The Prayer Book Platonist

Fr Thomas Plant, Tokyo-based Anglican priest and comparative theologian

Beatitudes or Platitudes?

Beatitudes or Platitudes?

On a superficial reading, it would be easy to think that the eight Beatitudes should really be called the eight Platitudes. Be nice to poor people, put others first, it’s alright to cry, make a fairer society, be kind, stay pure, be peaceful, just ignore the bullies: the perfect set of rules! - for a school playground.

But who’d want to be a saint if their rules are - frankly - to be so wet? And how could the Church have taken so seriously, for so long, these eight sayings from Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount? Because it really has: many of the greatest minds of the Church have devoted years to studying, meditating on and writing vast commentaries just about Matthew 5:1-12. So there must be more to the Beatitudes than platitude, surely?

Of course there is. Too much, by far, to fit into a ten-minute sermon.

So, it’s probably quicker to start by saying what the Beatitudes are not. The Beatitudes are not a set of “Christian values,” a phrase I frankly despise, because it implies that you can get rid of all the supernatural stuff like the Incarnation and miracles and Resurrection, basically get rid of Jesus, and still have a valuable “moral system” left over at the end. I cannot be more emphatic about this: Christianity is not a moral system. As soon as it becomes one, it has completely lost its way.

If the Beatitudes are just a list of values, handy playground morals, then frankly, they are no better than platitudes. And sadly, many clergy do seem to read them this way: the Beatitudes as Jesus’ call for social justice, his Party Manifesto, a kind of primitive Guardian editorial avant la lettre.

All this ritual and Church stuff is just there to reinforce Jesus’ message of class warfare. Though if that’s so, why bother with Church when you could just sit at home and read it better put in Das Kapital? Perhaps that’s what all the people who have been driven from the pews over the last three decades are doing this morning. Well, that, or the Telegraph Crossword.

If the Beatitudes are not a social justice manifesto or nebulous set of values, then what, you may reasonably ask, are they?

Actually, they are really quite extraordinary in their scope and I feel like I am only a beginner myself at meditating on their hidden wisdom. But I can say this much: they are a pattern or path for spiritual practice and growth, and they are a microcosm of the entire Bible’s salvation history.

It’s probably most straightforward just to go through them, one by one. But before we do that, let’s note the context, easily missed when we are so focussed on the content. There are lots of clues in the first verse which indicate that what we are about to hear is going to spiritually important.

First, Matthew (unlike Luke) sets the Sermon on a mountain, really a hillock near Capernaum. Mountains in the Bible typically denote an interaction with the presence of God. Think of Moses meeting God and receiving the commandments on Mount Sinai. The motif will return later in Jesus’ Transfiguration and, at the end, at his glorious Ascension, connecting Jesus to both Moses as lawgiver and Elijah as prophet. Divine law and prophecy are being invoked by the setting.

Then, Jesus sits to teach. Some ancient fathers see this as a metaphor for the Incarnation, God’s self-emptying to descend in the flesh of Jesus to be among us. It is only once he has done this, become one of us, that the disciples or saints gather round.

Next, Jesus “opened his mouth and taught.” Now, he couldn’t very well teach without opening his mouth, so there must be some meaning behind this otherwise all-too-obvious reference. And there is. In the Old Testament, it is God who “opens the mouths” of the prophets when something particularly important is going to come out; Jesus famously opens the mouths of the dumb; the Psalmist prays, and in the Divine Office of daily prayer we join in the words, “O Lord, open thou our lips.” Here, Jesus opens his own mouth, and yet sits to teach with all that divine authority that the mountain location bestows. This is not just “Jesus’ opinion” we’re about to hear. Matthew is giving cues that his mostly Jewish audience will understand to show that Jesus is speaking with the authority of God.

Let’s find out what he says.

There are eight beatitudes. Numbers were important for the ancient Jews. The first indicates creation and the seventh indicates perfection, following the days of Genesis: on the first day, God creates, and on the seventh, He rests.

This is why both the first and seventh Beatitude speak about the Kingdom of Heaven: it is where Creation began, and where God means Creation to end up again. The mystical “eighth day,” which of course does not exist in a the span of a physical week, is the figure for the renewed creation at the end of time: the world of the Resurrection. It’s why Christians worship on a Sunday, rather than on the Jewish sabbath of the seventh day of the week, Saturday. Sunday represents a new first day, an eighth day, the day of the resurrection. And this sets out the pattern for the Beatitudes: all the way from Creation right up to re-creation, Resurrection.

The first three Beatitudes open the spiritual path with contemplation. The poor in spirit are those who understand their spiritual weakness and their absolute need for God’s wealth. That is, in the old language, to “fear” God, for “The fear of God is the beginning of wisdom” (Prov 9:10). Putting this into the context of the biblical story, it is to be unlike Adam and Eve, who take God’s power (in the form of an apple) into their own hands. The first step into the Kingdom begins with a recognition of our proper relationship to God: poverty of spirit, a need for God’s grace.

