Tuesday, September 23, 2008

A - Z of Paul: Zeal

St. Paul mostly uses the concept of zeal or eagerness in a negative way perhaps because he associates it with the zeal for persecuting Christians that he had before his conversion. Paul thinks of zeal as the attitude of a man who is focused on attaining righteousness through the law. He writes in Philippians 3:6, describing how pious he was before his conversion, that “as to zeal, [I was] a persecutor of the church”. Paul was a man whose zeal for the Lord was so great that he could not bear to see what he then thought of as the blasphemy of Christians who dared to claim that this man Jesus was divine. This zeal led him to persecute Christians and to oversee the execution of the first martyr for Christ, St. Stephen: “And Saul approved of their killing him” (Acts 8:1).

The Greek word that is translated 'zeal' can have several meanings including striving and jealously. From this we can infer that when Paul writes of pressing on towards the prize (Phil 3) he is describing the kind of zeal that should characterise a Christian. In the place of zeal for the ritual purity of the law should be a zeal for Christ and his gospel, and who could be a better example of this than Paul who evangelised an astonishingly large area of the Roman Empire with great fervour. The Christian regards as rubbish everything that he cared about in the world before he came to Christ and is willing to suffer the loss of all things in order to have Christ and to preach the good news to all. For Paul the focus of one’s desires is what characterises the Christian. The Christian man or woman does not have their mind set on earthly things but contemplates the heavenly glory that awaits those who suffer for the sake of the gospel. In Philippians Paul makes clear that our zeal is not to be for earthly things like power, wealth and prestige but instead we are to place our trust in the Spirit of Christ Jesus who overcame the world and the death that was the wages of sin.

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Sunday, September 21, 2008

A-Z of Paul: Yes

Although St Paul faced many challenges and had to make many difficult decisions during his ministry, it is a sign of his spiritual genius that he was able to use these situations as a vehicle for expressing the profound truths of the Christian Faith. One such example is Paul’s decision not to revisit Corinth. After writing 1 Corinthians, Paul paid a brief, stern visit to Corinth and promised to return. However, when Paul changed his mind and decided not to visit Corinth again, this caused some of the Corinthians to doubt Paul’s integrity. Could this man be trusted? In his second letter to the Corinthians, Paul assures them he is not a ditherer, not someone having in his mind Yes and No at the same time. Rather he is prompted only by doing God’s will which is all Yes. The Gospel that Paul preached was that God is totally faithful; He keeps His promises. In Jesus Christ, in His resurrection, all God’s promises are fulfilled. Whenever we receive the Eucharist, we say Amen, Yes to Christ. It is through Jesus Christ that we are able to live by the Holy Spirit rather than being guided by ordinary human promptings and it is through Him we can fully say Yes to God and give God the thanks and praise that is due to Him.

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Friday, September 19, 2008

Clothing and Professions 2008

This time of year is especially joyful for the English Dominican Province as significant milestones in our religious life are celebrated around the feast of the Holy Cross. This is fitting, for in each of these occasions, the brothers prostrate themselves in the form of a cross. Seeking God's mercy and the mercy of the brethren, they dedicate themselves more profoundly to following Christ, so that by dying with the Crucified One, they hope to live and reign with him, the Risen Lord.


Robert Thomas & John

On 13 September, the Oxford community celebrated the Solemn Profession of fr Thomas Skeats OP and fr Robert Gay OP. Friends and family of the two brothers joined us for a special Mass at noon followed by a simple reception in the Classics Centre of the University of Oxford.

Thomas Profession

fr Thomas Skeats OP makes solemn profession, placing his hands in those of the Prior Provincial, fr John Farrell OP.

Robert Profession

fr Robert Gay OP makes his solemn profession. The formula for solemn profession is as follows:

"I, brother N.N., make profession and promise obedience to God, and to Blessed Mary, and to Blessed Dominic, and to you, brother John Farrell, Prior Provincial of the Province of England, in place of brother Carlos Alfonso Aspiroz Costa, Master of the Order of Friars Preachers, and his successors, according to the Rule of Blessed Augustine and the Constitutions of the Friars Preachers, that I will be obedient to you and your successors until death."

Pax

The brothers then exchange a sign of peace with the Prior Provincial. It is an expression of fraternal charity. As it says in psalm 133:1, "Behold how good and how pleasant it is for brethren to dwell in unity."

O spem miram
After Holy Communion, the brothers sang a responsory, O spem miram, asking St Dominic to help us with his prayers.

Talking to Br Vincent
fr Vincent Cook OP reminisces at the reception afterwards. fr Vincent celebrated the 60th anniversary of his profession earlier this year.


