Sunday, July 15, 2018

Sermon on Saint John the Baptist.

Today I had the privilege to lead a service of worship and to preach in Rome's English-speaking Methodist church of Ponte Sant'Angelo, Pastor Tim Macquiban kindly welcomed me and allowed me to experience what it is to lead God's people in God's praises. This was my first time leading any Sunday service and I am indeed touched to have done so in a church whose tradition finds its roots in Anglicanism, through John and Charles Wesley, a movement whose aim was to bring God to the four corners of the world, by speaking of God's infinite grace and love but also through a splendid musical tradition, and indeed we sang some favourite hymns with joy and enthusiasm. I will always treasure this special occasion. Here is a transcript of that sermon I preached:


Whether you are a visitor, a long time resident of this city of Rome or a Roman; you surely have noticed the beauty that this city has to offer, in its churches, frescoes, paintings, galleries, palazzos, gardens, bridges, even the food, anywhere! But sometimes, the most exciting, beautiful places hide some dark secrets. Surely not a surprise for a 2,700 years old city. Sometimes what seems ordinary can hide gruesome details! If you take a stroll not too far away from here and head towards the Spanish Steps area, you may end up in the not so exciting piazza of San Silvestro, named after a church that still stands there, if you keep walking heading north, on the Via del Gambero, you may notice a tiny door along the church’s wall; the small door leads to a little chapel guarded by a charming Gothic-revival screen that hides what looks like a reliquary, the rather large object houses a mummified skull, that supposedly belongs to Saint John the Baptist. Surely, there are various skulls of Saint John, throughout the world, but the thought and faith is what counts, now the need of showing it openly, is something that we can talk about instead! But every time I pass by that alley, I reflect on a simple thought that comes to mind; are people walking outside, children eating gelato, adults holding hands, tourists doing some shopping, are they aware of this little, dark secret? Are they aware of how hard it is to be a Christian? To Fight the Good Fight?


Today’s readings were, to say the least, quite unusual, sometimes the Word of God, isn’t easy to digest, isn’t it? First, Paul tells us of God’s infinite grace, shown in his son Jesus Christ, as tricky as this passage may seem, and surely throughout the centuries there have been extreme interpretations of these words, what really is the meaning is that God predestined all of mankind to be saved and the incarnation of his Son Jesus Christ, who redeemed us all in his sacrifice of blood and love, is its very sign. In love, he predestined us for adoption through Jesus Christ, in accordance with his pleasure and will - to the praise of his glorious grace which he has freely given us in the One he loves. In him we have redemption through his blood, the forgiveness of sins, in accordance with the riches of God’s grace. 


God who first revealed himself to the people he freed from Egypt, finally in his revelation to the world he made himself incarnate in order not to save someone, but to save all of humankind - in order to extend his salvific mission to everyone of us, denying that, would be denying the sacrifice of many. As Christians, Paul also gave us the key in order to make our communion with God stronger, in Ephesians he continues: and you were also included in Christ when you heard the message of truth, the Gospel of your salvation. When you believed you were marked in him with a seal, the promised Holy Spirit. It is by Christ we have been saved, with the grace of God, bestowed by the Holy Spirit, this holy and blessed Three, glorious Trinity, Wisdom, Love, Might; boundless as ocean’s tide, rolling in fullest pride, through the earth far and wide, let there be light. It is this Trinity, this mysterious communion of love that is God, one in three and three in one, that can save us, that can give us light. And we just have to understand and be thankful for such an act of love that transcends ages, time, space, the very limits of our universe and understanding of what surrounds us. 


If God, entrusted us with such a responsibility, if God believed we as creatures made in his own image, were to be worthy of the time to be considered for salvation we must take our faith and make it grow, we have to cultivate our daily thanksgiving to this boundless love, we must Fight the Good Fight. I have to say, I am partly thankful, that I managed to be here, when one of the most difficult Gospel readings from the Church’s year were to be read: the death of John the Baptist. Here in Rome and in Italy in general, as an art historian to be, I have always been fascinated by the spectacular Renaissance art works, that portrayed the Baptist as a little child playing with baby Jesus or as an adult baptising Jesus, even in England, the beautiful and yet simple Baptism of Christ by Piero della Francesca, in London’s National Gallery, truly holds a strong message, the message that this saintly man was chosen by Christ to baptise him, so that he could baptise everyone and open the kingdom of God to all believers, so that, that grace given to us by God could really make its way among us. It is no surprise that our Muslim sisters and brothers in the faith regard the Baptist as an important prophet that announced the coming of Christ, there is even an ancient Middle Eastern tradition within Judaism that sees the Baptist as a reincarnation of the prophet Elijah, as our Gospel today also states. 