Second, those who mourn are the ones who recognise their own sinfulness and weep for it. The greatest spiritual masters are unanimous on this: there can be no spiritual progress without proper acknowledgement and confession of sins. “Repent,” Jesus said, “for the Kingdom of God is at hand.” Hence, the Confession at Mass and the availability of private confession with a priest, a valuable spiritual discipline. When we really know ourselves, we weep.

Third, the meek or humble do not inherit this earth, but the Heavenly Kingdom: we know this, because Our Lord is directly quoting Psalm 37.11, referring to the meek inheriting Jerusalem. Those who sit in lower seats at dinner will be given the higher places of honour. The last shall come first. If we know our true relationship with God, then we establish our proper relationships with one another. This is how God rules, how his Kingdom comes.

Where the first three were contemplative, the next two Beatitudes are more active, leading us from purification to illumination.

The fourth means that instead of hungering for a bit of whatever takes our fancy, instead of being driven by our lusts and addictions and attachments, we need to thirst for righteousness. Not, that is, for social justice, but for our proper standing or justification before God. This is the quest for personal holiness and moral perfection, the subordination of desires to the will.

Fifth, mercy. We are indeed called to give, and to give generously, indeed if we take the Lord literally, to give “all we have and to follow him”: but not, note, simply as a means of redistribution of wealth. If the previous Beatitude is taken into account, this means giving up on those things which are holding us back from God: the other masters we serve, of whom Mammon is but one. Give up, give away anything that you covet, and by doing so, you give alms with joy and release rather than miserly clinging.

The sixth and seventh beatitudes move us from illumination to perfection.

Purity of heart is connected with seeing God face-to-face once we have died to this world. Again, Our Lord refers to the Psalmist: “Who shall ascend into the hill of the LORD? or who shall rise up in his holy place? / Even he that hath clean hands, and a pure heart; and that hath not lift up his mind unto vanity, nor sworn to deceive his neighbour” (Ps 24.3-4). Our heart must be oriented towards the greatest treasure, which is that vision of God which lightens the entire being. It can be glimpsed only dimly here, but even that glimpse is enough to captivate and entrance you into falling in love with God. Once you have tasted of Him, nothing else will do: and the Eucharist is a training-school for this purity of heart.

Then, and only then, can we hope to aspire to wisdom: to peace, the seventh beatitude, bearing that sabbath number of perfection and divine rest. Not just peace between one another, but that deep, inner peace which resides permanently in truly holy people, in the greatest of the saints, and more or less fleetingly in the rest of us. I have seen it, and I know that it is worth persevering to reach.

For it is in the face of the truly holy, truly saintly women and men who form that great cloud of witnesses, that the truth of the eighth beatitude can be realised. And I think it is only in the faces of those saints that we can hope to understand it. The Resurrection of the body, the life everlasting, the new creation - it confounds reason, and yet there have been those among us and there still are those among us who have reached the seventh stage of perfection and can see, unwaveringly, with absolute confidence, the eighth up ahead. So much so that many of them died rather than renounce it, and thousands still do, in the Middle East, in China, in North Korea, too.

May the saints, in their perfect unity with God, reach down to us with their prayers, continuing the work of Our Incarnate Lord, that our lips and eyes and hearts may be wetted with those tears which are a gift from God, open to that sweetness and vision and love which bring that eternal peace, in which they with him reside, and invite us to play our part.

Time for Christ

What has Church worship got to do with Jesus?

How can we learn about Christ through the rites and seasons of the Church year? 

Building on years of parish, university and chaplaincy experience, the Rev'd Dr Thomas Plant presents Time for Christ: a course ideal for newcomers to Anglican or Catholic Christianity, Lent groups or as preparation for adult Confirmation.

Praise for Plant's The Catholic Jesus: 

"An excellent curriculum of the Christian faith" - Fr Richard Peers SMMS

"Punchy Anglican apologetics" - Philip Anderson

"Gives the keys to understanding the fundamental mysteries of the Church”  - Rev John Paraskevopoulos, Author of Call of the Infinite

Time for Christ the first book in the new AngCat (Anglican Catechesis) series, presenting the traditional faith of the Church of England and its sister Anglican and Episcopal churches from an Anglo-Catholic perspective. Further titles soon available from Greater Silence Publications www.greatersilence.com. 

How to see angels

How to see angels

Michaelmas is a time for opening hearts to heaven, for learning to see realities to which we have progressively blinded ourselves.

The Moken ‘sea gypsies’ of the Andaman Sea off Malaysia have developed the unique ability to focus under water, in order to dive for food on the sea floor. Their sight is also 50% more acute than Europeans’.

