This week there will be Mass on Wednesday at 7pm, Thursday 10am and Friday at 10am. Saturday at 9am Fr. Alasdair will lead a service of Holy Communion from the reserved Sacrament as I shall be away on the under 9 rugby tour to the Isle of the Wight. What fun!
Today is Holy Saturday. This morning the children are invited to gather in the Hine Room, at 10am, for the Easter workshop. They will create this year’s Easter Garden, decorate cookies and produce some craft items. The older members of the congregation will be in church, cleaning and decorating, preparing flowers and generally getting the church ready for the celebration of the Lord’s resurrection. The priests will be in the confessional, from 9am until noon, for the usual steady stream of penitents.
This evening, at 8pm, we hold the Easter Vigil. The jewel in the crown of the liturgical year and the third and final act of the Sacred Triduum. We listen to scriptural accounts of how God made himself present to mankind from creation to the resurrection. We proclaim with fire, water and song that Christ has risen. Great rejoicing accompanies this night. The Paschal Vigil comprises four main parts:
The Service of Light
The liturgy begins outside church. The Paschal candle is prepared and lit from a fire- representing Christ the light of the world rising from the darkness. It is then processed into church and candles, held by the faithful, are gradually lit as a sign of the good news of the resurrection flowing from Christ to his people. Once in church the candle is incensed and the priest sings the ‘Exultet’ – an ancient song proclaiming the resurrection.
In candlelight seven readings, interspersed with psalms and collects, recall the great interventions of God in history, from creation to the redemption of Israel from Egypt. After this recollection, that reminds us that God planned for our salvation from the dawn of time, the church is lit, bells ring out and we sing the Gloria with exultation!
The baptismal rite
Baptism is a resurrection rite and throughout the year every newly baptised person receives a candle lit from the Paschal candle. Even if there are no Easter baptisms, the waters of the font are blessed and the faithful renew their baptismal promises and are sprinkled with water from the font, the fountain of life, in recognition that the eternal promise of baptism, that we will live forever with Christ, was enabled by his resurrection.
The Liturgy of the Sacrament
The natural and proper climax of the whole Easter liturgy is the Mass in which we are sacramentally united with our risen Lord. All Catholics should be present at Mass on Easter day which, alongside Christmas, is the most significant date in the Christian year. The feast has now begun!
Yesterday evening we gathered for the Mass of the Last Supper. It was a poignant and moving service, as ever, and I was grateful to the additional singers who bolstered our choir. Their singing of the lamentations was the perfect accompaniment to the stripping of the sanctuary. I was also delighted to see such a positive response from the congregation. With over 130 in attendance it was standing room only by the time the Mass began. With the Muandy Thursday liturgies over we must now take our place at the foot of the cross..
Good Friday has always been set apart, within the Christian world, as a day of fasting and abstinence. For those fasting the rule is one modest main meal and two other small meals that, together, must not amount to more than the main meal. We must also avoid meat and stick to basic items.
In church our attention is now directed solely on the suffering Christ. At 10am we have stations for children. At 11:15am we join other churches in Pembury for a short ecumenical witness on the green. At 1:30pm it is Stations of the Cross for adults and at 3pm it is the important service at which all should strive to be present- the Liturgy of Good Friday. The Celebration of the Lord’s Passion comprises three main parts:
The Liturgy of the Word
It is an ancient tradition of the Church that the entire account of Christ’s passion is intoned during the Good Friday liturgy. As we hear again how Jesus suffered and died for the sins of the world we recognise our own failings and pray for grace to overcome them. After the homily special intercessions are offered which consist of a series of biddings unique to this day. These are ancient in origin.
The Veneration of the Cross
A crucifix is brought forward in solemn procession and unveiled for us to venerate. Within the liturgy, as Christ works out the redemption of the world, aspects of our liturgical life are being handed back to us. Thrice the priest proclaims “this is the wood of the cross on which hung the Saviour of the world”The congregation come forward to venerate the cross with a kiss. An act of personal devotion in thanksgiving for the sacrifice of Christ.
The Liturgy of the Sacrament
Because Christ is dead, there can be no Mass this day. Instead the Holy Sacrament, reserved at last night’s celebration, is carried in procession from the altar of repose to be distributed to the faithful. After this it is removed altogether and hidden, for use in emergency only. Christ has died.
