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.

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