Surrounded to surrender

Here is the sermon that I preached last Sunday (Easter II) at St. Paul’s within the Walls. On Friday, April 22nd was Earth Day.

A plate from Metamorphosis insectorum Surinamensium, 1707, by Maria Sibylla Merian.

Surrounded to surrender

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The birth of the natural sciences, especially the study of insects and amphibians, flourished in Northern Europe in the 17th century. Much of the foundation for the natural sciences was developed by people who were courageous and devout Christians. Shaped by their deep and intimate meditation and prayer, they learned to discern the work and will of God in the natural world in ways that were quite unconventional. At the time, little was known about the peculiar creatures that seemed to inhabit different realms of life-forms: for example, flies who had their origins as worms, or frogs beginning as fish-like tadpoles.

One of the leading naturalists of those times whose work has been praised as a forerunner in the field of ecology was Maria Sibylla Merian. At age 13, Maria Sibylla started raising silkworms. By the time she was 28 she had published her first book of natural illustrations. Merian would go on to be a leading naturalist illustrator, publishing volumes of sketches on caterpillars, insects, and plants. Her illustrations are not only true works of art and pioneering studies of insects, but they are also silent praises to her Lord Jesus Christ. In fact, she focused especially on the study of the different stages of the evolution of butterflies which emulate Christ’s life and the spiritual growth of all followers of the Resurrected One. Like a butterfly, our Lord began his humble life close to the earth as a human, like a worm; he lay as dead in the tomb as in a chrysalis; then, emerging as a butterfly that shimmers and flies away to heaven, or to Galilee.

The coincidence of Easter and the Spring equinox in the northern hemisphere is quite perfect timing. The Good Lord in his providence knows how to speak to us through what we are able to experience, yet our reading this morning says that not everyone was able to see the Resurrected One and believe in him. Why is it that someone like Thomas, who was a close disciple to Christ, couldn’t at first believe in him? Yet someone like Merian could? Just like Thomas at the beginning of our Gospel reading, belief for many people means being sure of information. Believing relates to a truth statement, and to be sure that something is true you need as many elements of proof as necessary. This attitude has become the model of modern science: scientists build truthful theories by putting together truthful-statements. They establish, little by little, what is true. This intellectual process is very efficient, but it always falls short of dealing with living things as truly living things. It is the same difference that exist between knowing about someone and loving them. How can we truly know our children, our partners, our friends or our neighbors if we come to them with bossy expectations about how they are supposed to be alive for us? How can we know the resurrected one if we force him into our objectifying methods and processes? Into being this or that? With this proof-based attitude, demonstrated by Thomas, very little room is left for mystery, very little room is left for letting Christ freely relate to us and between us; very little room is left for encountering truth beyond what we have set as its limits: « Unless I see the mark of the nails in his hands, and put my finger in the mark of the nails and my hand in his side, I will not believe. »

Fortunately, believing in Jesus as the Resurrected One doesn’t work the same way as a police investigation or a modern scientific study. It’s quite reassuring if, like me, you’ve never been a fan of NCIS or don’t know how to count! We don’t need to worry about a process or a method that most often merely reveals our desire to control and exert power over what we don’t know and therefore scares us. Indeed, what often holds us back from believing in the Resurrected One, just as it did for the disciples locked up in their room and for Thomas, are fears. We hold back by fear of experiencing how this encounter could change us; by fear of seeing God in places we didn’t want him to show up; by fear of seeing the reality of God’s love and selflessness that will disarm all our attempts to control ourselves and each other. We don’t need to worry about building up truth to find reassurance. For us Christians, believing doesn’t mean piecing together elements of truth about Jesus like the suspicious Thomas meant to do. More like Sibylla Merian, believing for us means meeting God’s power in his very Creation, in the multiple ways in which he gestures towards us, how he courts us, how he discloses for us the living signs of his presence and his life in our lives.

If Merian was capable of seeing God’s resurrection and life in unexpected places it is because she had surrendered to her Lord fully when she left her hometown in Germany for the religious community of the Labadists in the Netherlands. She left to run after her passion. She shed her fear and surrendered to the Lord’s loving presence that she met in his creation and his church. Just like for the early disciples and Thomas, only the living peace of Christ can set us free from our inner prisons and our attempts to control, that all lock God away from us. We can doubt ideas, we can doubt information, but we cannot doubt for long the reality of an encounter that frees us. We cannot doubt what we see the effect of in our world, in our lives, in our bodies. We cannot doubt a meeting which has given life, joy and courage to the downcast and the marginalized.

Christ’s resurrection and our own resurrections might be tough to fathom. Our doubts might be stronger than our belief. But Jesus, like the spring, like the butterfly out of its pupa, keeps showing up no matter what. He is eager for us to touch him and behold him, for in doing so we will receive that peace we hope for, that peace that comes when death has not won. Let us not hesitate to abandon ourselves to his presence that surrounds us, through the signs of his love that are marked on his creation, those signs that Merian saw so clearly. Jesus himself has sanctified his creation to help us feel, see, taste, and know that he is risen, that the impossible is possible. Mary found him in the garden, and so can we. Indeed, surrendering to Christ does not mean to wander far from reality, to be far from things or people. It is through things, it is through people, that we believe in God; it is through them that we abandon ourselves to him and find the courage to move forward. We need look no farther than the blooming trees just outside these windows to look at his glorious wounds. We need come no farther than to this altar this morning, to receive his own body and blood so that we too can be changed into his likeness. Through all that surrounds us, Christ surrenders to us so we can surrender to him.

Maria Sibylla Merian understood this, as she encountered the resurrection every time she illustrated a butterfly stretching from its chrysalis or a fly morphing from larva to pupa. Her encounter with the Risen Lord in her study of his creatures gave her passion and courage beyond measure. Her volumes of sketches included very few words and she seldom wrote about her faith. However, in the front of one of her sketchbooks she wrote two simple words in German: “Mit Gott”, “With God.” With God. Let us dare to see the world with God, so we can rise with Him.   

P.S. I have always had a soft spot for butterflies and insects (I used to raise stick and leaf bugs!) but I didn’t hear about Merian before 2014. I got fascinated by her life a couple of years ago when I was doing my Master’s in French literature at the Sorbonne. I was then researching the devotional poetry of the bilingual pietistic « Church of the Lord » she had joined in the Netherlands. I was struck by the relation between the spiritual life of that community and her own work of a scientist and an artist and could share the results of my research at the International and Interdisciplinary Conference organized in Amsterdam on 2017. The devotional aspect of scientific enquiry is usually not well know of the larger public, yet I think it is an important witness to remember and a good food for prayer, if we want to be more faithful stewards of the Earth our Lord has entrusted to us.

Risen from the ruins

Here is the homily I preached at St. Paul’s within the Walls during the Vigil of Easter.

[In Italian below]

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Paul Nagai, a Japanese doctor who slowly died of leukemia after the nuclear destruction of his town of Nagasaki in a blast of light, Doctor Nagai recounts how he had a glimpse of immortality in the last gaze of his dying mother. He was then studying medicine and a materialist, like most of his comrades. When suddenly, before this mystery, before the gaze of his mother so present with light and love, he was shaken to the depths of his being, saying to himself: “It is impossible that such a gaze should be condemned to death.” 

In the look of his dying mother, Dr Nagai, had seen that eternity and resurrection is our true reality. This is what Christ’s resurrection from the dead means for us: when we love, even death cannot contain us. This mystery that Nagai felt, and which led him to become a Christian is a reflection of the mystery of God’s love for us when we are suffering or dying. God has been so consistently present with us as we just heard from the Bible, so consistently present in our suffering and unfaithfulness that we can only be shaken by the reality that neither our deepest suffering nor our deaths could prevent him to be close to us. Only he can, in these places where we only see imperfection, decay, abuse, and loneliness, only he can, in these places where we don’t want to go and that we utterly reject, enter and inwardly transform them by his divine life. Only he can bring us back to life with him into the land of the living. 