As for the little relic in the tiny chapel near the Spanish Steps, hidden from the bustling life of this city, the Renaissance depictions of an adorable Baptist as a baby or as a humble preacher in the Baptism scenes, hide the fact that this holy man was slaughtered for having stood up to tyrants in order to follow his faith and God’s grace. If there is an example out there of how strong faith can be, that is it, the example of the first Christian! He taught us how to Fight the Good Fight.


Sometimes, everyone of us feels too let down by God, I am the first, there are moments when there isn’t even anything serious going on and you’re just tired to pray, but not enough to watch some tv series or to eat a snack. Yet, the first Christian wasn’t afraid of standing up for God when he had to, does that mean we all have to be slaughtered? No! But I think it is important to be a living testimony of God’s love as Christians, to hold strong to his faith and to be good examples of human beings. People throughout the world still die for their faith or for human greed, even in more brutal ways than the Baptist, for the sole fanaticism or enjoyment of others, to Fight the Good Fight means to take conscience of this, to fight this and to try and make an impact on the world, in Jesus’ name! Faith is what saves us all, believing and God’s grace is what saves us, but what makes us whole is making this world a better place. We must Fight the Good Fight.


Today we read of how as for Jesus, Herod was too afraid of killing John the Baptist, he was too afraid of laying a hand on someone who was carrying a testimony of faith that clearly made an impact on the monarch. And yet, in order to follow his earthly promise, a promise requested by greed and jealousy, Herod agreed to the request: the head of John the Baptist, and so that was it. Do I feel as I should judge Herod for his decision? I am not sure. This decision is only up to God, but to be honest I do not feel like it. What if the little child eating gelato would find the gruesome head in San Silvestro? What if Herod had the courage to stand up to his pride, not make the mistake of agreeing to that promise, not offer to make any promise as a ruler with certain duties and responsibilities? What if we could stand up to the injustice we witness day by day? What if we could put our own interests aside and aim for the common good? What if we would Fight the Good Fight?



It is not our duty to judge, for example the first Christian man, the Baptist, couldn't even sweeten Herod up; people make mistakes, though not as great as his perhaps, but at the very least, we should stop asking and asking, we should stop and think that perhaps it’s time to give, it’s time to be thankful, it’s time to forgive and not ask for anyone’s head on a platter. Why did the Baptist die? For his faith. For a common belief in Jesus Christ who died to save us all. We have incredible hardships to go through in our lives, we are all saints, and it is because of Christ’s incredible act of love that we know any hardship can be overcome. We have to have the courage to find what’s hidden, it may be much better than a mummified human skull. Let us be thankful in the Baptist’s sacrifice and testimony of faith, let us go out into the world with new eyes. The Baptist showed us that being a Christian is not easy, let us remember whenever we are feeling a bit under the weather, being us is not easy, but Jesus is always by our side and in our hearts. We simply have to Fight the Good Fight!

Fight the good fight with all thy might;
Christ is thy Strength, and Christ thy Right;
Lay hold on life, and it shall be
Thy joy and crown eternally.

Wednesday, July 11, 2018

The Tiber Island, a fascinating history.

Recently, I took a water bus on the Thames in London between Blackfriars and Westminster; I admired the grandeur of a great city that was made such also thanks to its important waterway. The Thames is a fluvial artery that saw Romans cargo ships, Tudor galleons as well as clipper ships that made the British Empire great. Today, along its banks rise both the shadows of London's past glories as well as the skyscrapers of the City, one of the two most important financial centres in the world. The greatest cities in the world were founded on rivers: London, Paris, Florence, Prague, Vienna, New York and Rome. It is probably the latter that made a long lasting impact on the use of rivers from the age of the empire to our day, connecting the Eternal City to the known world. If we should then seek the original "holy" river, which one would it be? It would be the Tiber, sacred to the Romans, it became a new Jordan when Rome superseded Jerusalem as the Rome of the Popes (at least theoretically) and surely, while today, it would need a thorough clean up, it still shows traces of its former glories.


One of the most fascinating bits of the river is perhaps the Tiber Island, located in the southmost area of the historical centre, between the Jewish quarter and the Trastevere quarter, since Roman times it has been for over 2,000 years a place of healing. It is still connected to the mainland through two surviving bridges from antiquity: the Pons Cestius, leading to the Trastevere and the Pons Fabricius leading to the Jewish quarter, both dating to the 1st century BC. The Pons Fabricius, is also known as Bridge of the Four Heads, because of the ancient two-headed sculptures at each corner and it remains intact since antiquity.
According to legend, the island was formed in 510 BC, when the Romans threw into the water the body of the evil tyrant, Tarquinius Superbus, his body settled to the bottom of the river where dirt and slit accumulated around it, eventually forming the island - another less macabre version reports that the Romans threw Tarquinius' wheat and grain into the river and eventually the island was formed.
The island was considered a dodgy place during the early Roman Republic, up until the 3rd century BC.


