So, the time of year to celebrate St Francis is here, and we will be filling our church with animals to bless on Sunday October 1.
Francis must rank as one of Christianity's best known saints. Needless to say, I really like him. More so since a few years ago when I had a few beautiful weeks enjoying Tuscany in Italy. We visited Francis' hometown of Assisi in the neighbouring Province of Umbria. However, you did not have to travel far in that area to find the marks of Francis everywhere. One village we lived in, Anghiari, had at the top of its main street an ancient church and monastery marking a place where St Francis planted a wooden cross in the ground. This is level of veneration of Francis you see in Italy. This is why there was such jubilant celebration there when the present Pope took Francis' name when he was elevated to the Holy See.
You see, the reason I love to travel is to meet famous people. Although Francis lived just short of 800 years before I got there, you meet him everywhere in Tuscany and Umbria. He is one of the saints who, the more you look for him, the more you meet the bloke, and find yourself liking him. And the more that bloke teaches you.
He was born into the luxurious wealth of the time and lived as a pampered party animal. He joined in the great adventure of war, but was caught and imprisoned and then later became extremely ill. These experiences brought him to a spiritual awakening that led him to discard and shun his wealth and live in complete poverty.
I personally admire this capacity to radically reevaluate what is important in life, to totally change your view of the world and its values. I am in awe of the incredible clarity Francis showed in his ability to see what is good and cling to it and totally cast off that which is an impediment to that good value.
Francis shook the world around him. His radical view of what constituted a life lived well affected many who met him, pushing him almost begrudgingly to establish and lead an order of religious brothers, and eventually, with Claire of Assisi, sisters, who admired and wanted to follow Francis' holy way of life. It is almost disturbing to try to reconcile the qualities of extreme humility with the powerful leadership that comes out of the stories of Francis' ministry.
Taking the humblest of positions to shake the most powerful authorities – in this I see Francis following as close as any ever have the footsteps of Jesus.
I truly identify with Francis in his desire to head out into the forest regularly to immerse himself in solitude. These times are when he was seen by other brothers in the woods preaching to the birds in the trees and ministering to wild animals and even a ferocious wolf that had killed people near the town of Gubbio. It is from this, and Francis' own teaching that all the world's creatures were created by God and worthy of our compassion, that he is the patron saint of animals, nature and the environment.
Perhaps I was most moved before I even arrived at Assisi. As you drive across the valley, passing dry ploughed fields, the city appears before you rising up the hillside on the other side of the valley. I made the driver stop so I could take it in and photograph it. It was truly breathtaking beauty. When I read Revelation 21:2, it is what I see in my mind.
I saw the holy city, the new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, prepared as a bride adorned for her husband.
For all his humility, Francis must have been a pretty impressive dude for his admirers to have built this in his honour.
These characters we call saints – their purpose is not to be somehow holier and superior to us. They should be our guides and friends on this journey of faith that brings us back to our God. But in the great communion of saints, Francis is one of the ones I feel to most comfortable falling in next to.
It is a detail I think many people miss, but have you noticed that the four stone crosses that top each gable of our church are uniquely different? I had noticed, but when I recently climbed the scaffolding of the new Parish Centre, I was able to photograph them. It left me wondering why those 18th century builders decided to choose a different cross for each high point of our beautiful church. Perhaps we will never truly know.
The Orthodox Cross appears above the front door. This is a style of cross portrayed by Churches of the Orthodox East, which has two and often three cross bars. All crosses, of course, have the cross bar to which Jesus' hands were nailed. Orthodox crosses often add the small crossbar above representing the sign Pilate placed on the Cross, and sometimes also or instead, another below to represent the support for Jesus' feet. Often this lower cross bar is sloped down to the left, and thus up to the right. This represents Jesus' two journeys of descent into hell and ascent into heaven.
The form we see in our cross was adopted in Byzantium, and later by the Russian Orthodox Church and especially popularised in the East Slavic countries.
The cross above the nave altar, the most central on our roof, appears to be a St Thomas' Cross. The arms of the cross have 'shoots' coming out, representing the tree of life with new life growing out from its branches. It is a very ancient style of cross used by the 'Mar Toma' or Saint Thomas Christians, often also known as Syrian Christians or Nasrani. They are centred in Kerala, in India, following the tradition that they were founded by Jesus' disciple Thomas whose apostolic mission took him to India.
At the end of the roof above the High Altar is a Celtic Cross. The Celtic cross features a nimbus or ring around the central point of the cross. It emerged in Ireland and Britain in the early Middle Ages. A nimbus represents a cloud, ring or halo, which in the art of ancient mythologies surrounded the presence or the head of a sacred being. So it is that placing it centrally on a Christian cross represents the divinity of the one who hung upon it.
This style of ringed cross became widespread through its use in the stone high crosses erected across the Celtic British islands, especially in regions evangelised by Irish missionaries, from the 9th through the 12th centuries.
The fourth cross, and the only one not mounted in a line running centrally from east to west, is above the Choir Vestry, facing north. It appears to be a Lazarus Cross. At the end of each arm is a trefoil, so this style of cross is sometimes called a 'trefly cross'. Originally a trefoil was a three leaved European pea plant, but in sculpture indicates a three leaved end to an extremity. The use of three rounded or pointed leaves on crosses is a Trinitarian symbol, representing Father, Son and Holy Spirit.
The name Lazarus Cross comes from the time of the Crusades, when it was combined with a green Maltese cross, to form the insignia of the Order of Saints Maurice and Lazarus. This order began in the 12th century establishing hospitals for lepers in Jerusalem, and later becoming an order of knights fighting for the Church in the Crusades. After the loss of the Crusades, the Order settled in Italy and France, and still exists today.