Tonight, it is the night when we know and experience more than any other moment of the liturgical year that our Lord is the one who rises us out of the hells we have created and the ones we have inherited. Tonight, Christ wakes us up with tenderness from our lethal sleep to live new lives with him. His light does not rise like an atomic mushroom, he does not force our surrendering. He comes to us tenderly in the words of the Exultet resonating in this dark sanctuary, he comes to us in the light of the Easter candle and the living waters poured out on the forehead of the baptized, he comes to us as the Spirit of God flows, piano ma lontano. Let us take a moment to contemplate the power and tenderness of his rising. 

We will soon renew together our vows of baptism in Christ. These words you will utter are no churchy formula but our declaration of love to God, made with the words he has given us. We will reaffirm with the words of our mouth our baptism in Jesus Christ we will feel on our lips how incorporated we are into his life. We will experience how he tenderly puts his power on our lips and in our hands, how we share in his resurrection and his promises for the life of the world. Christ “renews us” tonight “in his love” as the prophet Zephaniah just said, and all our rejoicing at all times this year, all our prayers, all our thanksgiving and communion, even all our penitence will spring from the present resurrection of our Lord. All our words to him will respond to his everlasting resurrection for us: “O Israel! Rejoice and exult with all your heart!” Tonight, we have been awoken by the beat of his resurrected heart that won’t be silent anymore. 

Immediately after the destruction of the Catholic cathedral of Nagasaki, Paul Nagai, with his Christian brothers and sisters, set up to straighten on a hoist the bells of the cathedral which were all that remained of that building blown up by the atomic bomb. They hoisted them up and made them sing in the night while kneeling on a field of ruins. Like the bells of Nagasaki, the bells that are going to ring for the Resurrection of our Lord are not going to celebrate the perfection or full restoration of this world. They will sing for the Resurrection of our Lord. In this broken world, they will sing of the humble light of the Easter candle and resonate like the bells of Nagasaki that could not be condemned to death. 

Never Give Up: The Bells of Takashi Nagai
Paul Nagai

Risorti delle rovine

Paolo Nagai, un medico giapponese morto lentamente di leucemia dopo la distruzione nucleare della sua città di Nagasaki in una esplosione di luce, il dottor Nagai, racconta di come ha intravisto l’immortalità nell’ultimo sguardo della madre morente. Stava allora studiando medicina, egli era un materialista, come la maggior parte dei suoi compagni. Quando all’improvviso, davanti a questo mistero, davanti allo sguardo di sua madre così presente di luce e di amore, fu scosso nel più profondo del suo essere, dicendo a se stesso: «Non è possibile che un tale sguardo sia condannato a morte».

Nello sguardo della madre morente, il dottore Nagai, aveva visto che l’eternità e la resurrezione sono la nostra vera realtà. Ecco cosa significa per noi la risurrezione di Cristo dai morti: quando amiamo, anche la morte non può contenerci. Questo mistero che Nagai ha sentito e che lo ha portato a diventare cristiano è un riflesso del mistero dell’amore di Dio per noi quando soffriamo o moriamo. Dio è stato così costantemente presente con noi come abbiamo appena sentito nella Bibbia, così costantemente presente nella nostra sofferenza e infedeltà che possiamo solo essere scossi dalla realtà che né la nostra sofferenza più profonda e né la nostra morte potrebbero impedirgli di essere vicino a noi. Solo lui può, in questi luoghi dove vediamo solo imperfezione, decadimento, abuso e solitudine, solo lui può, in questi luoghi dove non vogliamo andare e dove rifiutiamo totalmente, di entrarvi e di trasformarli interiormente con la sua vita divina. Solo lui può riportarci in vita con lui nella terra dei vivi.

Stanotte, è la notte in cui sappiamo e sperimentiamo più di ogni altro momento dell’anno liturgico che nostro Signore è colui che ci resuscita dagli inferi che abbiamo creato e da quelli che abbiamo ereditato. Stanotte, Cristo ci sveglia con tenerezza dal nostro sonno mortale per vivere di nuovo con lui. La sua luce non sale come un fungo atomico, non ci costringe ad arrenderci. Viene a noi teneramente nelle parole dell’Exultet che risuonano in questo santuario oscuro, viene a noi alla luce del cero pasquale e delle acque vive versate sulla fronte del battezzato, viene a noi come Spirito di Dio scorre, piano ma lontano. Prendiamoci un momento per contemplare la potenza e la tenerezza della sua resurrezione.

Presto rinnoveremo insieme i nostri voti di battesimo in Cristo. Queste parole che pronunceremo non sono una formula religiosa, ma la nostra dichiarazione d’amore a Dio, fatta con le parole che egli ci ha dato. Riaffermeremo con le parole della nostra bocca il nostro battesimo in Gesù Cristo, sentiremo sulle nostre labbra quanto siamo una cosa sola con lui. Sperimenteremo come pone teneramente la sua potenza sulle nostre labbra e nelle nostre mani, come partecipiamo alla sua resurrezione e alle sue promesse per la vita del mondo. Cristo « ci rinnova » stasera « nel suo amore », come ha appena detto il profeta Sofonia, e tutta la nostra gioia in ogni momento quest’anno, tutta le nostre preghiere, tutti i nostri ringraziamenti e comunione, anche tutte la nostre penitenze scaturiranno dalla presente risurrezione del nostro Signore. Tutte le nostre parole a lui risponderanno alla sua eterna risurrezione per noi: “O Israele! Rallegrati ed esulta con tutto il tuo cuore!” Stanotte, siamo stati svegliati dal battito del suo cuore risorto che non tacerà più.

Subito dopo la distruzione della cattedrale cattolica di Nagasaki, Paolo Nagai, con i suoi fratelli e sorelle cristiani, si accinge a raddrizzare con una carrucola, le campane della cattedrale che erano tutto ciò che restava di quell’edificio distrutto dalla bomba atomica. Le issavano e le facevano cantare nella notte inginocchiati su un campo di rovine. Come le campane di Nagasaki, le campane che suoneranno per la risurrezione di nostro Signore non celebreranno la perfezione o la piena restaurazione di questo mondo. Canteranno per la resurrezione di nostro Signore. In questo mondo spezzato, canteranno l’umile luce del cero pasquale e risuoneranno come le campane di Nagasaki che non potevano essere condannate a morte.

+ La Settimana Santa +

Here are some picture of the Holy Week celebrations in Rome. It is difficult to summarize or explain how it felt to be in Rome for this very special week during which we are all invited to participate, thanks to the liturgy of the Church, to the death and Resurrection of our Lord. The Spirit intercedes during this Week in very intimate ways, with sighs often too deep for words.

+ Palm Sunday +

Holy Week started at St. Paul’s with an ecumenical procession with our Catholic and Romanian Orthodox brothers and sisters.

+ Holy Monday+

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On Holy Monday the Anglican Centre organized an ecumenical vigil of prayer. It was a prayerful moment that allowed us to enter into the mystery of this holiest week.

You can watch the video of the service by clicking on the following link: https://fb.watch/cJ0ocXW0Sv/

+ Holy Tuesday +

On Holy Tuesday a Chrismal Mass was celebrated at All Saints’ Anglican Church on the Via del Babuino. All Saints’ is the Church of England parish in Rome. Bishop Hamid celebrated and Archbishop Ian Ernest, Director of the Anglican Centre was also present. Many clergy of the Diocese in Europe were also present to renew their ordination vows.

You can watch the service on the Facebook Page of All Saints’ Anglican Church.

https://www.facebook.com/allsaintschurchrome

+ Holy Wednesday +

A Tenebrae Service was held at the St. Paul’s but I sunk so much into the prayerful atmosphere that I didn’t take any picture..!

+ Maundy Thursday +

On Maundy Thursday we celebrated the Last Supper of our Lord at St. Paul’s with the Washing of the Feet. In Rome on Giovedi Santo it is also customary to visit as many churches as possible as they are opened until late at night for the visitors to pray at their Altars of Repose.

