel was one of the first disciples called, and he was excited about Jesus from the beginning. As soon as he heard he went and got Nathanael and said to him, “We have found him about whom Moses in the law and also the prophets wrote….Come and see!” (John 2:45-46). He was still a missioner at the other end of Jesus’ ministry: it is he to whom “some Greeks” come, seeking to meet Jesus.

Philip followed, too. But he did not understand who he was following, or what that following meant. When Jesus asks him where to buy bread for 5000 people Philip says “Six months’ wages would not buy enough bread” for this crowd. (John 6:7)

Jesus says to his disciples, “I am the way and the truth and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me. If you know me you will know my Father also. From now on you do know him and have seen him.” And Philip says, “Lord, show us the Father, and we will be satisfied” (John 14: 6-8).

Philip follows, but he does not know, really, who Jesus is. He does not yet see the Father in the Son; he does not see in the Son the bread of the world. If Philip is embarrassing, however, his obtuseness is also a comfort. For Jesus called him anyway, and he followed. He did not see the height and the depth and the breadth of God’s love in this Jesus whom he followed; he did not know in him yet the fullness of God’s grace. “Have I been with you all this time, Philip, and you still do not know me?” (John 14:9). It is poignant, and it is what Jesus might say to any one of us at so many moments along the way.

And Philip is a saint. Jesus called him and he followed, and he too became one of the holy ones of God.

Pip and Jim. Signs of hope for ordinary people. Saints of God.

Rubens apostel philippus.jpg


TS Eliot, Journey of the Magi

The Southern Harmony, Come Away to the Skies (Common Praise Hymnal 225)

Peter Paul Rubens, Philip the Apostle


St. Mark the Evangelist

St Mark Evangelist

Feast Day April 25

He was not an apostle. He did not sign the Gospel that the church has always attributed to him. We know almost nothing for certain about him. He may have been the John Mark of Acts 12:12, 25 (and Acts 13 and 15), and so a member of Peter’s church in Jerusalem and a companion of Paul in ministry. He may have been the Mark whom Paul himself names in the letter to Philemon, first among his fellow-workers; he may have been the Mark whom 1 Peter names as his beloved fellow-worker (“my son”) in Rome. (And these may, or may not, all be the same Mark!) We do not know his face.

Yet his symbol is the great winged lion that sings day and night beside the throne of God (Rev 4:6-9) and he has left us not just the earliest Gospel but the whole Gospel tradition. (He also, tradition says, founded the Coptic Orthodox Church in Egypt, where his head still rests—his body having been stolen by the Venetians, this piratical act inspiring by the humour in God’s grace the lasting beauty of San Marco).

Mark was the first to write a Gospel. He was, Papias says, the interpreter of Peter, writing down what he heard him say about Jesus’ words and deeds, turning Peter’s words into the narrative we call a Gospel (

The beginning of the good news of Jesus Christ (Mark 1:1)

Good news: euangelion in Greek; god-spell in Old English; gospel.

We are so used to this thing we call “Gospel” that we do not recognize how surprising it is. Mark gives us something quite new. He turned proclamation (Hear the good news!) into narrative; he turned narrative (This is the life of Jesus) into proclamation (This is the Christ!). He blew open the boundaries of the ancient bios, biography, so that it spoke suddenly to the long purpose of God. He claimed for this narrative continuity with the history of Israel and the hope of the world.

The beginning of the Gospel of Jesus Christ the son of God; as it is written in Isaiah the prophet, “Behold I send my messenger before your face,…the voice of one crying in the wilderness, ‘Prepare the way of the Lord!” (Mark 1:1-2)

Mark was doing something new, and Matthew and Luke followed him. The whole Gospel tradition starts here, and we owe to this unknown man the story in its revolutionary voice that stands at the centre of our faith.

What is it that Mark does? Mark’s Gospel tells a mystery. And the word became flesh and dwelt among us (John 1:14): What John’s Gospel states unfolds in Mark on the narrative plane. From the beginning of the Gospel, the power of God in Jesus—and also the humanity of the Christ. Mark gives us the God-man. Isaiah’s voice goes before, announcing the coming of the Lord. This is the time of repentance that marks the great Day of the Lord. Judgement is near, and restoration: now God’s reign arrives.

Note that it is a “coming,” for Mark. He does not place Jesus first in the manger; he places Jesus in the Jordan River, rising up out of the water like the Israelites out of the Red Sea to declare God’s deliverance. Salvation erupts into Galilee in Jesus, in water and the Holy Spirit; this is the coming of the Lord.

There is no sweetness of the baby in Mark, no shepherds or angel-song. There is John the Baptist in camel hair crying in the wilderness and the way that will be made straight. There are the heavens torn open. And there is also, immediately, Satan in the desert. Jesus is driven right from his baptism into confrontation with Satan. From the beginning in Mark’s vision it is the last battle and the apocalypse.