The Hadza in Tanzania have developed a mutually helpful relationship with the honeyguide bird, which leads them to wild bees’ hives. The bird calls to the hunters, who whistle back to it. It flits from tree to tree, stopping to wait for hunters to catch up, so eventually leading them to a hive. The bird is rewarded with the honeycomb leftovers.

The Yanomani of Brazil have an encyclopaedic knowledge of native animals, plants and herbs, using around 500 species of plants on a daily basis.

These are just a few snapshots from Survival International of people with skills you or I could never learn: people called “primitive” by “civilised” neighbours like us, who are pushing their ancient cultures to the verge of extinction.

And while these ancient peoples struggle to keep their deep connection with the natural world, ours gets weaker and weaker with each generation. Country folk will know this anyway, but studies also show that as young children get better and better at swiping and tapping at glowing rectangles, their motor skills and muscle memory for everything else suffers. As we become technologised, we withdraw more and more from our natural environment, trapped behind our little screens of glass – and through that glass, we presume to claim that we can see the world better, more clearly, than the “primitives” and ancients.

So, do you want to meet an angel?

Maybe it sounds like a silly question. Angels?

Right. Winged people, four-headed things with animal faces and six wings, flaming wheels with eyes - I’ll have some of that cactus juice you’ve been hitting, please, Ezekiel.

Haven’t we grown out of this sort of thing? Isn’t it a bit embarrassing to think there might be some world world of invisible beings all around us, like fairies, ten thousand times ten thousand round?

Isn’t it a bit - primitive?

Let’s go back to Brazil and the Yanomami to help us with the question.

We know that they can see things in the natural world which we cannot see. Think of how a country person can see things in the country that a city dweller will never see, and multiply that.

So if ancient peoples can see things in the natural world that we cannot see, can we really be so sure that they don’t see things in the supernatural world that we do not see, too?

The Yanomami shamans are said to commune with spirits they call the xapiripë. I thing this is intriguing. They say these spirits dance and sing, songs of great power; that there “thinking is straight”; that their armlets are decorated like wings, with macaw and parrot feathers; that their number is uncountable, thousands, like stars; that they come from sky, earth or forest, some to bring messages, some to bring healing.

Sound familiar? Of course. Thousands of miles away and thousands of years ago, our prophets in their visions too saw choirs of spirits singing, some winged, spoke of a thousand times ten thousand, recognised them all around. They called them ‘angels’ because they sometimes, like Gabriel, brought messages; but some, like Raphael, brought healing, too.

Whether the angels of the ancient Near East, the djinn of the Arabian desert, the daimones of the ultra-rational Greeks, the lares and deities of Rome, the Celtic creatures of faerie lore or the Yanomami xapiripë, cultures throughout the world have always told stories of invisible intelligences.

And there are people even today, many people, religious believers or not, who believe that they have seen such things. Not just madmen, but people as balanced and reasonable as St Theresa of Avila, a doctor of the Church, and St Seraphim of Sarov have claimed to see angels.

Thinkers as brilliant as Dionysius the Areopagite and St Thomas Aquinas have made the philosophical case for angels. Since the Reformation, Christian thought has developed the habit of writing off any spiritual realm between us creatures and God - as though God is himself the spiritual realm. But if God is beyond all being and understanding, such that we physical beings cannot see God face-to-face, then what exactly are people experiencing when they say they “experience” God? Surely some created spiritual intermediary, which bears just as much of his blinding glory as our myopic hearts can bear. Angels, then: guides sent to raise us from the physical to the higher spiritual reality.

But “there are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio, Than are dreamt of in your philosophy.” The Bible, too, would be incomplete without angels. It is angels whom Abraham and Sarah entertain unaware, an angel who stops Abraham from sacrificing his son, an angel who wrestles Jacob and gives him the name of Israel, angels who spoke in visions to Isaiah and Ezekiel, angels who rescued Daniel and later Paul, an angel who brought good news to Our Lady, an angel who persuaded Peter that we gentiles might be part of the Christian Church. Our Lord speaks explicitly of angels. Do we know better than God Incarnate? If so, that leave the somewhat awkward question: what else did he get wrong?

Now if all this is getting a bit too spiritual, there are practical consequences to first world dismissal of these ancient beliefs, too. Wherever tribal peoples live, you will find so-called “Factory Schools,” where indigenous children have their cultures’ spiritual insights drummed out of them, where they are set to work and instilled with a new way of seeing their world, through the lens of profit. The Chinese government is doing something similar with Uighur Muslims for its own political ends, and shamefully, Christian missions have played their part in all this, too. At the very least, we need to be very careful of dismissing ancient ways of seeing the world as “primitive.”

But I think there is much more to be gained than just caution about closing our minds: there is the opportunity to open them, as well. Not just to stop crushing ancient cultures – surely a good thing in itself – but more, to let them teach us to see what we have lost sight of.

It seems that as we get further from the natural world, we get further from the supernatural, too. At least part of the answer to the cries of the young for action on climate change that we are hearing of late must surely be to take our place among the choirs of angels, to find and reestablish our proper relationship in the celestial hierarchy: for in knowing our true place in the spiritual order, we might yet bring God’s healing to the physical order.