Below you’ll see some picture of the nine churches (!) I visited with my roommate Edoardo that evening. Edoardo is Roman and knew exactly which one where particularly stunning! I particularly enjoyed the altar at the Santissima Trinità dei Pellegrini. The Altar of Repose (Sepolcri in Italian and reposoir in French) is one of my favorite devotion during Holy Week. I am particularly touched by their peaceful atmosphere of surrender created by the garden and the lights.

“Yet not what I want but what you want.”

+ Good Friday +

On Good Friday, St. Paul’s organized a bilingual (English-Spanish) Via Crucis, followed by a Good Friday liturgy. You can watch the celebration of the liturgy on the following video.

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Second Sunday in Lent

You can find below the text of the sermon I preached at St. Paul’s last Sunday. A translation into Spanish follows.

Genesis 15:1-12, 17-18

Psalm 27

Philippians 3:17-4:1

Luke 13:31-35

During Lent we are on a journey that allows us to consider things with a fresh look. The changes in the liturgy and the new disciplines we are invited to take up help us to re-ground our faith in God rather than in our habits or our ready-made answers; especially the religious or cliquish ones. Lent is a time when we are all invited to reconsider how we think about and experience our belonging to each other and to God. For us here at St Paul’s Lent also involves considering anew the bonds of Christian fellowship which have been put under duress during this pandemic. During our Lenten journey our sense of belonging will be redefined and refined by Christ’s redeeming presence and the experience of our communion with him and with each other.

Today’s Gospel invites us to have a new look at our mission as Christians and as a Church as we listen to Christ talking about his own mission of healing and reconciliation. Let us hear Christ replying to a group of Pharisees who approach him to tell him that Herod wants to kill him:  ‘Listen, I am casting out demons and performing cures today and tomorrow, and on the third day I finish my work. Yet today, tomorrow, and the next day I must be on my way, because it is impossible for a prophet to be killed outside of Jerusalem.’ His answer might sound strange in our ears because he seems to say that he has to do two things at the same time; to heal and to undertake a journey to Jerusalem. He suggests that he is pacing out his daily acts of healing alongside his daily journey towards Jerusalem, towards his Cross. For Jesus, in fact, “casting out demons”, “performing cures” and fulfilling his Father’s will – which entails dying on the Cross– are all the same thing. The journey, the healing and the Cross are one. The image of the hen that Jesus employs to illustrate his relationship to us conveys both a sense of maternal protection and the idea of sacrifice, because a hen would let herself be eaten to protect her chicks. For Jesus, being fully consumed both in love and service for God and also for his brothers and sisters is exactly the same thing.

The same is true for us. We cannot be in communion with God if we are not yearning to be in communion with everyone and the whole of Creation. We cannot be in communion with God if we are not particularly attentive to the infirmities and sufferings of our brothers and sisters as we journey on our way. We cannot belong to God if we don’t belong at the same time to each other. We cannot belong to God if we are not aware from the very start that our true reality is one of communion, and that this communion is also a way of the cross. Communion, and the Christian community it fosters, is not a human project: it is a gift of God that demands our loving response. If many evil powers can destroy and conquer our hearts and our minds, it is because they instill in us the idea that this sort of communion isn’t real. They make us indifferent not only to our own sufferings, but also to the suffering of others. They make us indifferent to the cross of Christ – just as Paul says. They make us indifferent to the life-giving communion and fraternity that stems from this cross. The enemies of the cross feed us with the poisonous idea that there are essential differences between us, between our individual sufferings and our aspirations, that we cannot be in communion for x or y reasons, that we essentially and exclusively belong to a certain race, nation, ideology, social class, language and not radically to each other. All these powers don’t want us to experience the reality that we belong primarily to one another in God before and against everything else and every other power. All the evil powers of this world, including the powers who inspired in Herod the desire to kill Jesus, want us to believe that living in communion is not our primordial identity, that living in communion is not what we are destined to be and it is not where we belong.

Fortunately for us, God is never tired of calling us back under his wings, of fighting back for us. The great mystery which binds us together—not just those of us who are present here this morning, the mystery that binds together all the saints on earth and in heaven and indeed the whole of creation itself, is this. It is the mystery of communion. This mystery is going to become visible very soon, just here. This mystery is the shadow of God that covers us and allows us to grow into the full stature of Christ. In fact, if the Communion were an animal, it would probably be a hen. At this altar you are welcome under Christ’s wings, because he gives himself to you in his body and blood at the moment when he opens wide his wings on the Cross to embrace the whole of our humanity. In the mystery of communion nothing is left untouched, nothing that needs attention is left unattended. Everything and everybody are gathered in. As you come to this table, remember that you can bring with you everything that you are, in your mind, imagination and heart in order to communicate with him. You can bring all people you remember who are alive or asleep, suffering or joyous. Under his wings you can also communicate to him your doubts, your anger, and your fears. Here everything is joined in Christ and consummated in him. Here every creature is invited to dwell and warm themselves in his real presence and under the shadow of his wings. Even if we are hunted by the foxes of this world, just like a brood of chicks, we can still come together to this altar and find refuge in Christ’s body. This tiny little crumb of bread opens to us the depths of God’s intimacy. Here, in our midst, we can welcome him and welcome each other in his name. Our intimacy with him makes us all one. And when we recite the words of the Sanctus “Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord” while crossing ourselves, we won’t know if we are talking about ourselves or about him. In communion we can welcome each other because we truly become one spiritual body. This great intimacy, this great proximity to God and to one another protects us from the foxes of this world.

I’ll soon leave this perch and we will all depart from this henhouse where Christ has gathered us under his wings. Soon we will leave Jesus’s nest. Yet we can bring his presence and his warmth to the world, when, just as a chick leaves its mother, we will go out to welcome, protect, defend, feed and help others. If you’re still looking for some Lenten discipline, why not be for someone else the nest you have found here, in the intimacy of Jesus’s presence and in the company of this communion? This can be as simple as talking to someone with whom you’ve never talked, or listening to them. It can be as simple as inviting someone for dinner, coffee, or a walk. Or simply take some time to be silent with yourself. These are but a few of the ways in which we can communicate God’s intimacy to each other as Christ the Hen communicates it to us in the sacrament of communion. All these simple signs of divine intimacy will make us a people with whom people want to belong. And very humbly, Christ’s love and peace will be extended through your bonds of friendship, even to the most desolate and lonely of hearts.

En español:

Durante la Cuaresma estamos en un camino que nos permite considerar las cosas con otros ojos. Los cambios en la liturgia y las nuevas disciplinas que estamos invitados a asumir nos ayudan a volver a cimentar nuestra fe en Dios más que en nuestros hábitos o nuestras respuestas preparadas; especialmente los religiosos o de exclusivos. La Cuaresma es un tiempo en el que todos estamos invitados a reconsiderar cómo pensamos y experimentamos nuestra pertenencia a los demás y a Dios. Para nosotros aquí en San Pablo también implica considerar de nuevo los lazos de comunidad cristiana que se han sido heridos durante esta pandemia. Durante nuestro camino de Cuaresma, nuestro sentido de pertenencia será redefinido y refinado por la presencia redentora de Cristo y la experiencia de nuestra comunión con él y con los demás.

El Evangelio de hoy nos invita a considerar con otros ojos nuestra misión como cristianos y cristianas y como Iglesia mientras escuchamos a Cristo hablar de su propia misión de curación y reconciliación. Escuchemos a Cristo responder a un grupo de fariseos que se le acercan para decirle que Herodes quiere matarlo: “Mira, hoy y mañana seguiré expulsando demonios y sanando a la gente, y al tercer día terminaré lo que debo hacer. Tengo que seguir adelante hoy, mañana y pasado mañana, porque no puede ser que muera un profeta fuera de Jerusalén”. Su respuesta puede sonar extraña a nuestros oídos porque parece decir que tiene que hacer dos cosas al mismo tiempo; sanar y emprender un viaje a Jerusalén. Sugiere que está marcando el ritmo de sus actos diarios de curación junto con su camino diario hacia Jerusalén, hacia su Cruz. Para Jesús, en efecto, “expulsar demonios”, “hacer curaciones” y cumplir la voluntad de su Padre –que implica morir en la cruz– son una misma cosa. El camino, la curación y la Cruz son uno. La imagen de la gallina que Jesús emplea para ilustrar su relación con nosotros transmite tanto un sentido de protección maternal como la idea de sacrificio, porque una gallina se dejaría comer para proteger a sus polluelos. Para Jesús, consumirse plenamente tanto en el amor como en el servicio a Dios y también a sus hermanos es exactamente lo mismo.