It was then that it became a vast and magnificent sanctuary dedicated to Aesculapius, the Greek god of medicine and healing. According to various accounts, in 293 BC a massive plague took hold of Rome, the Roman Senate consulted the Sibyl and was instructed to build a temple in honour of the god; a delegation even went to Epidauros in Greece to obtain a statue of the deity. It was customary to bring a snake onboard ships at the time, and interestingly that one curled itself around the mast and that was taken a good sign. To this day the image of snakes curling around a mast are a symbol of medicine. And so the island was deemed a good place given the godly sign. 
Eventually, the island became associated with the temple which was modelled to resemble a ship sailing the river, Travertine prow and stern were added, as well as an obelisk erected in the middle, acting as a mast. Part of the prow still survives and there is still a surviving relief of Aesculapius' rod with an entwining snake. In the 19th century the obelisk was removed to make way for a neo-Renaissance obelisk with the four patron saints of the island: Paulinus of Nola, Francis, John and Bartholomew. Parts of the obelisk are now in museums in Naples and Munich.


In 998, Emperor Otto III, had a basilica dedicated to the martyr Saint Bartholomew built on the island. A nice anecdote links the island as a place of healing to London: in 1123, Augustinian canon Paul Rahere travelled to Rome on a pilgrimage but fell ill, he was hospitalised at Saint Bartholomew on the Tiber Island and when he came back to London he vowed to build a church as a sign of thankfulness: that became the church of Saint Bartholomew the Great, also a place of healing as a hospital that bears its name was also founded adjacent to the church. Meanwhile, the island remained a place of medicine and healing; during the Renaissance many hospitals were being restored, enlarged and founded by the Church, in 1554 the hospital on the island was enlarged and it became known as the Fatebenefratelli. In 1943, during the Nazi occupation of Rome, when the Jews were being rounded up, Dr. Borromeo, the then head of the hospital invented a "deadly" and highly contagious illness known as the "Syndrome K", as the SS were highly scared of contagion, the hospital managed to save dozens of Jews, just a stone's throw from the Jewish quarter! 
After over two thousand years the island still manages to impress and to be a place of healing, and through the river it is on, it connects it with its sister foundation in London! What marvels these rivers can do.

Saturday, July 7, 2018

How the Medici became the most powerful family of Florence; because of the English!

During the late Middle Ages and the Renaissance, trade was a very important mean through which knowledge, art, goods of all kinds could travel throughout Europe, nations were much more connected than we could believe and often the great nation states exchanged raw materials for precious goods or loans, for example eastern England during the 14th and 15th centuries had a strong link with Florence through the Flanders, especially Bruges, the wool that made England rich was exchanged for eastern spices from Venice, stunning artworks and often... loans. It always amuses me to hear conspiracy theories about the Jews and especially the Rotschilds, when the great banking families that fuelled art, literature and especially war throughout Europe were... Tuscan and Venetian! Talking about which, there is an amusing historical anecdote from the 14th century about just this.
By 1310, Florence was a vibrating and rich city, filled with beautiful art, bustling with merchants and the most educated men of the time, it was also much larger than London; but Florence could have never been so grand, had it not been for what it was: a city of bankers, built by bankers, it's them that built the churches, commissioned the sculptures, frescoes and churches to Michelangelo, Botticelli, Raphael and Leonardo. Renaissance Florence was the Gilded Age New York of a hundred years ago.


By 1310, the most powerful banking families of Florence were the Bardi, the Peruzzi and the Acciaiuoli. They had branches at locations stretching from England to the Flanders and even North Africa and the Middle East, all key areas for Italian trade. Each family owned each operating capital, sometimes together with few close partners, but money was also received from outside deposits. Foreign branches were operated by Florentines sent abroad. These firms traded in agricultural commodities, industrial products, but more especially refined woollen textiles imported from England. They drew most of their profit from the fees levied on exchange of currency. Florentine bankers were the most trusted, because moving money abroad was risky, of course it was less so if you had a presence everywhere, therefore they also had more information than those they were dealing with.
Another significant portion of their profit came from extending credit, a risky activity in the 1340s, as these families discovered soon.
Both the Peruzzi and the Bardi made the mistake of lending vast sums to King Edward III of England during the 1330s as the Hundred Years' War was approaching. Sadly, the bankers soon realised that it is quite difficult to repay a lot of credit all at once, they just lent so much that they felt compelled to lend more, also because they needed royal licenses to export the precious wool. By 1343, it was clear the war would not have ended soon, the king repudiated his debts. The large amounts lost were of circa 600,000 gold florins owed to the Peruzzi and 900,000 to the Bardi, none of it ever repaid. This led to the 1345 economic crisis that eventually had a strong impact on all of Europe.