Jesus’ first healing in Mark is an exorcism. No sooner does he come into Galilee and start teaching in the synagogues than “immediately”—everything happens immediately in Mark, for the Lord is coming—a man with an unclean spirit challenges him. “Have you come to destroy us, Jesus of Nazareth? I know who you are, the holy one of God.” “Be silent,” Jesus says (literally, “be bound”) and come out of him. Later he will say to the authorities who accuse him that “the strong man”—Satan—has been bound. Jesus casts out demons to show that the victory over evil is being and has already been won (3:20-29).

Nor is it just Jesus’ power over the power of evil that Mark stresses. It is also his bounty, his sovereignty, his grace. Jesus feeds 5,000 people and then 4,000 with nothing but a few loaves of bread; he touches the leper and heals the sick…and the word about him goes out everywhere…he walks on water; he calms the storm; he gives blind Bartimaeus his sight. “Who is this,” the disciples say, “that even the winds and the sea obey him?” “And they feared with a great fear” (Mark 4:41). Jesus in Mark’s Gospel is awe-ful. There is in him the power and the danger and the grace of God.

Yet at the same time, Jesus is utterly human. He gets hungry (11:12). He gets tired (4:38). He gets mad (9:19). His heart goes out to the rich young man. He holds the children in his arms. He has a sense of humour: when the unclean spirits who inhabit and torment the Gerasene demoniac tell Jesus that their name is “Legion” (which is of course the name for the basic unit of the [occupying] Roman army) Jesus sends them into a herd of pigs.* There are things Jesus does not know: “who touched me?” he asks, when healing power goes out of him in the press of the crowd (5:30). And to the people of his village he looks like just another small-town boy (Mark 6).

Jesus is earthy in Mark every bit as much as he is awe-ful, full of the power of God. Confronted by a man who is both deaf and dumb Jesus does not simply lay hands on him, as he has been asked. He puts his fingers in the man’s ears and spits and touches the man’s tongue. He groans as he says, “Ephphatha: be opened!” Jesus comes in the body to heal the body; if this is a battle between all the powers of heaven and hell, it is in and for the earth that it is fought.

The word became flesh and dwelt among us: Mark gives us salvation as incarnation, Jesus who is very God and very man.

So the cross stands at the heart of the story. Everything in Mark’s Gospel points toward the Passion, and the Passion draws together all that has gone before. Here in the body Jesus shares the life of the world even unto death; here in the body Jesus takes the world with him through death into life.

It is in the body that the battle is finally joined. This is the mystery of God’s love. To share our human nature, to live and die as one of us, and in this way to bring us bodily out of the power of evil into the life that belongs to God.

Mark tells a mystery in Jesus the God-man. And he leaves us there at the resurrection, in mystery—in what used to be called the fear of God—face to face with the news that is impossible and also true: humanly impossible, and in the one who is both Lord and crucified, humanly true.

And they fled away from the tomb, for fear and ecstasy gripped them, and they said nothing to anyone, because they were afraid (Mark 16:8).

*My thanks to Canon Peter Walker for this insight.


Il Pordenone: Mark the Evanglist

Carpaccio: The Lion of Venice

William Blake: Baptism of Jesus

St. Anselm and the Joy of God

Anselm of Canterbury, archbishop and philosopher, great theologian of the church (ca. 1033-1109)

Feast Day April 21

Anselm 12th-century_painters_-_Meditations_of_St_Anselm_-_WGA15732

What follows can only be an initial foray: Anselm’s work deserves a philosopher, which I am not. But I am intrigued and delighted by him; this is my tribute, such as it can be.

Anselm lived in the 11th century; his works are still foundational. The Proslogion—Discourse—which he first called Faith Seeking Understanding: the first ontological argument for the existence of God. Cur Deus Homo—Why Did God Become Man?—the classical treatment of the “satisfaction” theory of atonement. Nor was he just a great thinker. In his spare time he kept kings in line. Made Archbishop of Canterbury (over his objections and on condition that King William II give back the church’s lands) he insisted on the autonomy of the church and when he was exiled (the first time) he blithely set out for Rome, defended the Filioque Clause in the Nicene Creed at the Council of Bari in 1098 (the Holy Spirit proceeds from the Father and the Son: filio-que) and finished Cur Deus Homo a year later.

He was smart: he knew when to support and when to hold out against kings. He was effective: he (and the Pope) won the long battle over Investiture, who should ‘invest’ the Archbishop with the signs of office, King or Pope—and whether, therefore, the King had authority over the church (it did not start with Henry VIII!). He was a brilliant and original thinker.

And above all, he loved his God.

What is so striking about his writing, these great theological works of his time and indeed of ours, is not just the clarity and order of the argument, but its passion.

Speak now, my whole heart! he says at the beginning of the Proslogion, his elegant proof of the existence of God.

Speak now to God, saying, I seek your face…And come you now, O Lord my God, teach my heart…where and how it may find you. (Proslogion Chapter 1;

Anselm asks about God—God’s existence and God’s nature—not just because it is an interesting exercise but because he is driven by the desire for God. To know Him, as Paul said of Christ (Phil 3:10): this is Anselm’s whole purpose, the longing of his life.

Lord, you are my God, and you are my Lord, and never have I seen you.