So it begins. The Triduum is the name given to three sacred and venerable liturgies that take place on Maundy Thursday, Good Friday and Holy Saturday. Together these services enable Catholics to partake in the events of Christ’s Passion. All Christians should make worship of God their first priority from today until Sunday. For this is the great feast of our Salvation. To simply roll up on Easter day is to arrive too late – for you will have been absent as the drama unfolds on the greatest event in human history.
So make sure that you are present at the Mass of the Lord’s Supper at 8pm tonight, at the Good Friday liturgy at 3pm tomorrow and on Saturday evening at 8pm for the Paschal Vigil when the resurrection is announced.
First up then is Maundy Thursday when we will commemorate the institution of the Last Supper and remember Our Lord’s command – that we should serve one another as demonstrated by the washing of feet. The liturgy begins in a spirit of great joy, as we rejoice at the institution of the Mass, but the mood shifts dramatically at the end of Mass as a darkness falls over the church and it is stripped bare, we are now visibly losing Our Lord. The long vigil of silence begins – a recollection of Jesus’ agony in the garden.
The Mass of the Last Supper has four distinct liturgical acts:
The Reception of Holy Oils
The sacred oils, regularly used in parish life for the celebration of the Sacraments, are blessed afresh each year, by a bishop, at the Chrism Mass where priests also renew their vows. The oils are formally presented within the parish this evening, by representatives of the congregation, before being housed in an ambry situated in our Lady Chapel.
The Washing of Feet
The priest re-enacts the ceremony of the washing of feet, known as the ‘Maundy’. It is a visible sign of humble service to which all Christians are called, especially those in holy orders.
The Institution of the Holy Mass
Holy Mass is celebrated daily by Catholics. It is our central act of worship, the source and summit of ecclesial life, and instituted by Christ himself at the Last Supper. Jesus broke bread for the first time during the Jewish feast of Passover proclaiming himself to be the true ‘lamb of God’ who takes away the sin of the world.
The Procession of the Blessed Sacrament & Watch
After Mass the Sacrament is processed to an altar of repose, which is situated in our Sacred Heart Chapel. The altar is adorned with flowers to represent the garden of Gethsemane. Here it will remain and a watch will be kept until Midnight. People remain in church for private devotion. We keep watch with Our Lord as we prepare ourselves spiritually for the coming horrors we must recollect on Good Friday.
Holy Week has started well in Pembury. On Palm Sunday we gathered on the village green for our Palm Sunday procession, which was held before the 9:15am Mass . At 8am and 11am we opted for the more simple blessing of palms. Attendance at the three services was most encouraging. We had over 150 present over the course of the morning- which for a small village church where the attendance averaged around 75-80 five years ago, and against a backdrop of religious decline, is something to thank God for.
On Monday evening we held Mass at 7pm. After this a few of us watched Mel Gibson’s ‘the Passion’. I had forgotten just how hard hitting and good a film it is. The perfect reminder of what it is we are celebrating this week. Mass was offered yesterday evening and tonight we hold the service of Tenebrae- the ancient office that commemorates Christ’s sacrifice and helps us meditate on the Old Testament passages that foretold it.
It was heartbreaking to see Notre Dame, amongst Western Catholicism’s most iconic Cathedrals, gutted by flame on our television screens yesterday evening. It made me weep. This catastrophe represents a genuine loss of the world’s cultural and historic heritage. For authentic Christians it is even worse. It represents the loss of our religious heritage too. How awful to think of this magnificent window, for example, which survived for over 800 years, exploding under the intense and indiscriminate heat of the flames. UPDATE: Praise God- this window survived. Though others did not.
Some people took me to task on social media for stating that this fire seemed a portentous omen. A terrible sign of our times. A wake up call to a Western world that has all but abandoned Christ and the faith; to a brave new world that no longer subscribes to the culture and civilisation that inspired this architectural gem. I stand by my words in spite of such criticism. The image of this magnificent Cathedral, gutted of her interior beauty, and now standing as an empty shell of her former self, still strikes me as deeply symbolic of what has happened to Christianity, within the church and without, in recent decades.