I say we need to make the Eucharist a kind of school for our spiritual perception. As we learn to perceive the bread of angels, the very body of Christ, under the species of bread, so we might open our ears to the song of the angels, our eyes to the glory of God with which they shine. Then we can start, from the Mass, to reenchant this disenchanted western world.

Who knows what we might see?

So you think you’re the Samaritan?

Jews and Samaritans didn’t like each other, Jesus is showing that the whole human race are really neighbours and we should help each other whatever our race or nation, so off you go and do your best to be good boys and girls like the Samaritan. End of homily.

Wait - no! If that’s what you think Christianity is about, you have completely missed the point.

People often say, you can be a “good person” without religion. Well, if it's not obvious enough already, let me let you into a secret: Christianity is not actually about making yourself a better person. The Bible is not a self-help manual. The point of Jesus' stories is not to moralise and give Sunday school lessons about being nice. Christianity certainly has little to do with "Christian values."

Because actually – who do you think you are in this story? You think you’re the Samaritan? You think you’re the one going out helping the half-dead beggar lying in the ditch? You think that’s what Jesus is saying to you?

No, no, no…

You are the poor beggar dying in the ditch.

So am I. So are all of us.

After all, why is Jesus telling this story? Think back. A lawyer is trying to catch him out, trying to get him to add something extra to the Jewish law so that he will be condemned for blasphemy. Jesus replies with the fundamental Jewish commandment: love God, love your neighbour. Do this, he says, and you will live.

But the lawyer wants more. He wants to “justify himself.” He thinks that he is perfectly capable of following the Law already, thank you very much. He thinks he can be a “good person,” if he just tries hard enough.

But what Jesus is saying, to him and to us, is that you can’t do this by yourself.

Maybe Jesus is wrong. Maybe Christianity is wrong, and people can build a better world by sheer effort, with all our laws and values. I’ll just point out delicately that we haven’t done such a brilliant job so far.

But if Jesus is right, we’re not the Samaritan: He is. And the first step for us is to realise just how beaten up and broken and hopeless we are. Only when we see ourselves with this unflinching honesty can we know how much help we really do need even just to get through this life, let alone to the next; and how that help is nothing that we do, but something already done for us, by another broken man, 2000 years ago, on a Cross.