Lo mismo es cierto para nosotros. No podemos estar en comunión con Dios si no anhelamos estar en comunión con todos y con toda la Creación. No podemos estar en comunión con Dios si no estamos particularmente atentos a las enfermedades y sufrimientos de nuestros hermanos y hermanas en nuestro camino. No podemos pertenecer a Dios si no nos pertenecemos al mismo tiempo unos a otros. No podemos pertenecer a Dios si no somos conscientes desde el principio de que nuestra verdadera realidad es la de la comunión, y que esta comunión es también un vía crucis. La comunión, y la comunidad cristiana que ella fomenta, no es un proyecto humano : es un don de Dios que exige nuestra respuesta amorosa. Si muchos poderes del mal pueden destruir y conquistar nuestro corazón y nuestra mente, es porque nos inculcan la idea de que este tipo de comunión no es real. Nos hacen indiferentes no sólo a nuestros propios sufrimientos, sino también al sufrimiento de los demás. Nos hacen indiferentes a la cruz de Cristo, tal como dice Pablo. Nos hacen indiferentes a la comunión vivificante y a la fraternidad que corre de esta cruz. Los enemigos de la cruz, que estan en nosostros mismos, nos alimentan con la idea venenosa de que existen diferencias esenciales entre nosotros, entre nuestros sufrimientos individuales y nuestras aspiraciones, que no podemos estar en comunión por x o y razones, que pertenecemos esencial y exclusivamente a una determinada raza, nación, ideología, clase social, idioma y no radicalmente entre sí. Todos estos poderes no quieren que experimentemos la realidad de que nos pertenecemos principalmente unos a otros en Dios antes y contra todo lo demás y cualquier otro poder. Todos los poderes malignos de este mundo, incluidos los poderes que inspiraron en Herodes el deseo de matar a Jesús, quieren que creamos que vivir en comunión no es nuestra identidad primordial, que vivir en comunión no es lo que estamos destinados a ser y que no es donde pertenecemos.

Afortunadamente para nosotros, Dios nunca se cansa de llamarnos bajo sus alas, de luchar por nosotros. El gran misterio que nos une, no solo a los que estamos aquí presentes esta mañana, el misterio que une a todos los santos en la tierra y en el cielo y, de hecho, a toda la creación misma, es este. Es el misterio de la comunión. Este misterio se va a hacer visible muy pronto, justo aquí. Este misterio es la sombra de Dios que nos cubre y nos permite crecer hasta la plena estatura de Cristo. De hecho, si la Comunión fuera un animal, probablemente sería una gallina. En este altar sois acogidos bajo las alas de Cristo, porque Él se entrega a vosotros en su cuerpo y sangre en el momento en que abre sus alas en la Cruz para abrazar a toda nuestra humanidad. En el misterio de la comunión nada queda sin ser tocado, nada que necesite atención queda sin atención. Todo y todos están reunidos. Al venir a esta mesa, recuerdan que pueden traer con ustedes todo lo que son, en su mente, imaginación y corazón para comunicarles con él. Pueden traer a todas las personas que recuerden que estén vivas o dormidas, sufriendo o alegres. Bajo sus alas también pueden comunicarle sus dudas, su ira y sus miedos. Aquí todo se junta en Cristo y se consuma en él. Aquí toda criatura está invitada a habitar y calentarse en su presencia real y bajo la sombra de sus alas. Incluso si somos perseguidos por las zorras de este mundo, al igual que una cría de pollitos, aún podemos unirnos a este altar y encontrar refugio en el cuerpo de Cristo. Esta pequeña miga de pan nos abre las profundidades de la intimidad de Dios. Aquí, entre nosotros, podemos acogerlo y acogernos unos a otros en su nombre. Nuestra intimidad con él nos hace a todos uno. Y cuando recitamos las palabras del Sanctus “Bendito el que viene en el nombre del Señor” mientras nos hacemos la señal de la cruz, no sabremos si estamos hablando de nosotros o de él. En comunión podemos acogernos unos a otros porque verdaderamente nos convertimos en un solo cuerpo espiritual. Esta gran intimidad, esta gran proximidad con Dios y entre nosotros nos protege de las zorras de este mundo.

Pronto voy a dejar este posadero y todos vamos a partir de este gallinero donde Cristo nos ha reunido bajo sus alas. Pronto vamos a dejar el nido de Jesús. Sin embargo, podemos traer su presencia y su calor al mundo, cuando, así como un pollito deja a su madre, saldremos a acoger, proteger, defender, dar de comer y ayudar a los demás. Si todavía buscan alguna disciplina cuaresmal, ¿por qué no ser para otro el nido que han encontrado aquí, en la intimidad de la presencia de Jesús y en la compañía de esta comunión? Esto puede ser tan simple como hablar con alguien con quien nunca ha hablado o escucharlo. Puede ser tan simple como invitar a alguien a cenar, tomar un café o dar un paseo. O simplemente tómale un tiempo para estar en silencio con usted mismo. Estas son sólo algunas de las formas en que podemos comunicarnos la intimidad de Dios entre nosotros como Cristo, la gallina, nos la comunica en el sacramento de la comunión. Todos estos simples signos de intimidad divina harán de nosotros un pueblo al que la gente quiera pertenecer. Y muy humildemente, el amor y la paz de Cristo se extenderán a través de sus lazos de amistad, incluso a los corazones más desolados y solitarios.

Ash Wednesday

File:Wood ash.jpg - Wikimedia Commons

Fr Austin offered me to preach for Ash Wednesday. You’ll find below the text of the sermon in English and in Spanish.

Ash Wednesday

Isaiah 58:1-12

Psalm 103 

2 Corinthians 5:20b-6:10

Matthew 6:1-6,16-21

You are maybe a bit anxious as the season of Lent begins. We often think that Lent is the liturgical season during which we are supposed to have a closer look at our sins to try to understand their origins and future catastrophic trajectories if we don’t fix them. As lent begins you might be thinking of your addictions, the same mistakes you keep doing, or your past mistakes. Why am I so unfaithful, inattentive, stubborn? You may also be considering our communal sins, which are very big in our eyes: the present ecological collapse, the faithlessness of the church, the worsening social injustice, the dangers of war and division. We’d rather flee or get distracted than add despair to despair by reflecting on it.

The season of Lent is a very challenging one indeed. But not for the reasons I just mentioned. The attitudes I just mentioned have little to do with the spirit of Lent. Why? Because I told you about sin, about sin from a human perspective, and sin seen by human eyes is none of our business!  In all what I have said, and in which you may have recognized yourself —and I often do as well—God’s action and presence has been overlooked. Our human minds are very capable to be aware of our sins, but it is of no need for us—and even a danger! — if we don’t look at them, and at ourselves sinners, with Jesus’s loving look. We are very good at wrestling with our sins but very bad at seeing them with God’s eyes. If it is so it is probably because his love surpasses all human understanding as the Psalmist just told us:

For as the heavens are high above the earth, *

so is his mercy great upon those who fear him.

As far as the east is from the west, *

so far has he removed our sins from us.

It is impossible for our human understanding to figure out God’s mercy for us, just as it is very difficult to see that our Teacher in this season of Lent is not foreign to our sins, our shortcomings, our compromission. We’re so convinced that God’s perfection rejects us that it is difficult for us to look at our sins with Christ’s eyes, which means looking at them with the eyes of the one who has born them in his flesh. Jesus Christ is however our only hope, and our only method in this season of Lent. Because “for our sake the Father made him to be sin who knew no sin, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God.” Jesus Christ went further down in our despair and our sins that we could ever go, he fought worse battles and overcame them. Remember that when you feel very low, when you consider your sin or the sins of our humanity. Christ has been lower. As we enter this season of Lent, we are called to faith: we are called to experience that there is no suffering, no pain, no doubt that he hasn’t attended and healed by his loving touch.