Of course, this was not the end of Florence, and eventually the Bardi and Peruzzi rose from their ashes and lived quite comfortable aristocratic lives: during the 15th century, smaller firms that survived the crash started to acquire more and more power, this was a new, greater era of Florentine banking, the names? Pazzi, Rucellai, Strozzi and the Medici. Florence and its economy were only bound to become greater, this led to such a flourishing time for the arts, culture, archeology, philosophy, sciences and even religion that became known as the Renaissance. Perhaps we can forgive that thief of a king then!

England's St. George's Flag: an Italian job.

What is the most recognised symbol of Englishness today? It is probably the simple and yet beautiful flag of Saint George, a red cross on a white shield, a theme used since the late Middle Ages in various flags throughout Europe, including Florence or the banner of the risen Christ in much Christian iconography between the 13th and 16th centuries. What is the story of the use of Saint George's Cross in England?


In 1188, according to various 13th century chroniclers, Henry II of England and Philip II of France agreed to go on a crusade to Jerusalem, it was agreed that the two kings would wear respectively a white and a red cross, later, according to a Victorian tradition Richard the Lionheart adopted both the flag and the patron saint of Genoa for his crusade. Also, in the late 13th century, during the reign of Edward I, red crosses seemed to have been already used to distinguish English soldiers - documents also prove that the king in 1277 made an extensive order of cloth for the production of several Saint George banners. By the 1300s the banner was eventually used as a royal standard.


Of course, Saint George had become a popular saint during the crusades as a warrior saint, as opposed to the national saint of England, Saint Edward the Confessor, known for his good heart. Edward III made Saint George even more popular by using his flag for the Order of the Garter in the 1300s. Finally, King Henry VII commissioned John Cabot to sail to Newfoundland under our flags, banners and ensigns. That was the first use of George's banner in the Royal Navy.


Before the Reformation, England's patron saint was Saint Edward the Confessor with Saint George's Day being considered a "double major feast" since 1415, but later, despite the king saint still being honoured, especially given his royal role, Saint George rose to a primary position when the cult of saints was altered, this also appears in the revised Book of Common Prayer of 1552. The use of Saint George's flag became widespread during the late Tudor era.


But what's the Italian connection? As remarked by the Duke of Kent in 1992: the St. George's flag, a red cross on a white field, was adopted by England and the City of London in 1190 for their ships entering the Mediterranean to benefit from the protection of the Genoese fleet. The English Monarch paid an annual tribute to the Doge of Genoa for this privilege.
At the time Genoa, was along with Venice the most powerful naval force in the world and using its flag and protection was a warranty of making a safe trip without being bothered by Saracen pirates or other enemies.


A few days ago, the mayor of Genoa, during a fundraising campaign for the Comune decided to ask for help directly to the Queen, 247 years of unpaid debts of the British Crown for not paying rent for their flag! His words: your Majesty, I regret to inform you that from my books it looks like you didn't pay for the last 247 years. Quite a clever marketing operation, though I believe that since Napoleon put an end to the Republic of Genoa, later occupied by the Savoy state of Italy, he has lost any right to claim those funds, but nonetheless, what a fascinating story!

Friday, July 6, 2018

Who is saved? Understanding salvation beyond Christianity.

Salvation, that is to say the redemption from sin and an eternal fellowship with God, is often a difficult topic to confront in the 21st century as Christians, we have heard it all, from the first Christians who were martyred in order to be saved, to the Medieval and Humanist Christians who persecuted others in order to save them, to Calvinistic Protestants who believed (and some still do) that God chose some and rejected others. 
Shortly after the Reformation, especially under the reign of Edward VI, Anglicanism departed from its roots and adopted a Calvinistic inspired concept of salvation based on the doctrine of predestination which lasted for the entire length of the Tudor dynasty: God selected only a certain few to to receive eternal salvation.


Thankfully, during the 17th century, Anglicanism began to readopt a more Christian idea of soteriology, especially thanks to the Caroline Divines, a group of high church theologians that lived during the reigns of Charles I and Charles II, after the Restoration - figures such as William Laud, Lancelot Andrewes and Thomas Ken, introduced an Arminian idea of salvation. Arminianism is the redemption, the freedom from sin through grace, unlike in Lutheranism, in which human nature is considered intrinsically sinful, or Calvinism in which human nature is in bondage to sin, despite in both cases human nature posses free will - in neither of them there is a conditional election, in Arminian theology one's faith makes salvation conditional, by choosing Jesus who made it possible through his death. Justification is by faith as in the previous too, but only because of Christ's sacrifice to redeem mankind, this is when Anglicanism readopts a more Orthodox concept of salvation and regains continuity with its millenary history as the English branch of the Church, founded by Saint Augustine in 597, a catholic idea of salvation akin to that of the early Christians and the Orthodox. Arminianism and this gentle, reformed and yet catholic, approach to salvation influenced various Christians, among them John and Charles Weasley, the founders of Methodism, and our Church to this very day. Most Anglicans, especially thanks to the Catholic Revival of the 19th century adopted an even more traditional idea of salvation based on the importance of receiving the sacraments of baptism and of the eucharist, and so do also good works play an important role, indeed they are also a sign of grace and faith. Salvation, or damnation, for Anglicans is not automatic, it is the fruit of our own faith.