Weak prayer means weak mission

“The mission of the Church is weak because its prayer is weak.” 
Not my words, but those of the Franciscan friar, Fr William of Glasshampton. If you haven’t heard of him, you might assume that he is some dim and distant mediaeval figure, perhaps around the time of our native diocesan patron saint Chad, pre-Reformation, definitely Roman Catholic. If so, I’m afraid you’re wrong: because Fr William was a Victorian friar of the Church of England. People these days are sometimes surprised to hear that we still have monks, nuns and friars in the C of E: weren’t they all suppressed by King Henry VIII during the Reformation? Well yes, they were; but they were revived in the mid 1800s and they exist still today.
Glasshampton, the house which Fr William founded, still exists close to my parents’ house, in Shrawley, Worcestershire. Nowadays it is the training house where Anglican novice friars receive their initial formation in the Franciscan spiritual life. You can go there on retreat, if you like: they are very hospitable. But you have to find the house first, which is not always easy, as it is extremely secluded. So much so that my little car once came off the rugged track as I tried to drive up there on an icy winter’s day. 
The seclusion is deliberate: exactly what Father William intended. Now, don’t get the impression that he was some kind of holier than thou, otherworldly figure, incapable of surviving in the bustle of the real world. Far from it. At first he responded to God’s call to serve the desperately poor and marginalised in London’s East End, including a leper community. He did this for years, not an easy option in the old, smoggy, deadly, gaslit London of the late Victorian age. And it was only after all those years that he became convinced God wanted him to leave all this behind to start up an enclosed, secluded, contemplative community, purely dedicated to the inner spiritual life of prayer. 
His own community was at first resistant to the idea. Then, as now, there was a danger that the church relied too much on its own efforts, its own activity, its own sense of mission, rather than on the power of God. But Father William saw clearly that for the church’s mission to thrive, there needed to be some people dedicated solely to prayer. He saw that the Church of England’s claim to be part of the one, Holy Catholic church could not be fulfilled without the ancient tradition of religious communities, monks and nuns, whose constant rhythm of prayer should be the very beating of the Church’s heart.
Yet, you don’t have to be a monk or nun to engage in contemplative prayer. The way they live their lives in absolute poverty, simplicity, hospitality and constant prayer is a powerful witness and example to the rest of us, but in our own albeit lesser way, we can all be contemplatives, mystics, people of prayer, too, in our parishes, our homes, even our workplaces.
But how? A fair question, echoing that of the disciples, as they find Jesus at prayer: “Lord, teach us how to pray” (Lk 11:1). 
In Matthew’s version of the story, before Jesus teaches what we now call the Lord’s Prayer, he first tells the disciples, “When you pray, go into your room, close the door and pray to your Father… and when you pray, do not keep on babbling like pagans, for they think they will be heard because of their many words” (Mt 6:6-7).  
So, Jesus’ preliminaries for prayer are (1) solitude and (2) silence: going somewhere alone and ending the babble. You can see where Fr Wiliam was coming from. 
But even among monastics, there are different levels of solitude and silence, ranging from the Franciscans, who tend to live and serve in cities among the poor, but ground their lives in daily silent prayer and frequent retreats; then the Benedictines, who live in communities where there is a great deal of silence, but not total (many Benedictines run schools, for example); and at the most extreme end, the spiritual SAS of the church, as it were, you have the Trappists and the Carthusians, hermits who live in almost complete silence except for the hours of prayer that they observe together. 
So, there can be different levels for us, too: perhaps some can find only 10 minutes a day of silent meditation first thing in the morning or just before bed, perhaps some can pray the daily office of morning and evening prayer every day and incorporate silence into that, perhaps some of us can make an annual retreat at a monastery for a day or even longer. But make no mistake, if we want to come closer to God at all, and to be suffused with his love and joy, there is no shortcut: some time in silence is fundamental to the Christian life. 
What then? Once we have found our silence, what does the Lord’s prayer have to teach us about the way we pray?
The first thing is our orientation to God. Jesus tells us to call God “Father.” In an age where there were many religions of mother goddesses, Jesus is making an important distinction. We are not born from the womb of God: the Earth is not God’s body. Now of course, God does not have genitalia, but if we reduce the difference between male and female only to what is between our legs, then we are being both biologically and psychologically naive. The sexual binary of male and female is necessary for the generation of life, truth attested to by scripture and by reason, despite modern social scientists’ protestation (which is neither really social nor scientific). Male and female are not interchangeable. So while God properly speaking does not have gender, it is less inappropriate to speak of God as Father than as Mother, because calling God “Father” preserves the necessary distance between us and God. In prayer, we approach God first as our transcendent Father, equal to one another as brothers and sisters in his adopted family. 
Next, we call for God’s Kingdom to come. Here, we have to be careful: because God’s kingdom, in the Greek, is not a place (like the United Kingdom, for example). Rather, it means God’s kingship, his rule over us. We are putting ourselves in the position of being his subjects. We are not his equals in a democratic polity, we do not get to elect or unelect him: I’m not trying to draw parallels with our new prime minister, but there are reasons why we talk about the kingdom of God and not the Republic of God or the People’s Soviet of God. What makes us and the rest of creation equal to one another is precisely our inequality with God, our shared difference from him. And this needs to affect how we see and interact with the world, not as our property, but as God’s, with us acting as faithful stewards who look after what he has given us and not use it just for our own selfish ends. 
Asking for bread, we put ourselves at God’s mercy. We acknowledge that we rely on him for all that we have and all that we are. But also, what we will be, because the word “daily” in the English Lord’s Prayer is a very weak translation of St Luke’s Greek. The phrase ἄρτον πιούσιον actually means something more like “supernatural” bread. And so, in daily recitation of the Lord’s Prayer, we turn ourselves towards that bread of life which Jesus offers us in the Eucharist. We give thanks to God, which is what “Eucharist” means, not just for giving us our daily bread, but for giving us the bread of eternal life, the possibility of becoming one with God through Christ.
This gift of supernatural bread and eternal life is given freely, but not without cost. It cost Christ’s life on the cross, it cost his forgiveness of sin: and so in our prayer also, we must always be honest about our own sinfulness, praying for God’s mercy and compassion, and letting his forgiveness so seep into us that we can share it by forgiving those around us, too. Through repentance, we learn not to look so critically for the speck in our brother’s eye. We become part of the reconciling work of the cross, bringing all things into that peaceful order which is the Kingdom of God we are praying for. For only that Kingdom can save us, deliver us, from the times of trial and temptation that we live in now.
So, my challenge to you this week, your mission if you choose to accept it, is: spend more time in prayer. Five minutes of silence each day, followed by praying the Lord’s prayer, slowly, deliberately, stopping at each verse to think about what it means and what God is calling you to do about it. 
Because if the prayer of the Church is strong then so will be its mission, to reconcile all things, all people, to God and to one another, through the mystery of the Cross. 

The opinions represented herein are those of Thomas Plant only.