In fact, the main danger of the season of Lent, and of all Christian life is not to sin. This is part of our human nature, and acknowledging it means that we recognize that we are children of God who need to grow in Christ full stature. The main danger of all Christian life is to make our sins our own, it is believing that they pertain or belong to us. Indeed, owning our sins is as sinful as owning our good works. Both are the sides of the same coin. Jesus in today’s Gospel has a very strong warning against what we call hypocrisy. Hypocrisy happens when something is done for the sake of the social or narcissist benefit gained from it, rather than out of pure obedience to God’s command. We give the impression that we are giving but we actually give little in order to gain more for ourselves. Doing so we are hiding that we want to gain something. In Lent, we must be aware that this also happens with our faults or sins. Not only good works and good stuff feed into our desire to gain prestige, power, and pseudo-righteousness. By these attitudes we try to save ourselves, to build up our own name and reputation, even sometimes our own church, without God. What is utterly sad with fascination with sin and clinging to it, is that if you don’t let Christ take them away from you, they’ll rot close to you and make everybody sick. Unremitted sins make our societies sick; they make us suspicious of sin where there is no sin, they destroy true joy and true freedom, and they contaminate with their crookedness other domains of our lives. We end up measuring ourselves and others against stuff, powers, and creatures of this world, and not with God’s infinite and dynamic love. 

If we make our treasure of our sins or our good works, if we collect, classify, or publish them we’ll put our hearts in our actions, be them “good or bad”. We’ll make our treasure of what we do, and our hearts won’t beat for the Maker of all and the redeemer of all.  The reality is that nothing that we have or do belongs to us, and it is also true for our sins. They belong to Jesus Christ, and if we don’t let him take them, we are actually opposing God’s will, we are rejecting the Messiah, we are barring the stream of his love. This is so because “God”, as Maurice Zundel, a Swiss priest puts it, “cannot reign in us without us, because God is love and love can only be received through love.”

How do you give something to someone? You come to them! you speak to them, you introduce yourself to them, little by little you let intimacy arise and you give what you want to give. And if you have a lot to give, you just stay longer! So is it with the sins we want to give to Jesus Christ, we can come closer to him and present them to him, simply, humbly. And in his eyes looking at us we’ll realize that he doesn’t want our sins so much as he wants us and to give himself fully to us. Our sins are but a pretext, an occasion to be drawn closer to him, to be marked by his sign and received in his body. Give your sins to him in prayer and in silence, in everything you do or have left undone: he’ll put them aside and he’ll look at you because he loves you more than anything you can offer. He will give himself to you. And in your hands, that used to clutch to our sins, he’ll come to rest in you, so that you grow in his likeness.

En español

Tal vez esté un poco ansioso por el comienzo de la temporada de Cuaresma. A menudo pensamos que la Cuaresma es la temporada litúrgica durante la cual se supone que debemos mirar más de cerca nuestros pecados para tratar de comprender sus orígenes e incluso sus futuras trayectorias catastróficas si no los reparamos. A medida que comienza la Cuaresma, es posible que estén pensando en sus adicciones, los mismos errores que siguen cometiendo o sus errores del pasado. ¿Por qué soy tan infiel, desatento, terco? También puede estar considerando los pecados en los que todos estamos involucrados, que se parecen grandes sobre nuestros ojos: el actual colapso ecológico, la infidelidad de la Iglesia, el deterioro de la injusticia social, los peligros de la guerra y la división. Preferimos huir o distraernos que sumar desesperación a la desesperación reflexionando sobre ellos.

La temporada de Cuaresma es ciertamente muy desafiante. Pero no por las razones que acabo de mencionar. Las actitudes que acabo de mencionar tienen poco que ver con el espíritu de Cuaresma. ¿Por qué? Porque cuando estaba hablando del pecado, lo estaba hablando desde una perspectiva humana; ¡y el pecado solo visto a través de ojos humanos no es asunto nuestro! En todo lo que he dicho, y en aquellas cosas que habrás reconocido en ustedes —como muchas veces lo hago en mí mismo— hemos pasado por alto la presencia de Dios y su acción. Nuestra mente es muy capaz de tomar conciencia de nuestros pecados, pero esta autorreflexión es inútil para nosotros —¡y hasta peligrosa!— si no miramos esos pecados, y a nosotros mismos como pecadores, con la mirada amorosa de Jesús. Somos muy buenos para luchar con nuestros pecados, pero muy malos para verlos a través de los ojos de Dios. Si esto es cierto es porque el amor de Dios sobrepasa todo entendimiento humano como nos acaba de decir el Salmista:

Tan grande es su amor por los que le temen

como alto es el cielo sobre la tierra.

Tan lejos de nosotros echó nuestras transgresiones

como lejos del oriente está el occidente.

Es imposible para nuestro entendimiento humano comprender la misericordia de Dios extendida hacia nosotros, como es muy difícil ver que nuestro Maestro en este tiempo de Cuaresma no es ajeno a nuestros pecados, nuestras faltas, nuestros compromisos. Estamos tan convencidos de que la perfección de Dios nos rechaza que nos cuesta mirarlos con los ojos de quien los ha nacido en su propia carne. Sin embargo, relacionarnos con Jesucristo es nuestra única esperanza y nuestro único camino a través de esta temporada de Cuaresma. Porque “al que no conoció pecado, el Padre lo hizo pecado por nosotros, para que nosotros fuésemos hechos justicia de Dios en él ”. Jesucristo fue más abajo en nuestra desesperación y nuestros pecados de lo que jamás podamos ir, peleó peores batallas y las venció. Recuerden esto cuando ustedes se sientan muy bajos, cuando reflexionan sobre sus pecados o los pecados de nuestra humanidad: Cristo siempre ha ido más bajo. Al entrar en esta temporada de Cuaresma, somos llamados a la fe: somos llamados a experimentar que no hay sufrimiento, ni dolor, ni duda, que él no haya atendido y sanado con su toque amoroso.

De hecho, el principal peligro del tiempo de Cuaresma, y quizás de toda la vida cristiana, no especar. Esto es parte de nuestra naturaleza humana. Reconocerlo significa que reconocemos que somos hijos y hijas de Dios que necesitan crecer en la estatura plena de Cristo. El principal peligro de toda vida cristiana es apoderarse nuestros pecados; es creer que nos pertenecen y dependen únicamente a nosotros. De hecho, apropiarnos nuestros pecados es tan pecaminoso como apropiarnos nuestras buenas obras. Ambos son diferentes lados de la misma moneda. Jesús en el Evangelio de hoy tiene una advertencia muy fuerte contra lo que llamamos hipocresía. La hipocresía ocurre cuando se hace algo por el beneficio social o narcisista que se obtiene de esto, en lugar de por pura obediencia al mandato de Dios. Creámonos la impresión de que estamos dando, pero en realidad estamos dando poco para ganar más para nosotros mismos. Cuando hacemos esto, estamos ocultando el hecho de que esperamos ganar algo. En Cuaresma debemos ser conscientes de que esto también sucede con nuestras faltas o pecados. No son solo las buenas obras las que alimentan nuestro deseo de ganar prestigio, poder y superioridad moral. A través de estas actitudes intentamos de salvar a nosotros mismos, de establecer nuestros propios nombre y reputación, incluso a veces nuestra propia iglesia, dejando a Dios fuera de escena.

Lo que es tan profundamente triste acerca de nuestra fascinación por los pecados y nuestro aferramiento a ellos, es que si no dejas que Cristo te los quite, se pudrirán cerca de ti y enfermarán a todos alrededor. Los pecados no perdonados enferman a nuestras sociedades; nos hacen sospechar del pecado donde no hay pecado. Los pecados no remitidos destruyen el verdadero gozo y la verdadera libertad. Contaminan otras áreas de nuestras vidas con su tortuosidad. Terminamos midiéndonos a nosotros mismos y a los demás con las cosas, los poderes y las criaturas de este mundo, en lugar de medirnos con el amor infinito y dinámico de Dios.