I was also criticised for stating that, whilst we cannot know the cause of the fire at this stage, it is nevertheless not an isolated incident. Because the damage to the Christian heritage of France has been widespread and devastating since the turn of the year. The mainstream media have not felt inclined to report on it much but several churches have been burned and desecrated across France by those hostile to the faith.
In March St. Suplice in Paris was damaged by fire due to arson. In February the main crucifix in Notre Dame des Enfants in Nimes was smeared in human excrement and the tabernacle forced open that the sacrament might be thrown into a stinking rubbish heap. That same month St. Alain in Lavaur was damaged by arson along with around 20 other churches across France. Elswhere statues were smashed and tabernacles damaged that the blessed Sacrament might be desecrated. Every one of this lamentable cases of vandalism has struck at the very heart of Catholicism in France.
Against this backdrop it seems fair to wonder if this latest fire might be another assault? I hope not. There is every chance it was an accident. The truth may emerge if not covered up. But what cannot be denied, as we reflect on yet another house of worship damaged in France, is that the increasing hostility and scorn being shown to Christians at present is real. Meaning we are at risk of losing more than some historic buildings, the entire culture and heritage of the West is at stake via a systematic destruction of the Judea-Christian philosophy that inspired her. The culture war is real and the loss of Notre Dame is another blow to the Christian cause.
Please God this fire will give the enemies of the church pause for reflection. Please God people will begin to better value our religious and cultural heritage and recognise the value and contribution to civilised society by the church. Please God it brings about a change of tone against the very lopsided and unfair impression given of late that Catholics are always the bad guys. The truth is that there is so much apathy towards Christian suffering at present and also much hatred and hostility. How can we inspire a more authentic inclusivity in society that manages to care for and respect the Christian too?
Disaster often brings forth unexpected positivity. And it is good news that President Macron has promised reconstruction of Notre Dame will occur and that a French billionaire has already pledged 100 million Euros to the cause. My only fear is that this work will not prove sympathetic to the original vision, a fear fulled by the fact that Macron stated the refurbishment will represent ‘modern values’- which, if these reflect the secular realm and its current agenda, strikes me as odd and unfitting within an historic Christian structure. Time will tell. Will we see something modernist and brutalist emerge? Or a sympathetic rebuilding in the style and vision of what went before and gave us this stunning Cathedral to being with? And I am not only speaking about buildings.
This morning I headed off to the Church of Our Lady of the Assumption & St. Gregory in London for the Ordinariate Chrism Mass. A Chrism Mass is an annual service, led by a bishop in the presence of his priests, at which the priests renew/reaffirm their Ordination promises and during which the sacred oils, used throughout the year, are blessed.
Usually the Chrism Mass takes place in Holy Week. But this has proved problematic within the Ordinariate because our clergy are not confined to just one geographical diocese but are spread across the whole country. It was therefore sensible to move it to the week before Holy Week to ensure clergy who need to spend a whole day travelling can make it.
A quirk of the Ordinariate is that it is directly answerable to Rome. Our chain of command goes from the Ordinary directly to the Congregation for the Doctrine of Faith, whose priests we are. So it was fitting that the celebrant at Mass was Archbishop Edward Adams, the Papal Nuncio to Great Britain. The preacher was Monsignor Newton who delivered a fine sermon touching on Newman’s beatification later this year and focusing on a priest’s obligation to be holy. There was a stark warning given of the terrible damage caused to the church when priests fail in this task.
St. Anselm’s was well represented. Not only did we have a handful of our congregation in attendance at the Mass, including our sacristan, but we also provided two servers for the Mass and two deacons. Both priests were present too. Not bad for a little village church!
I liked the change of timing this year. It meant I was able to fully focus on the Chrism Mass without feeling overly strung out and stressed, as can be the case when the service falls during the gruelling schedule of holy week itself. We are nearly at the end of our Lenten journey then. Palm Sunday falls this coming weekend. Locals if you want the full ceremonials of Palm Sunday then come to the principle Mass at 9:15am – at the 8am and 11am Mass we shall have a more simple blessing of palms.