On Sunday 14 September, the feast of the Exaltation of the Holy Cross, the English Province welcomed two novices in Cambridge. Tom Angier and Nick Crowe were both clothed in the habit of the Order by the Prior Provincial, and so began their year-long novitiate in Cambridge.

Postulants prostrate
Prostrate before the altar, the postulants are asked what they seek, to which they reply: "God's mercy and yours."

Nick clothed
Tom clothed
The postulant is then stripped of his former clothing, a symbol of renunciation, and clothed in the habit of the Order of Preachers. In this way, the novice entrusts himself to the care of the Order and signifies his desire to share our religious life.

Provincial's embrace
The Provincial exchanges a sign of peace with the newly-clothed novice and entrusts him to the charge of the Master of Novices.

Tom admissions book
Finally, the novices sign the admissions book which records their entry into the novitiate.

Br Nick Crowe
Please pray for fr Nick Crowe OP and fr Tom Angier OP.

Later on the same day, the Cambridge community celebrated the Simple Profession of three brothers who had completed the novitiate: fr Graham Hunt OP, fr Mark Davoren OP and fr Gregory Pearson OP.

What do you seek
The three novices, who are to be simply professed, prostrate before the altar and ask for God's mercy and the mercy of the brethren.

Mark Profession
Watched by their brothers, their family and friends, each brother makes simple profession in the hands of the Prior Provincial. They formula is the same as the one for solemn profession, except that the brother only makes the promise of obedience for three years.

Blessing scapulars
After the embrace of peace, the Prior Provincial blesses the scapulars of the newly-professed brothers. Above, from left to right, are, frs Gregory, Graham and Mark.

Graham Professions book
After Mass, the brothers sign a profession book and then proceed to enjoy a small reception in the garden of the Cambridge priory.
Graham lunch

The simply professed brothers have now moved to Oxford to join the Studentate and we welcome them to the community and to the Godzdogz team! Please continue to pray for them and for all our brothers as we prepare to begin a new academic year in Oxford.

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Wednesday, September 17, 2008

A-Z of Paul: Xenophilia

Paul's mission is to bring about the obedience of faith among all the nations (Acts 9:15; Rom 1:5; 15:18; 16:26). He glories in this mission to the 'gentiles' (also translated 'nations' or 'pagans' - Rom 11:13; Gal 1:16; Eph 3:8) contrasting it with Peter's mission to the Jews (Gal 2:7-9).

This was not because Paul loved foreign things as such (the dictionary meaning of 'xenophilia') but because he had come to see that the promise to Abraham of a posterity that would be a blessing to all nations had been fulfilled in Christ. Christ is the offspring or seed of Abraham in whom is finally fulfilled the promise made at the beginning of salvation history (Genesis 12; Galatians 3:8,14).

Gentiles are not innocent just because they do not have the law. Paul is not romanticizing the 'noble savage'. What the law requires is written on their hearts, and their failure to live by it shows that they too need salvation (Rom 2:14-16; 3:9). The work of Christ extends to Jew and Gentile alike (Eph 2:14-18). For Paul this was not an alternative to Judaism but rather its fulfillment and he quotes psalms which speak of the Gentiles glorifying God, praising his mercy and finding their hope in the God of Israel (Rom 15:9-12). We know from the Acts of the Apostles that his strategy was to preach first in the synagogues of the towns he visited, to try to convince the Jews there that they should believe in Christ, and only after would he preach to the Gentiles. But he was clear from the beginning that his mission was to them also and not just to Jews.

At times the term 'gentiles' or 'nations' takes on the pejorative sense that is often given to the term 'pagans'. Paul often writes to his Christian converts reminding them of the idolatry and immorality that characterized their lives as pagans and from which they have now been freed (1 Cor 12:2; Gal 4:8; Eph 2:1; 4:17; 1 Thess 4:5). They have been baptized into the one body of Christ, along with Jews who have come to believe in Christ, and have been made to drink with them of the same Spirit (1 Cor 12:13). Christ has broken down the hostile dividing wall that separated Jew and Gentile (Eph 2:14). They are reconciled in one body to God by means of the cross of Christ (Eph 2:16). The cross of Christ is a stumbling block to Jews and foolishness to Gentiles, Paul says, but to all who are called, whether they are Jews or Gentiles, it is the power and the wisdom of God (1 Cor 1:18.25). The pagans are fellow heirs and fellow members of the body, fellow partakers of God's promise, having equal access through one Spirit to the Father (Eph 2:18; 3:6).