Si hacemos de nuestros pecados o de nuestras buenas obras nuestro tesoro, si los recopilamos, clasificamos o publicamos, pondremos nuestro corazón en nuestras acciones, sean “buenas o malas”. Haremos nuestro tesoro lo que hacemos, y nuestro corazón no latirá más por el Hacedor de todo y el redentor de todo. La realidad es que nada de lo que tenemos y nada de lo que hacemos nos pertenece, y lo mismo ocurre con nuestros pecados. Pertenecen a Jesucristo, y si no dejamos que él los tome, en realidad nos estamos oponiendo al amor de Dios. “Dios”, como insiste Maurice Zundel, un sacerdote suizo, “no puede reinar en nosotros sin nosotros, porque Dios es amor y el amor solo puede recibirse a través del amor”.

¿Cómo le das algo a alguien? ¡Viniendo a ello! Le hablas, te presentas, y poco a poco dejas que surja la intimidad y das lo que quieres dar. Y si tienes mucho que dar, ¡quédate más tiempo! Así es con los pecados que queremos dar a Jesucristo, podemos acercarnos a él y presentárselos, sencillamente, con humildad. Y cuando sintamos sus ojos mirándonos, nos daremos cuenta de que no quiere nuestros pecados tanto como nos quiere a nosotros. Él quiere darse completamente a nosotros. Nuestros pecados son sólo un pretexto, una ocasión para acercarnos a él, para ser marcados por su signo y recibidos en su cuerpo. Entrégale tus pecados en la oración y en el silencio, en todo lo que hagas o hayas dejado de hacer: él los dejará a un lado y te mirará porque te ama más que cualquier cosa que puedas ofrecerle. Él se entregará a ti. Yen tus manos; esas mismas manos que solían aferrarse a tus pecados, él vendrá a descansar para que crezcas a su semejanza.

Symposium on Priesthood at the Vatican

Spring is already in the air here in Rome even though the mornings are still cold. Several events have been the occasion for exciting ecumenical encounters in recent days and I will try to give you an overview of them in my next posts.

The Website of the Symposium.


Archbishop Ian Ernest and I went to the three-day Vatican conference on the priesthood. This conference was intended as a response to the difficulties that the Roman Catholic Church is going through at the moment, especially after priests used their position of authority to abuse the people who were placed under their care. The symposium did not dwell too much on the reasons for the abuses (the study of which was postponed to another possible symposium). The papers mostly sought to address the realities of the priesthood in the Catholic Church in a pastoral and theological way without limiting it (at least that was the original intention!) to the ministerial priesthood (i.e. the priesthood of ordained Christians). The question of the priesthood of all the baptized (baptismal priesthood) came up with a particular relevance as the Roman Catholic Church has launched itself a synodal process about which I’ll talk more in detail in another post. The Pope’s inaugural lesson was certainly the most inspiring of the communications, for, unlike many others, he approached the realities of priesthood from a spiritual and pastoral point of view and not a purely theological or historical one. Here is the link to a transcript of his speech.

https://www.vatican.va/content/francesco/en/speeches/2022/february/documents/20220217-simposio-teologia-sacerdozio.html


Unfortunately, the communication that we expected the most and which was to focus on the ecumenical issues of the priesthood was quite disappointing. Cardinal Koch limited himself to the relations of the Catholic Church with the Orthodox and the Lutherans, brilliantly ignoring the accomplishments of the Anglican-Catholic dialogues. Overall the presentations were very interesting and led to lively discussions between ++Ian and I on the differences and similarities between the Anglican and Roman conceptions of priesthood. The coffee breaks also allowed me to meet Catholic seminarians from the French Seminary in Rome as well as the Rector of Beda College, one of the English seminaries here. They all invited me to visit them, which will give me material for other articles!

Archbishop Ian Ernest and I at the Symposium on Priesthood.

Preaching at the Anglican Centre

Archibishop Ian Ernest, director of the Anglican Centre, invited me to preach at our Tuesday Eucharist. Here is the text of the sermon and a link to the video of the service on the Anglican Centre’s Facebook page.

https://fb.watch/bsHchXAZc1/

First time preaching at the Anglican Centre! 🙂

Tuesday February 22

Anglican Centre, Rome

James 4.1-10; Ps 55:7-24; Mark 9.30-37

The readings we just heard are difficult ones, because they talk about conflict, which is something we usually don’t want to hear about in the church or in the world. These readings are about competing attitudes and antagonist worldviews which from a human viewpoint seem unreconcilable. For many of our brothers and sisters at the margin of the Church, and for us, hearing James declare that “friendship with the world is enmity with God” can sound very hard and a radical clash. See these Christians who don’t like our world, who just dream of heaven and judge everything here below as sinful! Some scholars have showed that the current modern ecological crisis can be traced back to certain Christian teachings which have been misused and misinterpreted. The negative prejudice about the world in some Christian religious settings have given rise to a form of sterile opposition between the material versus the spiritual and led to an abusive relation to God’s creation. Using Gilbert Chesterton’s words, we can say that the ecological crisis we’re living in today is the consequence of “old Christian virtues gone mad”.

This misunderstanding of Christian teachings was already possible in James’ time. For the contemporaries of James as for us today, the cosmos in question referred to the universe, the place where we live, our biotope, populated by physical and spiritual realities. As ecological collapse forces us to realize that we are continually abusing the creation that God has entrusted to us, the assertion that “friendship with the world is enmity with God” seems even more outrageous. Why having friendship, compassion for our world suffering from the consequences of climate change could make us enemies of God? How could you oppose to God friendship with this world, which is our environment, the place where we live, where we rejoice and suffer? It really doesn’t make any sense and it’s deeply revolting. It is not only absurd but also contrary to the spirit of the Gospel and the teaching of Jesus-Christ. How can we then understand what James tells us in regard of Christ’s redeeming love for us? The answer to this crucial question is to be found in the way God acts in this world and enjoins us to participate in his redeeming life. The Gospel we have just heard gives us a pathway of transformation which is not one of condemnation but of collaboration.

The attitude of the disciples who discuss on the way to know who the greatest is should not surprise us. It is our normal way of being and thinking when we compare ourselves to each other, when we see qualities or faults that we think we recognize in others or in ourselves. Am I better or worse than my colleague? Better or worse than my friend? Better or worse than this Christian brother or sister sitting beside me? This attitude is found in all circles where humans live together, and even when we are on our own we still think this way. Living together between humans can foster competition and envy: it happens on boarders between nations, in the market between corporations, at schools between students, or in our families. When, like the disciples, we seek to judge ourselves, to evaluate ourselves, we base our judgment on ideas, facts, things which are always small parts of reality. In our communion of Churches, we also tend to vie with each other on questions of liturgy, moral standards and greater faithfulness to the Bible or tradition. We often quarrel with each other about who is the greater. We think that we can judge the whole, that we can judge and evaluate ourselves, grounding our judgement on our petty human understanding of a situation. We think that some cleverly assemble analyses can be an argument against a whole don’t know. But how can we judge, when, contrary to Christ, who reads the hearts of his disciples, we don’t know the heart of humans and the fullness of God’s love?

Christ’s attitude in the Gospel is fully different from this worldly attitude I just described. Christ doesn’t engage in the quarrel between the disciples about who is the greatest. He doesn’t collect judgements, make files like the judges of this world. He doesn’t provide a hierarchy, he doesn’t rank them according to their seniority, their skills, or their gifts. How different from everything we do, everything we say and everything we hear about each other every day! Instead of that, Christ steps aside from the power struggle by going back to the source of all power, that is his own authority realized in service for all. When the disciples were judging each other in an anarchical and futile way, competing and commenting like we do on social medias, Jesus, like the Lord in the prophet Joel, sits down to judge his people:

The kind of play that he performs when he puts a little child among them and embraces him is a leçon de choses. It is a prophetic sign akin to Ezekiel’s prophetic miming or today’s theatrical and political happenings: Jesus Christ does not teach us primarily through ideas, values or categories that we can easily collect and use as weapons. He welcomes us into his kingdom by showing us what is the ultimate, self-revealing God-like reality: the dynamics of service. The prophetic gestures he performs enacts for all of us the reality of eucharistic living, a life ordered by receiving and giving, not by judgement. This prophetic gesture, which is a judgement of God, responds to the disciples’ divisive attitude of competition: it teaches us that we can only compete in being more selflessly obliging to each other, to the point that we become transparent to God selfless offering of himself.