Rocky and the Million Dollar Question


“Who do you say that I am?”
That’s the million-pound question for Simon. He’s already got the ‘ask the audience’ answers up on the board, as it were: some say he’s John the Baptist (difficult, given that John was by this stage suffering from a slight case of death), some say he’s Elijah, others Jeremiah (both more decidedly dead, several hundred years before). Which means that everyone is saying that Jesus is a prophet, because Jeremiah, Elijah and John all prophesied the coming of the Messiah, the anointed one – in Greek, the Christ – who would come to judge and save the Jewish people. They thought that Jesus was yet another of these prophets, heralding the Christ’s coming.
But Simon doesn’t choose any of the answers on the board, because, to stretch the metaphor, he’s opted to ‘phone a friend. Or, properly speaking, he’s already been ‘phoned by a friend: God. Somehow, the right answer has been mystically revealed to him:
“You are the Christ, the Son of the living God.”
“That’s right,” says Jesus. “Correct! Spot on! Bingo! You, Simon, get to go home with this luxury three-piece suite.”
Jesus isn’t just another prophet, waiting for the Messiah: He is the Messiah and Son of God.
Just as Simon has correctly identified Jesus, so Jesus gives Simon a new identity: a nickname. “Peter,” Petros in Greek, wasn’t actually a proper name in Jesus’ day. It meant “stone” or “rock.” “Peter” basically means “Rocky” (cue The Eye of the Tiger for S. Peter’s fitness regime montage.) Jesus’ joke – if that’s what it is – makes more sense when you know this: “You are Peter, and on this rock I will build my Church” would really have sounded more like, “You are Rocky, and on this rock I will build my Church.”
Comedy gold.
But with a serious meaning. Jesus is making Peter the leader, even the foundation, of what will become the entire Christian Church. He is giving him the virtual keys to the Kingdom – that’s why, if you see a statue in a church of bearded man holding a pair of keys, it’s St Peter – delegating the power to set people free from fear and sin and admit them to eternal life in divine love.
But what: Peter, leader of the Church? You mean the fisherman Peter, who maybe couldn’t even write, definitely didn’t get C or above in GCSE maths and English (OK, Greek or Aramaic); Peter, who got so little of Jesus’ teaching that he’d get a sword out to fight the guards who came to take Jesus away; Peter, who would betray Jesus three times before the cock crowed, deserting his Lord and friend, the commoner, the runaway, the failure?
That Peter?
Yes.
The same Peter who denied the crucified Lord three times would be told three times by the Resurrected Lord, “feed my sheep. Feed my sheep. Feed my sheep.”
All because he said, “You are the Christ, the Son of the living God.”
So, it’s over to Jeremy Clarkson for the answer…
If Peter was wrong, then all we’ve got left is a dead prophet.
If Peter was wrong, then his own death by crucifixion on an inverted cross on 29 June in AD 64 was meaningless.
If Peter was wrong, then all the others who have followed Christ for the last 2000 years have wasted their time. You can’t feed a Church of millions with a dead prophet.
But if he was right?
Then love invites us to an everlasting feast, free from evil, free from fear – and Peter is already there, waiting to open the door, in his hand, the key:
“Who do you say that I am?”

The opinions represented herein are those of Thomas Plant only.