However, what is my point in this article? Quite recently, I went to a Bible Study where a fellow Anglican, however enthusiastic was making points on how only Christians can be saved through Jesus, indeed the Bible says that, but I also believe that as Anglicans the three-legged stool of Scripture, Tradition and Reason here gives us a huge help in not coming across as fundamentalists and really it is all about the sense of continuity of this ancient English Church and its ancient but welcoming concept of salvation. Historically, Anglicans always had a positive concept of salvation and of human nature, even the harsh words of the Prayer Book are just really there to make sure we'll do well. So what when it comes to those who haven't accepted or received Jesus? How do we dare, for example, judge two of the Abrahamic religions that share so many of our beliefs? Judaism and Islam.
I think we can look with confidence at the Catechism of our fellow Roman Catholics which states the role of Jews and Moslems in the economy of the salvation of all men, I personally agree with them and I know they reflect almost any recent Anglican idea of salvation for all men.


Judaism:

The relationship of the Church with the Jewish People. When she delves into her own mystery, the Church, the People of God in the New Covenant, discovers her link with the Jewish People, the first to hear the Word of God. The Jewish faith, unlike other non-Christian religions, is already a response to God's revelation in the Old Covenant. To the Jews belong the sonship, the glory, the covenants, the giving of the law, the worship, and the promises; to them belong the patriarchs, and of their race, according to the flesh, is the Christ, for the gifts and the call of God are irrevocable.


Islam:

The Church regards with esteem also the Moslems. They adore the one God, living and subsisting in Himself; merciful and all-powerful, the Creator of heaven and earth, who has spoken to men; they take pains to submit wholeheartedly to even His inscrutable decrees, just as Abraham, with whom the faith of Islam takes pleasure in linking itself, submitted to God. Though they do not acknowledge Jesus as God, they revere Him as a prophet. They also honour Mary, His virgin Mother; at times they even call on her with devotion. In addition, they await the day of judgment when God will render their deserts to all those who have been raised up from the dead. Finally, they value the moral life and worship God especially through prayer, almsgiving and fasting.
The plan of salvation also includes those who acknowledge the Creator, in the first place amongst whom are the Muslims; these profess to hold the faith of Abraham, and together with us they adore the one, merciful God, mankind's judge on the last day.


I believe that sometimes we don't often look to other Abrahamic faiths as Christians and we do not realise how the roots are the same and salvation is but inevitable for the Jew and Muslim that leads a good life, like any Christian; God doesn't forget his promise of the Old Covenant, he doesn't forget the people he first revealed himself to, neither the people that gave birth to Mary, Joseph and Jesus - nor does he forget those who adore him and respect the Son and his Mother. God doesn't forget those who honour the Father, day by day. Didn't Christ die for the sins of all men? How about those who haven't even heard of our Abrahamic monotheistic God? 
All nations form but one community. This is so because all stem from the one stock which God created to people the entire earth, and also because all share a common destiny, namely God. His providence, evident goodness, and saving designs extend to all against the day when the elect are gathered together in the holy city...
The second of the 39 Anglican Articles of Religion reads: whereof is one Christ, very God, and very Man; who truly suffered, was crucified, dead, and buried, to reconcile his Father to us, and to be a sacrifice, not only for original guilt, but also for all actual sins of men. Surely a God of love would save rather than reject? This is what Christ came for. I do not mean to do wishy washy theology, I do believe in God and Satan, in salvation and damnation, of course the Son, our Lord Jesus Christ is an essential mean of salvation, and his very Incarnation and Passion are incredible signs of God's love for us, but in this article I wanted to explore the case of the non-Christian in the eyes of Christians, evangelisation in the 21st century does not have a Crusader attitude, we should let people of other faiths keep their beliefs, we should focus on the non-believer, and we should bring Christ's light into the world through faith and love, not fanaticism - I just also believe that God, a Lord of love, and a whole company of saints and angels  are constantly fighting for us to enjoy his eternal presence.
The first and chief article is this: Jesus Christ, our God and Lord, died for our sins and was raised again for our justification (Romans 3:24-25). He alone is the Lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world (John 1:29), and God has laid on Him the iniquity of us all (Isaiah 53:6). Heaven and earth will pass away, but my words will never pass away (Mark 13:31).