The mystery of the Eucharist that we are about to enter is the food that allows us to grow is Christ’s full stature. It allows us today to indwell in the reality of the Kingdom and its otherworldly sense of service in this world. Just like this little child among the disciples, it is a silent mystery, a very small and simple meal. It is barely a meal as a child is barely a human, but if we welcome it, we are also welcomed in the divine dynamics of love, and become able to share it. Through this small piece of bread, the body of our Lord, through this cup of wine, the blood of our Lord, we can enter the order of magnitude of the Kingdom in which smallness and service restore us. From this altar flows the whole Eucharistic mystery of our lives which sanctifies our relationships, our ministries, and our daily life of followers of Christ. The Eucharist is the mystery in which our broken world is reconciled to God in Jesus-Christ.

This Eucharistic living is dynamically different from what has led to the current ecological collapse. The current ecological crisis is the fruit of a worldly spirit of selfish interests and competition and a profound misunderstanding of what it means to be servants of God in this world. On the contrary, feeding on the Eucharist is the remedy of the world’s competition and division that leads to its ecological destruction and our own death. By giving himself to us, and tracing thence a way back to him, God commands us in Jesus Christ to order our lives according to the smaller servants of this world: ‘Whoever wants to be first must be last of all and servant of all.’  He became himself the servant of all so that we can be reconciled to him. To do so, he dared to offer himself to us in the species of bread and wine, and be sacrificed as the Lamb of God. As he dared, we can also dare to see today’s “little child” among us in our silent brothers and sisters who are plants and animals. Minerals, plants, animals are our own infancy in God’s self-revelation in the great history of evolution. We are invited, at this altar and in our lives to welcome them in his name in order to welcome him and the Father who has sent him. Being disciples of Christ today is being reminded of the urgency of stopping to compete against each other. We are rather urged to order our lives to Eucharistic living which entails a strong and concrete commitment to ecological service in a spirit of brotherhood. On this common service depends the credibility of our Christian witness in the eyes of those to whom Christ sends us as his disciples.

A Roman cat.

Epiphany VI and a Special Anniversary

I was given the opportunity to preach during Sunday Eucharist at à St. Paul’s yesterday. This Sunday was also a milestone in the history of the church community because it was Fr. Austin’s 10-year anniversary at St Paul’s.

You’ll find below the text of the sermon in English as well as the audio recording.

February 13, 2022

Epiphany VI: St. Paul’s-within-the-walls, Rome

Readings: Jeremiah 17:5-10; Psalm 1; 1 Corinthians 15:12-20; Luke 6:17-26

As a young preacher and a newcomer among you, I am anxious to be relevant, more than I probably should be. It is said that congregations like relevant sermons. The Merriam Webster dictionary defines relevant like this: “having significant and demonstrable bearing on the matter at hand” but also “having social relevance.” As we don’t know each other you can legitimately wonder how this young French chap could have “social relevance” to preach to us whom he barely knows, in a city he arrived in a brief month ago? I wondered the same thing myself when I started writing this sermon. The Bible gives us more than one example of the fact that relevant public addresses breathed by the Spirit of God (what in church-speak we call sermons) do not depend on a sociological knowledge of the audience. Nor do they on the status, education, or skills of the preacher. How comforting! Especially today when I am filling the pulpit after Jesus Christ himself!

In the Gospel it was indeed Jesus that we heard preaching to us today. This passage is often referred to as the “sermon on the plain” because Jesus comes down from the Mount of Olives to address his disciples, and (it is implied) also to address the crowd and the great multitude that has come to follow him. If Jesus’ sermon is pretty much unlike what a priest would dare to preach, this crowd however is pretty much like us here this morning. It is a composite and cosmopolitan mix of people: “A community of followers who were strong and people who were weak, a community that had people who were faithful and people who were without faith, people who were rich and poor, people who got healed and people who longed to be healed…[1] ” They came, like we do, from different regions, had different mother tongues and different walks of life. This crowd was probably always changing, people coming and leaving, and many amongst this multitude didn’t share Jesus’ Jewish culture. How could someone’s teaching be relevant to such a multitude? How could he speak both to the Judean, the Jerusalemites and the inhabits of the coast? How could he be meaningful to his close disciples as well as to people he is meeting for the first time?

And yet, the way Jesus preaches to this mixed multitude is infinitely relevant, even to us today, in a country he never visited. If it is so relevant, it is because he doesn’t preach it from his own self, but as he often says in the Gospel, from the communion of love he shares both with his Father, and with us, his brothers and sisters. Jesus is relevant because he relates us to each other and to the Father. No ideology, no method, no self-absorption hinders the stream of Jesus’ words that water us all. The four blessings and the four woes he announces to the multitude flow from the same source: they all manifest Jesus’ power to release, or “unstick” those who identify themselves with what they are not. Are you suffering? Take heart, your suffering is not who you are called to be. Are you contented? God has something better for you, your content is not who you are called to be either. But the blessings and woes of Jesus do more than that, they do more than point to our individual selves, leaving each one of us sort out our problems on our own. The symmetry of these blessings and woes invites that crowd – just as it invites us today – to see them as intimately related, to see each other’s needs and gifts as mutually interdependent. If you are, or haveso much, you can give more to others and be more present for them. I you have little and are little in the world’s eyes, you can receive even more and teach better than anyone else how to be grateful. In Jesus’ words, blessings and woes in this world are reconciled to foster healing, just like the miraculous healings of the sick are signs of God’s power and his coming Kingdom.

Jesus makes us relevant for each other, just as his death and resurrection is relevant for all of us, as saint Paul insists. If we treat each other as derisory or irrelevant, we do not believe in Jesus’s relevance, nor in his power to heal this world. Jesus himself never tells anyone that they cannot follow him, that they don’t matter. He tells no-one that they’re not relevant. And what is more, as they follow him together on the way, they’re also invited to follow each other; to see each other’s relevance. That’s the way that a crowd journeys forward and you can observe the same thing with groups of tourists in Rome: even if you are following one guide, you all end up walking one after another, sometimes ahead, sometimes beside, sometimes a bit behind, but never alone.

These people in the plain are given the opportunity to follow Jesus, just like those of us who are here. If we keep showing up, if we keep joining in this crowd, the gap between the blessings and the woes will get smaller. The gap between you and me will get smaller, between each other and between Christ and us too. All of the sermons that Jesus gives in Luke’s Gospel tell us this. Showing up is as relevant and radical as Jesus’s presence among us. Show up, consistently; build the Kingdom.

When you came to gather like that crowd, when you showed up this morning, you probably expected to hear God’s Word shared from someone whose voice you know. Certainly not from me, naturally, as we don’t know each other well. I am talking of Fr Austin, your Rector, who is not on this mountain today, but at a “level place” like Jesus when he addressed his disciples and healed the crowds! Today we celebrate Austin’s 10-year anniversary at St. Paul’s. Those ten years when he has been here for you. Those ten years when he has guided an ever changing and moving crowd of followers of Christ in this city of Rome. Ten years when he has held together in God’s care and prayers such a diverse community as all of you who are here in person or through the internet. Ten years when he has been present to those who are now absent. Ten years when he has shown everyone’s relevance to each other as they advance together the Kingdom of God in Rome, while at the same time sustaining the complementary ministries of the Church and the JNRC. And ten years too during which you, Austin, have given yourself to this people. If you need proof of what I’m saying, all you need to remember is that you now speak Italian like a true Roman gas station attendant, come un benzinaio vero! You’ll never run out of gas. All of these quiet efforts the Psalmist likens – in a more ecological way – to a tree silently but surely growing roots and branches for people to rest under its shade. Even when the floor seemed covered in snow like the first day you arrived in Rome, deep under this ground, the Lord was making your roots reach his well-spring of life. Everything that you’ve done has been relevant in God’s eyes and in the sight of the people to whom you’ve ministered, though both woes and blessings.