Paul's transformed understanding comes about through his encounter with Jesus, risen from the dead, and therefore vindicated by God the Father. A light shines backwards then for Paul, across all the texts of the Old Testament, illuminating a promise that had always been there and has now been fulfilled, that in Abraham all the families of the earth are blessed (Gen 12:3). The offspring of Abraham through whom the promise is fulfilled is Christ (Gal 4:16). Salvation is from the Jews, as Jesus says to the Samaritan woman (John 4:22) but it is for all nations, as the great hymns of the Book of Revelation celebrate (e.g. Rev 5:9-10).

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Monday, September 15, 2008

Spode Music Week

From the 9th to 16th August, Spode Music Week took place and was attended by Br Robert Verrill OP.


Spode Music Week has been an annual occurrence for the past 55 years and brings together amateur and professional musicians to celebrate God’s gift of music. Spode Music Week was founded by the Dominican Conrad Pepler OP and he made a huge contribution to its success over 27 years. The music week originally started in 1954 and until 1986, it took place at Spode House, a conference centre next to Hawkesyard priory. Since leaving Spode, the music week has kept its name and has been held at a number of venues. For the last few years it has been held at the Beechwood Sacred Heart School in Tunbridge Wells.

Over the years, Spode Music Week has managed to maintain its Catholic ethos. Everyday Mass is celebrated, the highlight of the week being the final Mass in which the course work is performed – this year it was Vaughan William’s Mass in G Minor, a work that was chosen to commemorate the 50th anniversary of Vaughan Williams' death. Compline is also sung every evening. One of the most popular compline settings among Spode participants was composed by the composer Anthony Milner, the brother of our very own Austin Milner OP. This year, Fr Austin gave a talk about Conrad (Steven) Pepler’s life before he joined the order and his association with Eric Gill. Another very interesting talk was given by the composer Judith Bingham who spoke about how she goes about writing liturgical music.

For the last few years, Fr Philip Whitmore has been the chaplain for Spode Music Week. Fr Philip works in the Roman Curia, but he is also an excellent pianist. This year he was one of the soloists in Beethoven’s Triple Concerto, one of the course pieces.


A great variety of orchestral works was performed during the week ranging from Bach’s Brandenburg concerto No. 2 to the theme tune to Thunderbirds. There were also several very high quality evening recitals. One was given by Alison Wells and another by Sophie Bevan, both of whom are well known sopranos. In addition to the Vaughan Williams Mass, two other choral works were performed, Shakespeare Songs and May Magnificat composed by William Mathias. May Magnificat is a choral setting to the beautiful poem by Gerard Manley Hopkins.


A testament to the popularity of Spode Music Week is that people keep coming back with their families year after year. The combination of liturgical and non-liturgical music, together with the friendly environment in which there is something on offer for musicians of all abilities makes the week very inclusive and appealing. The lasting success of Spode Music Week is a very fitting tribute to Conrad Pepler OP.

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Saturday, September 13, 2008

September 14 - Feast of the Exaltation of the Cross

Readings: Numbers 21:4-9; Psalm 77; Philippians 2:6-11; John 3:13-17
Fr Herbert McCabe OP once wondered why we have this feast of the Exaltation of the Holy Cross on 14th September when, as he put it, 'we already have a perfectly good feast of the cross on Good Friday'. One reason may be that the realities we celebrate in the great Easter liturgies are so powerful and central to our faith that we have to return to them at other times of the year, to have another think about them.
Dying He destroyed our death...
The feast of Corpus Christi, for example, is another chance to meditate on the events of Holy Thursday. The feast of Christ the King is another chance to celebrate Christ's return to the Father in his Ascension and his enthronement in heavenly glory. Easter itself happens every Sunday, every day even, whenever we celebrate Mass.

Today's feast of the exaltation of the Cross allows us to meditate again on the wise foolishness and vulnerable power of God that we see in the crucifixion and death of Jesus.

Part of the deal with capital punishment was that it happened publicly so that as many people as possible could see it being carried out. It happened very often on a gallows or a platform, high above the heads of the crowd. As many people as possible could then see what happened to those who broke the law - they were hanged, beheaded, shot, stoned, garroted, crucified, or whatever. People were lifted up, exalted we might say, so that their death could be more easily seen.

Because the cross of Christ has such a secure place among religious symbols it does not seem strange, weird, shocking or scandalous any more. We can forget that the cross was one of these platforms of torture and death. We can forget that the crucifix shows a dying human body fixed to wooden beams.