Pentecost, not Esperanto

Salutojn!
Strange to think that a small Jewish sect could, within thirty years of the death of its founder in Jerusalem, spread at least as far as India to the East and Rome to the West. How could it happen?
There are sociological explanations: for instance, it was a religion which appealed particularly to the poor and to women, in a way that its contemporaries did not. There was the theological appeal, too, of monotheism, which resonated with the Platonic intellectual currents of the day better than the dominant polytheism of pagan folk religion, and pagans who admired the Jews now had the opportunity to join them.
At the same time, there was also bitter persecution, ridicule and humiliation, too. The well-off could have avoided all this by joining some other mystery cult, like that of Mithras or Osiris. Certainly, the fishermen, essentially small businessmen, who were leading the nascent Church could have afforded to avoid their martyrdoms by doing just this. Yet they did not.
So why?
The answer can be summed up in one word: Pentecost.
Ten days after the Ascension of the Lord, the Apostles were once again in the Upper Room in Jerusalem. Then it was as though a wind was blowing, and they had a vision of tongues of flame lapping around their heads – the shape which would later define the bishops’ mitres, marking them as descendants of the Apostles. Inspired, in the literal sense of the word, these fishermen went out into the streets to preach the message of eternal life.
Jerusalem was a cosmopolitan city. In those days, all the wealth was in the East. Europe was just a sideshow. Few Roman soldiers would want to go digging around the hovels of the savage Gauls and Britons when the riches of Judea, Persia and Babylon awaited. And so, in the streets, there were Jews and foreigners from all over the Middle East, meeting and greeting in a diverse babble. And as though reversing the story of Babel from which the word “babble” derives, the miracle of this story is that each of them heard and understood the message the Apostles were speaking as though it were in their own language.
This reveals a vital spiritual truth: God is not making the disciples speak Esperanto.
I don’t mean this literally, of course. The artificial language was not concocted by one Dr Zamenhof until the late 1800s. He was full of quite laudable Victorian optimism that all the world would one day communicate in a single tongue, and that this tongue could be “neutrally” contrived from a variety of other languages by a western European.
But no language is neutral. Language does not only express our thoughts, it guides and form them. A Chinese speaker thinks differently from a speaker of Farsi. Only one language means only one way of thought – which is why King Charlemagne said that to have another language is to have another soul.
To be sure, Esperanto is a simple and elegant language which can be learned quickly because it is all so neat and regular, constructed in one go by one person. In this respect, it is the linguistic equivalent of Paris, that city of Enlightenment precision, the winding alleys and juddering tenements of old swept away to make space for tidy, metric, Napoleonic blocks.
The languages which people actually speak, though, are more like London than Paris. The old irregularities, the funny little alleyways and dead ends, the buried rivers, all the quirks of the city’s layout are built around, but are all still there. Our languages are repositories of our peoples’ history, forming our thoughts in the pattern of our forebears. Shakespeare, Voltaire, Goethe, Cervantes, Homer, Rumi: none of these authors would be the same in Esperanto. The form of the language is inseparable from its content, and for this reason, there is no such thing as a “good translation.”
At Pentecost, God is not reversing Babel by forcing everybody into one language, one mindset, one way of seeing the world. Christianity should not be about making everybody exactly the same. At Pentecost, God speaks to every listener in the language that they understand.
So what is he saying?
In one sense, always the same thing, always the one word: but not a word which can be expressed in any human language. Rather, God’s Word is always the Word made flesh, written in DNA and bone and sinew, in the character of one man, Jesus Christ. The Word is always Christ, offering himself for the forgiveness of sin that we may share in his eternal, resurrected life.
And yet, this same Word is spoken differently to each of us, breathed in a myriad ways by the Holy Spirit which is God’s breath. Just look at the vast diversity of the saints: each of them reflects some different aspect of Christ, sings out his Word in a different tone. Their identity, and ours, is not erased by the Spirit, because his grace does not destroy our nature, but perfects it, in all its joyous multiplicity.
Only because they were inspired by the Holy Spirit could the little band of fishermen proclaim a message which would appeal to millions from every nation, right to the present day. And if we are willing to listen, who knows where the same Spirit might lead us?
Dio benu vin.
The opinions represented herein are those of Thomas Plant only.

Why the Church needs to abandon Christian values

I’ve got a new article out on Living Church, here. Yes, the headline is a bit of an attention grabber. Mea culpa.

The opinions represented herein are those of Thomas Plant only.

Forgiveness overcomes fear: 1st Sunday after Easter

Sunday evening: the first day of the week. The disciples have locked themselves away in their room, afraid – that they might go the same way Jesus did, two days before.
A figure appears among them.
“Peace be with you.”
The first time, they don’t understand. They don’t even recognise Jesus. It’s only when he shows them the wounds in his hands and sides that they understand who he is. Only when they see the marks of his suffering that they understand what he is saying.
“Peace be with you.”
Of course, they know the word, the Hebrew greeting which they as Jews would use every day: peace, shalom. And they know, as pious Jews, that this peace is the intended state of creation, the Sabbath rest of the seventh day in Genesis which represents perfection, a world in harmony with itself and its creator. But only on this eighth day, this second sabbath, do they realise what that peace of God really means. 
Easter, the fifty-day celebration of Christ’s Resurrection, is not about a zombie Jesus. It’s not a straightforward coming back from the dead. John’s mysterious account of the Lord appearing, revealing, breathing, vanishing should be enough to show us that.  And in fact, whenever the resurrected Jesus appears in the Bible, there is this common thread that at first, the disciples do not recognise or understand him.
He comes to Mary Magdalene outside his tomb, and she mistakes him for a gardener.
He comes to two disciples walking the road to Emmaus, even explains the prophecies in the Old Testament about him to them, but they do not recognise him or understand until he breaks bread.
And now, he appears and says, “peace.” But they do not recognise or understand until he shows them his wounds.
Only then does Jesus breathe on them and give them the gift of the Holy Spirit, and says that he is giving it for the forgiveness of sins.
Only then do they see that God’s peace comes through forgiveness: it is Jesus’ forgiveness of those who killed him, his forgiveness of themselves for having fled and betrayed him, which he is giving them to share with the world.
Only then do they see the full depths of that love, that self-giving, life-giving, forgiving love of God, which can free them from their fear.
And they are glad. 

The opinions represented herein are those of Thomas Plant only.

Felix Culpa, Happy Fault: and may the darkness dazzle you this Easter.