Yesterday a long standing family commitment meant I was absent for the 9:15am and 11am Mass. I did however celebrate the 8am Mass and preached this sermon on the need for balance between justice and mercy. The Gospel reading centred on the woman caught in adultery (John 8: 1-11)
A woman is caught in adultery but two people are on trial. Obviously the woman, but also Jesus. Because the Pharisees want to trap him. If Jesus declines to condemn her he is publicly shown to have disobeyed Jewish law. But if he condemns her, and this is why the Pharisees had not I suspect, he would fall foul of Roman law; which didn’t allow the Jews to stone people willy-nilly. Jesus would commit a civil crime. So which is it to be?
Jesus disarms the trap, “Let one without sin cast the stone.” He turns attention from sins of others to sins of self, perhaps he was writing their sins in the dust, and his accusers drifted away in shame. Then he turns to the woman -a victim in their squalid little game. “Has no one condemned you?” “Neither do I. Go and sin no more.” His compassion here is overwhelming. Jesus provides for her a fresh start with God. It is a foretaste of the grace offered to believers in the sacrament of confession. But note this does not mean he ignores or downplays the sin which was real.
We learn two things then. God is ever merciful but sin is a serious matter. Mercy and justice embrace in the Christian life. We must learn to hate the sin but love the sinner. A balance which has ever been the Christian way.
Sadly that balance has often been lost in our day. Within the Church you tend to find the church split between two camps. The danger for the rigid and narrow is to be lacking in mercy and judgemental. The danger for the broad and easy is to be permissive and lacking in judgement. Like a drunken donkey too often the church lurches too far either way and struggles to find the balance that is necessary.
Our society also struggles in this regard being simultaneously too permissive yet, ironically, also far too damning and unforgiving. Permissive due to an anything goes mentality that denies God and the concept of sin. Yet cruel and unforgiving as seen in the loss of charity- the dwindling opportunities offered to prisoners, the judgemental attitude of the politically correct. Our culture is also confused and lurching between being Pharisaic on the one hand –hurling rocks of disapproval at those deemed incorrect. Yet also being very Roman on the other – happily embracing even deviant lifestyles as somehow normative or healthy.
Neither approach is Catholic. We cannot be hard hearted and overly judgmental because this denies Christ’s compassion. Nor can we ignore the reality of sin for this confuses our understanding of what God has shown us to be right and wrong. Our Christian duty then is to be black and white about what constitutes right and wrong yet gentle and more subtle with those who fall. It is, if you think about it, the polar reverse of the societal attitude! The world condemns individuals but is permissive on sin- because it cares more for ideals than people. Whilst the faith condemns sin but is merciful towards individuals, because it cares more about people than ideals.
As we embrace the introspection of Lent it is time to scrutinise our own attitude to sin and sinners? Are we too hard on those who disappoint? Or overly judgmental due to a superior attitude driven by egoism? Do we fail to be compassionate, tender and gentle with those who have sinned? Are we concerned for them and leading them, in love not judgement, to Christ?
Or is our problem that we are too soft? Downplaying sin in our own life and in those we claim to love? Not daring to criticise the thinking of the friend considering divorce, saying nothing when children or their friends stay in our home sharing beds though unmarried? Hating sin and loving the sinner means you speak out when people are in danger. Never forget that evil triumphs when good people are silent.
We being to see that living our life- hating the sin but genuinely loving the sinner is a tricky business. We easily get it wrong one way or the other. I don’t think we master it until we are genuinely holy, until the zeal, truth and power of the Spirit resides in us. We need God’s grace to discover this harmony and loving balance in life.
Which brings us back to Lent. Don’t worry today about a dead woman and her adultery. Think instead of the only life that you can bring to. Your life. Which are the sins in your heart that choke out the Holy Spirit because you are too permissive of them? When are you bringing them to the confessional that you may go and sin no more? And having confessed will you accept God’s forgivness, giving up the self loathing and shame that the words of Jesus may resound within you- neither do I condemn you!
Don’t be too hard or too soft on yourself this Lent. Be honest instead about your need for Jesus, about your need for his grace to help you achieve a balance between justice and mercy in life.
Dostoevsky, having foreseen the bleakness of existence within an authoritarian atheistic secular state, wrote that ‘without God man can neither flourish nor be free’. He knew that religion benefits society by holding the State to account, via recognition of an authority higher than itself which enshrines divine laws and brings unquestioned dignity to man. Secondly by providing a shared vision around which people can unite regardless of personal belief.