St Paul very quickly pointed out that the language of the cross is illogical and paradoxical, a sign of God's foolish wisdom and vulnerable power. It is a madness, Paul says, and an obstacle that some people cannot get over. But to those who have been called it is the power and wisdom of God.

We venerate the wood of the cross - exalt it and lift it up - because it was instrumental in the salvation of the world. Of course it is not a piece of wood as such that redeems the world but the love in Christ's heart. But the physical cross was the platform on which the great drama of the Divine Love was exposed, lifted up and shown to all who cared to look. More than a platform, this tree of death has become the tree of life for us. Through the death for love of the One who died on this tree, death itself has been defeated.

In a tiny way we experience something of the power of the crucified Christ in our experiences of love. Love always means opening up to the suffering of the one who is loved, sharing it with him or her, and so becoming vulnerable to suffering and pain that is not our own. It is a kind of exposure, it means taking some kind of risk, we leave ourselves open to rejection, perhaps to accusations of not really understanding, to being hurt in one way or another.

But this is the glory of love, this strength to be vulnerable on behalf of others. It is the strength of the Lamb of God whose blood seeping into the wood of the cross became the seed of new life for the world. It is the power and the wisdom of God that look like weakness and foolishness to us.

The cross of Jesus Christ rises above the mess humans continue to make of their world. Today's feast invites us to look to the cross and pray: Ave crux, spes unica (Hail O Cross, our only hope).

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Wednesday, September 10, 2008

A-Z of Paul: Weakness

Often in our world, we might be tempted to flaunt our achievements or consider ourselves self-sufficient; in our CVs we hide our weakness and exaggerate our strengths. As "self-made men" there is certainly a hubristic tendency for us to think that we do not need God and render him 'irrelevant' to our lives. 

St Paul, however, who was by all accounts a successful missionary and preacher, knew that he was a weak and sinful human being. He uses the word astheneia, which is translated as 'weakness', extensively in his major writings. In the first place all human beings are weak and utterly dependent on God's grace. Consequently, whatever we achieve is a result of God's activity in our lives. As Paul said, "But we have this treasure [of the Gospel] in earthen vessels, to show that the transcendent power belongs to God and not to us" (2 Cor. 4:7).
Relying on the Cross
The marvel of God's love is that he cherishes us and uses us despite our failings. So we need not hide our weakness before God; he does not check our CV before using us. God uses us as we are, and indeed it is because we are weak and in need of God that God's power is displayed. So, for Paul, human weakness provides the best channel for divine power. As he says in 2 Corinthians 12:9, "[The Lord] said to me 'My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.' I will all the more gladly boast of my weaknesses, that the power of Christ may rest upon me." 

The ultimate sign of God working in what the world might consider weakness is Christ crucified. For it is through the weakness of the Cross that God's power of love, the power of Christ's resurrection, is displayed for all to see and transforms the world. And so, we are called to imitate the Cross of Christ in our lives, so that empowered by God, our human weakness (with all its trials and suffering) may be borne courageously and gradually transformed by grace. 

This work of grace which transforms us and shapes us according to the pattern of Christ is the work of the Holy Spirit. Thus St Paul says that "the Spirit helps us in our weakness" (Rom 8:26), and the goal of this transformation is that, having died with Christ, we might also rise with him.

Therefore, Paul's concept of weakness emphasises the power of God's grace and his transforming love. This ought to encourage us, for when we recognise our complete need of God and realise that we cannot strive for happiness apart from God, then we can serenely allow God to work in our lives, to be like clay in the hands of the divine Potter and allow God to use us "in order to make known the riches of his glory" (Rom 9:23). 

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Saturday, September 06, 2008

A-Z of Paul: Victory

Paul uses the term 'victory' in just one context, at the end of 1 Corinthians 15. This is a long consideration of the resurrection, responding to a number of difficulties the Corinthians were experiencing about it. One was the classic Greek difficulty about any bodily resurrection. Greek thought tended to be dualistic and to be happy with the idea of a 'spiritual' part or aspect continuing after death but not with the suggestion that bodies might be resurrected. It seemed so obvious that the flesh perished, what could restore it except something equivalent to an act of creation (precisely what Abraham and his children in faith believed about God, the One who could bring life out of death). Many people nowadays talk in the same dualistic terms about what happens after death: a 'spiritual' or even 'divine' part continues while the body perishes. Christianity teaches something much more extraordinary.