Alleluia, Christ is risen! He is risen indeed, Alleluia. 
Notre Dame: 
France’s greatest tourist attraction? 
France’s premier museum? 
France’s top UNESCO World Heritage site? 
In secular France, the land of the Revolution, you’d think these descriptions would be enough. But clearly they are not. Not even for the French, the resolutely secular French, who knelt in the streets and prayed as she burned. 
Notre Dame. Our Lady. Through whom, at the Annuciation, our Saviour took flesh. At whose intercession Our Lord performed his first miracle at Cana, turning water into wine. Who stood with Him at the Cross. Who cradled his body in her arms, that her soul too was pierced. Whom He made mother to the lost and fugitive disciples. 
Our Lady: her powerful ministry of love quiet, unnoticed, downplayed. 
Forgotten in the turmoil of the Protestant Reformations, when God was made all power and sovereign will, all masculinity and muscle, unfettered from a mother’s love. 
Forgotten in the violence of the French Revolution, when tens of thousands were executed brutally for daring to perpetuate her love; when to be a “real woman” was to be more warrior than mother. 
Forgotten now, as our young men die in the cities by each other’s blades. 
Even in these times when a mother’s love for her sons is most needed, it is downplayed, degraded, ignored. And yet it persists, unseen: until some act of violence makes us realise what we have been missing. 
Notre Dame. Our Lady. 
Not some tourist attraction, some museum, some bit of heritage. But House of God; Ark of the Covenant; Gate of Heaven; Cause of our Salvation; Throne of Wisdom; Morning Star who shows the way: now that’s more like it. 
That’s Our Lady. That’s Notre Dame. 
If only, this Easter, we could have a faith like hers. 
Persistent in adversity. 
Persistent when forgotten and derided. 
Persistent even through centuries of scorn. 
Quietly discerning and reaping the fruits of the Resurrection, gently offering them to all who seek refuge. 
Can we have a faith like Mary’s? 
Maybe not. Maybe there is too much evil in this world. Too much darkness, too much scorn. Maybe we do not want to be noticed or known in a country where Mary’s faith in her Son is written off as superstition, reckoned as evidence of bigotry and ignorance. Maybe we do not want to be associated with the evil the Church itself has perpetuated through the ages and the abuses it continues to this day. Maybe we fear being discredited, put to shame. 
But listen again to the words of the Exultet, that ancient Easter Preface, which Deacons of the Church have sung for 1500 years. 
Felix culpa: “happy fault.” 
The Exultet proclaims the sin of Adam “truly necessary,” even “happy;” just as we proclaim the darkest Friday of the year as “Good.” For without Adam’s theft from the tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil, the wood on which the New Adam hangs would never bloom into the Tree of Life. The Cross would be just an instrument of death; Our Lord, just a dead rabbi. 
There is no Easter without Good Friday. The Christian story is not a Sunday school tale of happy endings. God makes good come from evil, yes: eternal life from an instrument of death. But the darkness does not just go away. 
For as Christ awakens from the tomb, the Deacons sing, the “dark is itself radiant.” This echoes the Psalmists words to God, when he too sings: 
“Yea, the darkness hideth not from thee; but the night shineth as the day. The darkness and the light are both alike to thee.” 
The darkness begins to dazzle with new light. 
Even our most awful sins reveal the boundless mercy of that Shepherd who, on Easter Eve, would plunge as far as Hell to save his sheep. 
A happy fault. 
The faith of Mary is the faith which sees this clearly. 
When He rises,  Jesus is changed. 
Seeing him again, alive, in his new form, knowing that she will forever live with Him, brings Mary joy: but what could ever take away the soul-piercing pain she knew from watching him suffer and die, from holding her Son’s body, stabbed by a spear, mangled by the Cross? 
The pain and the joy coexist. 
Christian faith does not take all your pain away, does not turn all the world into bunnies and bonnets and chocolate eggs. You meet people who think that it does, that they’ve won a one-way ticket to heaven, but you can see straight through the smiles they force. 
True faith does not take the darkness away: it makes the darkness dazzle. 
So perhaps with eyes of faith, we might see the devastation in Paris in a different way. Perhaps we might see the people kneeling, praying, questioning – noticing. 
And not now, but in time, maybe we will be able to say that after all, it was a happy fault. 
Christ is Risen.
Death is conquered. 
But the victory was not easy, and we do still feel the sting. 
So let’s rejoice, but let’s not make the joy cheap. Let’s not take the Sacrifice for granted. 
The austerity of Lent may be over, but our new life in faith has just begun. And so, I urge you: deepen your prayer life, don’t drop it. 
Learn to pray the Rosary, to see the Lord with Mary’s eyes. Dwell deeper in the dazzling darkness and learn in it to see the light. 
If you are not baptised, be baptised! Join in Christ’s death and let His Resurrection liven you. 
If you are baptised, prepare for Confirmation if you haven’t already, and receive the Eucharist, often and with faith, learn to see more clearly the Body and Blood of the Saviour here, and taste the bittersweet fruits of eternal life.  
As you participate in the divine mysteries today, may the darkness become as light for you, death as life, water as wine – and all your faults be happy. 
Alleluia, Christ is Risen!  
He is risen indeed. Alleluia. 
The opinions represented herein are those of Thomas Plant only.

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