Wednesday, July 4, 2018

Holiness, history and wonder: a sermon by me.

I am sorry for not having been blogging recently, sadly my laptop died, but now it's risen again from the dead an here I am! A few weeks ago I had the privilege of preaching at my church here in Rome, All Saints', I received good feedback for my sermon and hence I would like to share it with you here, enjoy... or most possibly, not.

I still remember quite vividly the first time I set foot in the grand Roman basilica of Saint Mary Major. The great British art historian, Dr. Kenneth Clark, in his "Civilisation" series says:

I am back in Rome, standing on the steps of Saint Mary Major, the hellish Roman traffic swirls all around it, but inside are the original columns from the fifth century basilica and above the mosaics of Old Testament stories that are almost the earliest representation of the Bible that exists.

For me, the sense of awe that this building inspired was just as captivating: the spacious nave, the ancient mosaics gleaming in the darkness, the beauty of the grand 13th century apsidal mosaic by Jacopo Torriti representing the Coronation of Mary. The very idea that Christians prayed there for almost as long as Christianity as we know it existed. Blest are the pure in heart.

When I first visited the basilica I was with my high school Classics teacher, he died later that year, but I fondly remember his enthusiasm as he shared with me his knowledge. This certainly drove me to find out more.


Saint Mary Major is perhaps the dearest home of prayer to the people of Rome: the Constantinian basilica was founded in the fifth century, according to legend, a wealthy Roman couple received a vision of the Blessed Virgin Mary during the night, she asked the couple to have a great church built in her honour, she promised she would have pointed out where - the following day, the couple went to see the Pope who had the same vision. It was the middle of August and suddenly a snowfall occurred on the summit of the Esquiline Hill, there the great basilica was built, to this day, the basilica is known as the "Liberian Basilica" after the Pope, or as "Our Lady of Snows".
Interestingly, every August, special vespers are celebrated there, and during the singing of Magnificat, the Song of Mary, from the Gospel of Luke, white rose petals fall from the ceiling onto the altar.
Saint Mary Major also hosts the ancient icon of "Salus Populi Romani", the icon of the people of Rome, today the basilica is also one of four major papal basilicas in this city. It is no wonder that this church holds a strong spiritual significance for the faithful.


But who is the faithful? Who is a follower of Christ? Recently, Bishop Michael Curry, the head of the Anglican Church in America, the Episcopal Church, preached at the latest Royal Wedding... his preaching style caused a viral euphoria online, he also got interesting looks from members of the Royal Family!
I had the pleasure of meeting him and hear him preach here in Rome before, what struck me was his definition of Christians, of the faithful: the Jesus' Movement, he says:

We are following Jesus into a loving, liberating and life-giving relationship with God, with each other, and with the earth.

Well, this is none other than the Church. What is our duty as the body of this Church?
Today's Gospel is taken from the book of Saint Mark, Jesus is telling us that a world filled with sin cannot stand. How can Satan cast out Satan? If a kingdom is divided against itself, it cannot stand. But Christ himself gives us the key: people will be forgiven thanks to God's loving nature, finally manifested in the Son.
We are now in Trinity Season, we give thanks to God: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit by carrying on the mission of God's Church. 
One of the greatest poets and clergymen of the Church of England, George Herbert, a 17th century vicar who lived in troubled times, he was a Caroline Divine, loyal to the Stuart Crown, the Catholic and Apostolic nature of the Church of England as we know it, from the apostles through the bishops. He is known for his works based on his humble life as a country parson, for Trinity Sunday, he wrote a beautiful poem on forgiveness.

Lord who hast formed me out of mud, and hast redeemed me through thy blood and sanctified me to do good, purge all my sins done heretofore: for I confess my heavy score, and I will strive to sin no more. Enrich my heart, mouth, hands in me, with faith, with hope, with charity: that I may run, rise, rest with thee.


The Lord reassures us that he is ready to forgive all those who have sinned, from Adam and Eve, in Genesis, to you, you, and especially me. This our Jesus' movement, this our Church, as odd at times, as it may seem, is the very body that holds all of us sinners together, even those you do not like, even those that gossip, even those that you find annoying, God is Lord, our Lord, our Father, but he is also Lord of all, how can he who loves everyone equally please such a species as the human one, with such contrasting thoughts, desires, hopes! Sometimes a little displeasure for us could be a deserved reward for someone else. For the time being, this is what we got, the Church, the human family.