Paul's response to this difficulty is to appeal to the life he was living and the life they were living as a result of his preaching. If there is no resurrection then neither can Christ have been raised and if Christ has not been raised from the dead then the gospel is false, we are still in our sins and the preachers of the gospel are on a hiding to nothing - 'if our hope in Christ has been for this life only we are the most unfortunate of all people' (1 Corinthians 15:19). It is striking that Paul appeals already to the Church's tradition (as he does earlier, about the Eucharist): 'I taught you what I had been taught myself' (1 Corinthians 15:3; see 1 Corinthians 11:23 where he says he has received it 'from the Lord'). The best 'proof' of the resurrection, then, is the life of the Christian community. Just as the transformation of the disciples after the death of Jesus is most reasonably explained by his resurrection from the dead and his appearances to them, so the transformation of human lives in the community of love established by Christ is the most powerful witness there can be to the fact that Christ is risen and is alive.

The second difficulty troubling the Corinthians is about the nature of the resurrected body. Paul offers some thoughts about this, even though he initially dismisses it as a 'stupid question' (1 Corinthians 15:36). Just as is the case with Jesus, what needs to be kept in mind is the continuity which makes the resurrected body to be the body of this person who has died as well as the discontinuity which makes the resurrected body to be part of a radically transformed order, the perishable made imperishable, the mortal made immortal. And here is where he introduces the term 'victory', for this clothing of the perishable in imperishability and this clothing of the mortal in immortality, is the victory prophesied by Isaiah and Hosea: 'he will destroy Death forever, wipe away all tears, take away his people's shame - this is our God in whom we hoped for salvation' (Isaiah 25:7-9); 'where is your plague, Death? where are your scourges, Sheol?' (Hosea 13:14).

In a final hymn of triumph Paul offers his own interpretation of these prophecies: 'the sting or plague of death is sin, and sin gets its power from the law'. Paul had come to see that salvation from sin is not through observance of the law, which serves only to convict us of sin, but is through the faithfulness of Christ, his death on the cross, his victory. 'So let us thank God for giving us the victory through our Lord Jesus Christ' (1 Corinthians 15:57). Not only is it a victory achieved by God, it is a victory given to us for it is Jesus, the Son of God and our brother, who has won eternal life for us.

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Thursday, September 04, 2008

A-Z of Paul: Unity

Paul is remembered for his argumentativeness (see Paul A-Z: Quarreling) and at the same time a concern with unity is found all through his writings. We can imagine him then experiencing a certain amount of anxiety about his own temperament in this regard.

The foundation for the unity of Christians is their union with Christ through baptism. They have been made one with him in his dying and rising (Rom 6:5) and so he prays that God will help them to live in such harmony with one another, in Christ, that they will be able to glorify God with one voice (Rom 15:5-6). The community of Corinth was the most divided of Paul's churches. Not surprisingly, then, he appeals to them to be united in the same mind and in the same judgment (1 Cor 1:10). The Eucharist is the sign and realization of their unity with Christ (communion in his body and blood) and with each other (we who are many are one body for we all partake of the one bread - 1 Cor 10:17). There has to be variety in gifts, service and activity but it is the same Spirit, the same Lord, the same God who inspires all these different things in different individuals for the sake of the unity of the body (1 Cor 12).

Christians ought to be 'knit together in love' (Col 2:2), a unity possible because they all hold fast to the one Head (Col 2:19). The terms 'Christ' and 'love' seem perfectly interchangeable in the letter to the Colossians: over everything else, to keep it all together, put on love (put on Christ), which binds everything together in perfect harmony (Col 3:14).

The unity of the community is a particular concern of the Letter to the Ephesians. God's eternal plan was to unite all things in Christ (Eph 1:10) and this has been achieved through the death of Jesus on the cross. In his body, on the cross, Christ has made peace, reconciling all to God in one body (Eph 2:13-16). So they must live a life worthy of the gift they have received, eager to maintain the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace (Eph 4:3). There is only one body, one Spirit, one hope, one call, one Lord, one faith, one baptism, one God and Father of all, who is above all and through all and in all (Eph 4:4-5). Although in principle our unity and reconciliation have been achieved by Christ, we still have a distance to go as the body builds itself up in love, a unity and diversity that is growing towards mature humanity, the measure of the stature of the fulness of Christ (Eph 4:12-16). Marriage is a fitting symbol of this union between Christ and his body the Church, two that become one in a union of love (Eph 5:31).

For Paul the unity of the community is founded on the unity into which Christ calls us, a unity in the Spirit of God's love. 'So if there is any encouragement in Christ, any incentive of love, any participation in the Spirit, any affection and sympathy, complete my joy by being of the same mind, having the same love, being in full accord and of one mind' (Philippians 2:1-2).

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