Tuesday, 16 June 2009


I read an article earlier today about the persecution of the Church in Russia under Stalin. Apparently, there were more martyrdoms in 20th Century Russia than during the persecutions of the Roman Empire; 17 million Orthodox and 3 million Catholics.

Since the beginning the Church has been persecuted. Christians have died for their faith for the Church's whole 2000 year existence. The 20th Century was no different. In Russia, Nazi Germany, Spain's "Red Terror", the Armenian genocide, the Istanbul Pogrom, during the Lebanese civil war, in Coptic Egypt, Kosovo and communist China.

This continues today. Radical Islamic governments and militias in Iran, Iraq, Afghanistan, Pakistan, Saudi Arabia, Egypt and many other nations have tortured and killed apostates from Islam to Christianity. The recent outbreak of "swine flu" in Mexico was used as an excuse by the Egyptian government to slaughter almost all the pigs in that country; all of which belonged to the destitute Coptic minority which rely on such livestock to survive. There are no signs whatsoever that our century will be any better for Christians than those previous.

What does this mean for us in the West?

  1. Faith is precious. If we are strong enough, God willing, it is something worth enduring persecution for.
  2. Martyrdom means "witnessing". Persecutions have always strengthened the Church.
  3. We are the lucky ones. We have no excuses for our petty, day-to-day apostasies; not when Christians in Iraq risk their lives to get to Mass, or Chinese Christians risk prison for possessing a Bible at home.
  4. We must strengthen our persecuted brethren. Financial aid, diplomatic pressure, humanitarian relief, and of course prayer are all things we should be contributing to the suffering Church.
  5. Christianity in the West must not go out with a whimper. By watering down Christianity to make it easier for the secular West we do the persecuted Church a terrible injustice and we fundamentally weaken our position and integrity.
  6. We must forgive. I loathe what Fundamentalist Muslims and Hindus often do to Christians in their country, but we shouldn't resent them for it. We must pray for our enemies. The very worst thing would be an anti-Muslim backlash in the Church.

Sunday, 14 June 2009

Corpus Christi

I was lucky enough to be at the Cathedral today to celebrate Corpus Christi. The (rather diminished) choir sang Aquinas' exquisite texts for the feasts, to a variety of musical settings. The mass was ended with a short procession around the body of the Church and Benediction of the Sacrament.

There is something very humbling seeing a body of people kneel before a piece of bread. If it were anything other than what the Church teaches the Eucharist to be, then the whole exercise would have been the worst of blasphemies; and yet Jesus' stark and unbending words in the Gospels - "This is my body" - reassure me that we were not adoring mere bread.

The Latin origin of the word "sacrament" originally meant "pledge" or "oath". One of the reasons the Roman authorities were so suspicious, so I am told, of the Early Church is because Christians were observed to take "sacraments" as a group: to the Emperors this sounded like a revolutionary secret society! One can easily imagine the Roman establishment being fearful of Christians in the same way that the Papacy and Austria were fearful of the carbonari eighteen-hundred years later.

But a pledge is exactly what the Eucharist is. In John Wesley's Eucharistic hymn "Victim divine", of 1786, even an ardent Protestant observes that "Thou art to all already given... and shew thy real presence here." The joys of heaven which we will receive in the future are given to us in the consecrated elements in our here and now.

It is a privilege to observe this. As I'm not in communion with Rome (yet), it is moving to watch people return from the altar; some weep, others smile to themselves as if enjoying the company of an old friend, others simply whisper to the God they have received.
It is right and proper that there should be a day set aside to thank God for this great and life-giving mystery.

Adoremus in Aeternum

A suitably impressive procession attended by the Swiss Guard.

Today is Corpus Christi. Ignoring the liturgical vandalism which sees this medieval festival transferred to a Sunday we can nontheless enjoy a time of deep reflection on the nature of the Blessed Sacrament.

The Second Vatican Council admirably defined the Eucharist as the "source and summit of the Christian life." It is virtually impossible to overstate the importance of the Eucharist to Christians. "This is my body, which is given for you. Do this in remembrance of me." No real Christian could dare disobey such a direct command from Our Lord, given at such a significant point in the Gospels.

On Corpus Christi, we take time to pray before the Sacrament in the Tabernacle or the Mostrance, but it remains axiomatic that the Sacrament is to be received. The manner in which it is received is particularly interesting.

Nowadays the Host is received with the words "The body of Christ". A very simple statement which testifies to the objective presence of Christ in the elements. The Extraodinary Form of the Mass has the priest give the Host with the words "The body of Our Lord Jesus Christ keep your soul in eternal life." This is a more theologically interesting phrase, as it makes very clear the nature of the sacrament as a pledge of eternal life. St. Ignatius of Antioch spoke of the Eucharist being

"one bread, which is the medicine of immortality, the antidote against death which gives eternal life in Jesus Christ".

Cranmer's Communion service in the BCP goes even further, with bread being handed to the communicant with the words:

The Body of our Lord Jesus Christ, which was given for thee, preserve thy body and soul unto everlasting life. Take and eat this in remembrance that Christ died for thee, and feed on him in thy heart by faith with thanksgiving.

The words "given for thee" and "died for thee" remind us of the intimate nature of the Eucharist. We are guests at a banquet, personally invited by the host (no pun intended!).

The Divine Liturgy celebrated in the full splendour of the ancient Liturgy of St. John Chrysostom.

The personal nature of our reception of the Eucharist is further strengthened in the Byzantine rites employed both by the Orthodox Churches and by the Greek Catholics:

The servant of God N. partaketh of the holy precious body and blood of our Lord and God and Saviour Jesus Christ, unto remission of his sins and unto everlasting life.

Speaking of the Eucharist in the East, it is perhaps useful to remember the Trinitarian nature of the Eucharist, with this quote from St. John Damascene:

"The Holy Spirit comes upon [the elements], and achieves things which surpass every word and thought..."

Just as through the Incarnation of the Word the Trinity was made intelligible to man, so through the Eucharist the Incarnate Word makes the life of the Trinity available for man to receive.

The Holy Spirit... achieves things which surpass every word and thought...