I have not been here for long, but I remember what Austin told me on our first passegiata together, over a month ago. It was the first sermon I heard about the church in Rome which is no small thing! I think it is very relevant to share it with you this morning so that you get three sermons for the price of one: a great cloud of starlings was dancing in the Roman sky, and Fr Austin likened them to the Church, to a beautiful congregation. In their dance, each and every starling is relevant. They show up and fly together in the breeze for all the world to see, and to give thanks to God.


[1] The Rev. Teddy Hickman-Maynard, “Following without Faith,” The Memorial Church, Harvard, 26 Oct 2021.

Starlings in the evening sky, Celian Hill, Rome.

Candlemas in Rome

Today is the feast of the Presentation of Jesus at the Temple of Jerusalem, which takes place forty days after his birth. This feast is also sometimes called the Purification of the Virgin Mary because it was customary for new mothers to come to the temple to be ritually purified and the Virgin Mary did it in compliance with the Mosaic law. This feast is also named Candlemas after the candles that are traditionally blessed on this occasion.

Byzantine mosaics in St Zeno Chapel in the Basilica of Santa Prassede.

In Rome, the beginning of February was already associated with polytheistic festivals of purification such as Lupercalia and Feralia before the arrival of the Jewish and Christian faith. Purification and light are related realities and are found, for example, in all the derivatives of the Latin verb lustro which means both « to purify by a sacrifice », « to examine » and « to enlighten » (e.g. « lustration » and « luster »). 

February also marked the end of the Roman calendar which used to begin in March. For the ancient Romans this season heralded a renewal, the return of light and fertility. The Lupercalia festivals that were commemorated at this time recalled the rescue of Romulus and Remus by a she-wolf after they were delivered to the waters of the flooding Tiber River. For the ancient Romans, this unexpected rescue of the future founder of Rome and his brother testified to the divine favor that their City had received. In the return of spring, light and fruitfulness, in the rescue of their founder, they saw celestial providence at work and celebrated it.

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Engraving of the ancient statue of the Roman she-wolf under which was added the figures of Romulus and Remus at the Renaissance period.

When on February 2, 494 Pope Gelasius organized a torchlight procession in the City to commemorate the presentation of Jesus at the Temple, the Romans were invited to reconsider the story of their foundation, their own history, in the light of this new light announced by Simeon, the honorable old man who, on receiving baby Jesus in the temple declared:

  Lord, you now have set your servant free *

    to go in peace as you have promised; 

For these eyes of mine have seen the Savior, *

    whom you have prepared for all the world to see: 

A Light to enlighten the nations, *

    and the glory of your people Israel.

On this feast, in Rome or elsewhere, ancient or new Romans, in blood or in heart, are invited to reconsider their national history, the history of their origins, whatever they may be, in the light of the coming of Christ into this world. . Like Simeon’s long life of expectation, like the story of the feast of Lupercalia, our personal and community history is not canceled by the divine promise fulfilled in Jesus Christ: it is in these stories that God has found what he needs to enter the hearts of the Romans and ours today. Celebrating the presentation to the Temple of Jesus who, not being under the law, yet obeyed the law, invites us to go beyond our own origins, our own limitations, our prejudices and our parochialism. The canticle of Simeon makes us contemplate our own life, our history and our expectations but reminds us that our true identity is ahead of us, in the glory of Jesus Christ and his saints who is expanding on earth and in heaven, more than in any of our exploits or our past trials.

Jésus Christ in glory surrounded by St Prudenziana, St Paul, St. Peter, St Prassede and all his heavenly court, Byzantine mosaic in the Basilica of St Prassede.

During the feast of the Presentation of Jesus in the Temple, we do not celebrate the founders of a City with imperial power but the first glimmers of a complete reversal of the rules of this world. A world where it is not empires, hegemonies, cultures, races, languages ​​or identities of any kind that define us, bring us together or separate us, but Jesus Christ himself who is « the light of the Gentiles and the glory of Israel. » 

In France it is customary to eat crêpes for Candlemas. Near the church I found a Breton crêperie where I had lunch today. On the picture is a typical Breton savory crêpe (called galette) made with buckwheat flour.

Under the aegis of Sant’ Egidio

During the Week of Prayer for Christian Unity we visited several Catholic institutions and communities where we were very warmly welcomed.

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The visit that struck me the most was the one we made to the Community of Sant’Egidio in the parish of Santa Maria in Trastevere. The community of Sant’ Egidio is made of lay Catholics and was founded in 1968 just after the Second Vatican Council, which began a great period of renewal and ressourcement in the Roman Catholic Church.

Santa Maria in Trastevere where the main Roman Sant’Egidio community now worships.

Its founders, who were teenagers at that time, aspired to live in a community modeled on the Acts of the Apostles and the ministry of Saint Francis of Assisi. Every evening they met to pray and help the poorest during the post-war years when many Romans still lived in slums. Subsequently the community expanded to become international and diversified in its work of assistance and reconciliation. Its vocation can be summed up in three Ps:

  • Preghiera (prayer): it is the main work of the community, based on listening to the word of God and intercession.
  • Poveri (the poor): they are the brothers, sisters and friends of the community. As their site defines, “Friendship with those in need – the elderly, homeless, migrants, people with disabilities, prisoners, street and suburban children – is a characteristic feature of the lives of those who participate in Sant ‘Egidio on the different continents. »
  • Pace (Peace): “The awareness that war is the mother of all poverty has led the Community to work for peace, protecting it where it is threatened, helping to rebuild it, facilitating dialogue where it stopped. Work for peace is experienced as a responsibility of Christians, and constitutes a part of the global service to reconciliation and fraternity which materializes in particular in ecumenical commitment and interreligious dialogue in the « spirit of Assisi ». »

As Claudio Betti, one of the early members  of the Community explained to us with humor and eloquence, being part of Saint’Egidio has nothing to do with a « ministry » but it is a « vocation », because what counts in the first place is to be « available and present to the wounds and wounds of this world, whatever they may be ». This is why the community has not limited itself to a single type of service. In any case, the community is brought together by prayer on a daily basis, in the evening, in a spirit of freedom and free participation which testifies to the influence of the libertarian thought of the 1960s and of liberation movements akin to the Catholic community of Solentiname, initiated by Ernesto Cardenal in Nicaragua.

Sant’ Egidio aims to be on the margins of the societies in which they are present and where the most vulnerable are always found. The communities act to restore their health and dignity, thus manifesting the unity and peace that Jesus Christ offers to all those who have been excluded or rejected. He actually reminded us of this in the Gospel last Sunday:

“And he said, “Truly I tell you, no prophet is accepted in the prophet’s hometown. But the truth is, there were many widows in Israel in the time of Elijah, when the heaven was shut up three years and six months, and there was a severe famine over all the land; yet Elijah was sent to none of them except to a widow at Zarephath in Sidon. There were also many lepers[d] in Israel in the time of the prophet Elisha, and none of them was cleansed except Naaman the Syrian.” (Luke 4:24-27)

Visit at Sant’ Egidio. Speaker: Claudio Betti.

Prayer and service to the poor work out the peace of the Kingdom: this is the gift of Sant’Egidio. The unity to which we are called in our life as Christians is patiently built when we gather the rejected stones. Claudio, who introduced us to the association, insisted on the fact that programs, theories and committees are of little value if you don’t take the time and have the —truly divine—patience to forge real and incarnate bonds of friendship. Embracing our incarnation is the only way we can join Jesus Christ in working for the healing and reconciliation of our world. Reestablishing the Kingdom of God happens with a patience analogous to geological patience. And that’s why every gesture, every drop of water, every breeze of wind, counts.

Last week, in order to make my room a bit more « alive », I got myself a hyacinth at the store. Its patient growth reminds me daily how the Kingdom is coming.

Website of the Sant’ Egidio community:

https://www.santegidio.org