England once shared Dostoevsky’s wisdom and viewed itself, with pride, as a Christian nation under God. Christian faith was foundational to National identity it was not partisan nor incidental. Obviously this did not lead to a utopia because human beings are ever fallen and prone to error. But it did enable our nation to flourish by promoting a culture steeped in Christian virtue. Our legal system, once the envy of the world, was based on Christian morality and philosophy. Our universities, schools and hospitals were founded on Christian principles and named after Saints of old. And the buildings of Parliament were deliberately awash with sacred imagery to remind politicians of our Christian constitution and their Christian duty ‘to serve not to be served’.
Sadly, in the post war era, our nation began to take faith, and its contribution to society, for granted. An ambivalence that later turned to derision. This attack on faith came not only from outside but within. Fuelled by the zeitgeist modernist theologians also rose to power inspired by secular values. Majestic rites were replaced by banal, uninspiring services. In most parishes people gathered for the celebration of the community, clapping little Jonny for reading nicely, as opposed to offering sincere reverent worship of Almighty God on their knees. Respect for faith fell further, partly due to this insipid, infantile church of the modern era and partly due to the growing disdain of the elites.
Today unadulterated Christianity is no longer tolerated. It can lead to loss of jobs and fines. Instead a secular ideology has been handed to the nation in place of Christian faith. It is used as a stick with which to beat us. Thus, in the media, every negative aspect of church life gets emphasised, but the good is ignored. Trendy homosexuals are paraded only as paragons of virtue (some are and some aren’t) nuns only as sadistic tyrants and priests only as perverts and losers. True the Church has grot to deal with – true the hierarchy are not dealing with it well. But the simple fact that the vast majority of clergy and religious are decent people who serve communities in love is ignored. That the Church feeds more people, clothes more people, medicates more people and shelters more people each day than any other organisation on earth is downplayed. The faith is undermined and treated quite unfairly. Secular values are given priority.
Many people have turned from Christian faith sensing it is no longer in vogue. They trusted the great Oz instead (that is the elites, the media, government and institutions) and believed we could somehow jettison our faith whilst retaining the fruits of the faith; strong families, united communities, liberality, freedom of speech, tolerance, charity, care for the poor, et al. But half a century on and the fraud is being exposed everywhere we look.
The modernist church is haemorrhaging members / vocations and is found at the heart of corruption. Meanwhile traditional churches where fidelity to faith is encouraged show signs of growth. The curtain has also fallen in the secular realm where Oz is exposed as hapless, weak and pathetic. Just witness parliament in the face of Brexit negotiations! How the politicians would benefit from old fashioned Christian virtues like tolerance and charity. How sad to see them unable to compromise and move forward.
How sad also to see those who loves the language of inclusion exclude ever more people as they turn the screws on the needy. Wages drop, food banks increase, prisoners are not forgiven and disabled people lose help as attitudes to the needy harden all around us. The State gets ever bigger and the people ever less important. People who are increasingly afraid to speak out for fear of offending Big Brother.
A self proclaimed multi-cultural society, in which atheistic secularism actually dominates the public square, is dividing our nation. And the identity politics pushed on us are proving a very shoddy substitute to authentic religion. For where Christianity encouraged us to turn the other cheek and love thy neighbour as thyself, leftist identity politics is only making self identifying victims of every self and aggressor of every other.
The result is toxic: an intolerant, belligerent, snowflake culture. Witness how once great universities are now too scared to even to engage with thinkers who challenge them. Jordan Peterson the latest to be banned from debate supposedly because his views are unwelcome but more truthfully because those who promote the modern nonsense lack the intellectual credibility to engage with him and so wish to impose ‘my way or the highway’ by force and fear.
Post- Christian Oz promised us a brave new inclusive world free from God but abounding in virtue. What it has delivered is an erosion of freedom, increasing division and steep decline in morals and virtue. I suspect Dostoevsky would stroke his beard and nod. He was right all along. Without God man cannot flourish or be free. Until we return to a faith that will unite and sustain us the chaos and division seen in the Brexit debate is the future.