Today's Gospel continued: he replied, "who are my mother and my brothers?" And looking at those who sat around him he said: "here are my mother and my brother! Whoever does the will of God is my brother, my sister, and my mother".

Christ is ready to gather all of us into his family, into this boat whose heading is his salvific mission, as he did with his disciples and with his mother.
The stunning apsidal mosaic in Saint Mary Major, showing a regal Christ crowning his mother as highest among all the saints. The little maiden who was chosen to be God's living tabernacle, that highly exalted who also represents a more down to earth reality: those of us who will embrace Gd's love and will, here on earth, shall one day be there in the heavens, like Mary, the angels, and saints, with Christ by his side, for ever. Blest are the pure in heart.
Today, right before the Gospel, we sang a hymn by the great Victorian clergyman and poet, John Keble, one of the founders of the Oxford Movement, which we could define as the culmination of that mission started by the Caroline Divines, to preserve the Church of England as we know it, against fanatics and fundamentalists, at the time.
The beautiful words of the hymn remind us of today's Gospel and our duties as members of the body of Christ.

Blest are the pure in heart,
for they shall see our God;
the secret of the Lord is theirs,
their soul is Christ's abode.

Blessed indeed is he whoever follows the commandments of the Christ; love your neighbour as yourself - what if we could put our contrasting thoughts and wishes aside and aim for the common good? The hymn continues:

The Lord, who left the heavens
our life and peace to bring,
to dwell in lowliness with men,
their pattern and their King;

God's greatest gift to us was his very presence here among us in his Son Jesus Christ; incarnate, dead, risen and ascended - the lowly maiden, Mary of Nazareth, was chosen and exalted, blessed and magnified by God, in the words of the Gospel of Saint Luke,: this must be our aim, strive for the common good and accept the tasks that God in his infinite wisdom gives us, however hard they may be, for God's vision is greater than our individualistic personalities.

Still to the lowly soul
he doth himself impart,
and for his dwelling and his throne
chooseth the pure in heart.

At the end of this Trinity Season, next autumn, we will celebrate the feast of Christ the King, we will celebrate the ascended Lord enthroned in the heavens, not departed from this world but in order to be spiritually closer to each and everyone of us. Much like in the many early mosaics or Renaissance and Baroque frescoes to be found in any church in this Eternal City. It is from such clouds of majesty and honour that God chose Mary and it is from the heavens that our Lord will choose everyone of us: you, you, and you.

Lord, we thy presence seek;
may ours this blessing be;
give us a pure and lowly heart,
a temple meet for thee.

This city of Rome is filled with the testimonies of faith of thousands struggled souls of ages past. From the early catacombs, where early Christians wanted to be buried as close as possible to the saints and martyrs,, and where altars in honour of God were placed, to this very Victorian building, once the church of the local British aristocracy visiting the beauties of this city during the Grand Tour, much like Maggie Smith in "Tea with Mussolini", and whose real counterpart actually worshipped here, there's her memorial... a church that is now a diverse and vibrant community.
My mind goes back to those mosaics in Saint Mary Major, that Coronation of Mary: yes, that heavenly scene, it is really a reflection of our spiritual essence, no indeed we are not Mary, but we are just as lowly as she was, but also just as special in our God-given image.
Christ is always by our side, embracing us like a mother, a brother or a sister, now by our side here and finally for all eternity Ascending he made himself accessible to all.


Lord we thy presence seek, he also gave ut the tools to find him: he taught us how to pray, he gave us baptism, the key to his sacred heart, and finally, he gave us the Eucharist, that act of physical love through which we can physically reach to and receive him.
Give us a pure and lowly heart, a temple meet for thee: he even gave us a holy place to meet him, our hearts and his church, the Church, the people, and the church, the building.

Another gift from our beautiful Anglican tradition is the splendid prose of the Coverdale Psalter in the Book of Common Prayer, today's selected psalm from it, or at least my favourite portion of it, reads:

I will worship toward thy holy temple, and praise thy Name, because of thy loving kindness and truth: for thou hast magnified thy Name and thy word above all things.

In a few moments we will celebrate the Eucharist, we will receive the very body and blood of our Saviour, instituted by him before his Passion on the Cross and his mighty resurrection. Let us reflect on this sacrifice of love, let us aim at that common good, it is our mission. Through prayer and through this eucharistic medicine that God gave us, we cn certainly start to to make a change: love fights hatred, love fights jealousy, love fights injustice, love fights gossiping and malice... love is the strongest weapon ever invented and what is God? God is love and where true love is, God himself is there. Let us follow him in this mission, let us be his family: mothers, brothers, sisters, in the loving embrace of the Father: his Church.