We lived once in the closer walk with God, but we have lost it, that blessedness for which we were made.  O wretched lot of man! he cries (and Paul again sounds in the background—talaiporos ego anthropos, wretched man that I am! Rom 7:24) What shall I do,

an exile far from you? What shall your servant do, anxious in his love of you and cast out afar from your face? He pants to see you, and your face is too far from him.

What then shall we do, Anselm asks? In the darkness we have made for ourselves, how is it possible to see God’s light?

Anselm’s answer is both a prayer and an epistemology, a theory of how we know. Faith Seeking Understanding, he calls it.

Teach me to seek you, he says; for dislocated as we are, in exile even from our proper selves, I cannot seek you except you teach me, nor find you except you reveal yourself.

Knowledge of God begins in revelation, and faith. It starts with the love of God—his love for us and our love for him (let me find you in love, Ch. 1). And yet we are created in God’s image, made to be mindful of God, made to conceive of God. Help, then, your creation, Anselm says.

Faith is God’s gift for the renewal of his creation, and reason is his instrument, that with our minds we might again see truly.

For I do not seek to understand that I may believe, but I believe in order to understand. (Ch. 1)

So Anselm begins his argument with faith: what we believe.

And so, Lord, give me…to understand that you are as we believe, that you are that which we believe. What do we believe? We believe that you are a being than which nothing greater can be conceived. (Proslogion, Ch. 2)

He proceeds with a logic that is beautiful and devastating: Truly there is a God, because even the fool who says in his heart “There is no God” can conceive of “that than which nothing greater can be conceived.” The object exists in his understanding. But if he says it does not exist in reality, this is impossible—because in conceiving of it existing in reality (which is greater, Anselm says) he has conceived of something greater than the object than which nothing greater can be conceived.

If then that-than-which-a greater-cannot-be-thought exists in the mind alone, this same that-than-which-a greater-cannot-be-thought is that-than-which-a greater-can-be-thought. (Ch. 2

But this is obviously impossible.

Q.E.D.: There is absolutely no doubt that something-than-which-a greater-cannot-be-thought exists both in the mind and in reality. (Ch. 2)

Indeed, Anselm gleefully concludes, if this is what God is, it is impossible to think of God as not existing.

I give thanks, good Lord, since what I believed before through your free gift I now so understand through your illumination, that if I did not want to believe that you existed, I should nevertheless be unable not to understand it.

Faith and understanding: both together rendering reality; faith teaching reason and reason articulating faith.

Anselm’s proof is a tour-de-force, logically pleasing; fundamentally simple; giving rise to 20 chapters more of intellectual exploration into the character of the God who is that-than-which-nothing-greater-can-be-conceived.

Yet his argument remains also always a prayer, the longing of the heart.

Understanding does not trump faith. The heart’s longing is not even in the proof finally satisfied, Anselm discovers. Because, after all, if God is that than which nothing greater can be thought, then He is greater than can be thought (Ch. 15).

Why, Lord, Anselm cries, “does my soul not feel you, if it has found you?”

Lord my God, my soul still longs: tell my desiring soul what you are besides what it has seen.

For now we see through a glass darkly: the sense of my soul, because of the ancient weakness of sin, have become hardened and dulled.

In this life we are always seekers; always in some part we long for God, even as we grow in heart and mind toward God.

Anselm cries his desire again and again as he reasons his way toward an ever richer vision of His God. His hope is finally for the understanding which is love, a delight in the God who made all delight, a heart turned wholly to God. Imagine a world, he says, in which all possessed this joy in God; in which nothing will separate God from those who love Him; in which we are perfected in understanding, which is love. They will, no doubt, rejoice as much as they love, and they will love as much as they know (ch. 26). Imagine a world in which we all possess this blessedness and rejoice in each other’s blessedness and each of us can love the other as ourselves. How can our heart even begin to comprehend such a joy?

Understanding for Anselm is in the end about the love that is joy: to know God so that we may love Him; to know God so that we may love each other, and in this to know joy. My God and my Lord, my hope and the joy of my heart, tell my soul if this is the joy of which you speak in your son (“that your joy may be complete”, John 16:24) (ch. 26). For I have discovered a joy that is complete and more than complete—for it is the knowledge and love of God. Even when the whole person is filled with it, mind and heart and body and soul, yet joy beyond measure will remain.

Anselm’s “proof” is a vision of joy, finally to be known in the reign of God when understanding may be complete. But it is a joy that begins now, in the faith that seeks understanding. Anselm ends with a prayer:

I pray, 0 God, that I may know You and love You, so that I may rejoice in You. And if I cannot do so fully in this life may I progress gradually until it comes to fullness. Let the knowledge of You grow in me here, and there [in heaven] be made complete; let Your love grow in me here and there be made complete, so that here my joy may be great in hope, and there be complete in reality…

Until then let my mind meditate on it, let my tongue speak of it, let my heart love it, let my mouth preach it. Let my soul hunger for it, let my flesh thirst for it, my whole being desire it, until I enter into the ‘joy of the Lord’ [Matt. 25:21].

Art: 12th century illumination: Meditations of Anselm

Music: Herbert Howells, Like as the Hart (Worcester Cathedral Choir)