If a kingdom is divided against each other, it cannot stand. But God's Kingdom is not divided. What if we could achieve just that? By following his teaching? What if we could reach that ethereal state? Very much like the atmosphere at Saint Mary Major, awe-inspiring and transcendental: the golden mosaic tiles glowing under the light of many candles while the feeble smoke of incense, as in the Temple of Jerusalem, opens a window into heaven... like Saint Mary in these mosaics, let Christ embrace you and by following him, let us take this atmosphere out of the Church and through his love, let us make the world much as a foretaste of heaven; Christ's family can do this, his mother, brothers, and sisters. You, you, and you.
Blessed are the pure in heart.

Monday, April 9, 2018

Children don't have to go to heaven. A short reflection on the Feast of the Annunciation.

Children don't have to go to heaven.

Today is the feast of the Annunciation, on this special day, Christians around the world celebrate the visit of the Archangel Gabriel to the Virgin Mary, when the angel foretold the coming of the Son of God, the Messiah, and the birth of Jesus Christ, the little maiden of Nazareth accepted this great responsability. Let it be unto me according to thy Word. For us Anglicans, the feast of the Annunciation is considered to be a principal feast, not only of the Virgin Mary, but also of the Lord and it also appears in the calendar of the Book of Common Prayer.

For Christians, with the Annunciation came the fulfillment of the ancient prophesy of the Hebrews, Hosea says when Israel was a child, then I loved him, and called my son out of Egypt. The messianic prophecy is made even more clear in Isaiah, where the famous passages still resound in our ears from the not so far Christmas: for unto us a child is born, unto us a son is given: and the government shall be upon his shoulder: and his name shall be called Wonderful, Counsellor, The mighty God, The everlasting Father, The Prince of Peace.

With the Annunciation of the Lord by the ancient messanger of old, the Archangel Gabriel, the coming of Emmanuel is made real and the prophecy fullfilled, the light of the Gentiles and the glory of Israel is announced to the little maiden of Nazareth, the voice of the Lord thunders through his messanger and the future tabernacle of the Christ, the blessed Virgin, is highly exalted through words of praise Hail! Full of Grace! The Lord is with Thee! "I am with you, my Son shall be in you, oh holiest of women". Mary gently and humbly accepts... let it be unto me according to thy Word. The rest is the history of the Lamb which we just experienced through Holy Week and finally at Easter, God's revelation to humanity fullfilled in the completion of the old and new covenant and ready for his last coming. 

In the Renaissance, a time of literal rebirth of the arts and beauty, the Annunciation was among the most popular themes in Christian iconography, the greatest masters of the Quattrocento and the High Renaissance all the way to Mannerism depicted renowned renditions of this theme: be it the great Italians, from Fra Angelico to Filippo Lippi, through Botticelli, Perugino and Raphael to the Flemish masters such as Van der Weyden or Memling. In the Renaissance, ethereal renditions of this subject were at the same time distant and close to us, the almost void of emotions aristocratic, classical beauty of the angel and the Virgin, often seeming to dwell in reproductions of beautiful rooms, loggias set in what looks like Eden, the only detail to bring this apparent and stoic calm is the Holy Spirit or God's word falling from the sky, at the same time, the angel bends under the weight of the importance of the message he is carrying and the Virgin also bends in humility, accepting the mission of salvation for us all. The Annunciation is a sign of hope, of rebirth, it shows that the birth of a baby can break through the darkness of times and the Renaissance man understood this.

The mighty God made himself vulnerable in the Virgin Mary, this is what we commemorate. God became a vulnerable child for us all. Two days ago I was scrolling through my Facebook feed when suddenly several well known online journals from all over the world started reporting the news of another attack by the Assad regime to some 300 poor Syrians. I was disraught, but scrolling down I began reading of how many children perished too, I became even sadder, I kept reading, scrolling... then it happened, some pictures of the deceased little angels appeared, there I lost it. I completely lost it. 
Words of faith in these moments can almost feel annoying, there is not much to say really, these children should be happy and playing. Their parents shouldn't be forced to take photoshraphs of them to let the world know, they shouldn't go through this. What can we do? The little we can do is probably to raise awareness, raise this issue, make it known, make us heard, loudly. Those children shouldn't be in heaven now. Children don't have to go to heaven. Children have to play. When the Virgin Mary knew she was waiting for her Son, Jesus was just as vulnerable, but he came to birth, when he was born Herod ordered the brutal slaughter of all the little children of Israel, Jesus survived despite the bloodshed, the announced Jesus had to fulfill the mission of salvation of the Father, the little Jesus is still here despite these horrors, this is important to know, he will always be here for the salvation of all; Emmanuel means God is with us, Jesus always is and will always be. But the problem is that we humans should strive for peace, slaughters of the innocent keep happening and they shouldn't, it is our duty. Pray for Syria. 

Children don't have to go to heaven.