So our crosses represent the churches of Russia, the Caucasus, Turkey and the Middle East, India, Jerusalem, Italy, France, Britain and Ireland. The thing that immediately strikes me is that Jesus commanded the Apostles “‘Go into all the world and proclaim the good news to the whole creation.” (Mark 16:15) The origin of each cross shows how they obeyed that command. As they took the Word they proclaimed in every direction they travelled out into all the world. Each of the countries mentioned spread out like a great arc around the world – the known world of Jesus' time anyway.
So our crosses sit up there and proclaim Jesus who came for all people in all places around our globe. All should feel welcome here to hear his word and see his love expressed by us, his children. Look up, and let the message carved from stone by those Victorian era stonemasons speak to you and encourage you to take up the task our Lord gave us.
The Holy Trinity: Our church and parish are dedicated to it and during this month we will celebrate the annual festival the Church gives in its honour. But have you ever wondered what it actually is?
It is probably one of the most troublesome concepts in Christian thinking. I can assure you, in the theological colleges throughout the world, it is the topic students most fear studying! It is the Father, Son and Holy Spirit. Yes, we all know that. The problem is trying to work out HOW it is.
Other religions confront Christianity and demand an explanation. How can you say you have one God, when you talk about having three? So we reply, it is not three gods, it the three natures or persons of the one God. So the questions come flooding back: Where was God the Father when God was being the Son? Where are the Father and the Son if you say God is the Spirit? If your creed says the Spirit 'proceeds' from the Father and the Son, how can you say the Spirit is equal to the Father and Son? Which came first? And which is most important?
Every time you approach the Trinity, you come away with more questions than answers!
I have a thing I say when people are talking about God and making major statements that define exactly what God is – If you think you fully and completely understand God, go back and see if you can find where you went wrong!
God must be more than our minds can fully encompass. Try to imagine the distance from where you are now to the furthest point in the world from you. (If you are in Williamstown, then it is a point in the North Atlantic about halfway between Spain and New York). Can you picture exactly how far that is? No. You turn it into an abstract figure – 20,037 and a half kilometres. Or you picture a map of the world and say, “It's from the green bit there to the blue bit there!”
If you cannot picture the size of the world without reducing it to understandable, finite concepts, how could you find words that fully and completely explain the God that created it?
So why do we reduce God to a set of words that could never fully encapsulate all that God must be? Holy Trinity? We do it because of what the words themselves teach us about God.
God the Father
In ancient times it was believed all life emanated from fathers. Before they knew about DNA, they believed fathers put babies inside mothers where they grew to emerge as new people. God the Father, then, meant God the source of all living, all life. I am completely comfortable with the concept of God the Mother, God the parent, God the progenitor. God the Creator who brought into being that most wondrous thing – life.
God the Son
Again, the ancients saw a man's son as the being of the father emerging in a new human. Jesus was the being of his heavenly father sharing our human life with us. We use the word 'incarnate' which literally means 'having taken on flesh'. For me, this is the truly amazing bit. God who created this miracle of human life also knows what it is like to live it. All the happiness, sadness, triumphs, defeats and struggles of it and even the pain of death that ends it.
God the Holy Spirit
Even though God knows us that well, that intimately, with all our flaws and failings, God still wants to hang around with us. In the Spirit we know God will always be there with us. And even better, that God wants us to find our way to God's perfect existence and wants us to share it forever.
Knowing God as Holy Trinity is knowing God to be everything we need to fulfill our lives and progress to that perfect life beyond it. God is everything in perfect harmony. That is what we mean when we say the name 'Holy Trinity'.
On Sunday, in the wake of the Anglican Church's response to the Royal Commission into institutional child sexual abuse, I spoke to our congregation hoping to clarify the issue that the Anglicans received the most strident criticism for and for which our Primate and Archbishop had expressed our sense of shame.
Essentially our Church was criticized because while we can reach agreement on our failures and what needs to be done to move forward, the twenty-three Dioceses of the Province of Australia cannot agree upon the actual process of making those decisions and instituting change in our church. We know what we have to do, but cannot agree on how to do it.
After I made this short address, encouraging people to read and listen to the reporting and statements coming from the Royal Commission, several people expressed their concern about the Anglican position. They expressed the view that God, not Church hierarchies or officers, govern the Church. I believe this is an overly simplistic way of viewing the situation. The Church is the worldly gathering of Christians who believe in what God has revealed to us in Jesus Christ.
Having heard Jesus speak to us, having accepted and come to believe in his teaching, we then begin the journey, sometimes even the struggle, to live lives that accord with that belief. We do this because Jesus has shown us that every such effort will bring us closer to God, and to the Kingdom prepared for us beyond this life. Jesus showed us on the cross the lengths to which God was ready to go to bring us home. Knowing all this does not make us perfect, it shows that God's perfection has been placed within our reach. That it is the hope that can encourage and guide us in this life. But once again, it does not make us perfect. Read John 8:2-12 to get Jesus' view on people who consider themselves so righteous that they have the right to sit in judgment on others.
The Church is the worldly gathering of Christians - just that. It is the people in this dark and sinful world who have seen the light and are struggling towards it. For many in our world that struggle is a difficult and painful one. In the balance of things, Australian Christians have got it pretty easy. We can choose from churches to suit every taste or aesthetic desire. Why are there so many different denominations of God’s people? Because humanity cannot even make how you believe in God a thing that unites us.
Human nature makes us want to stand up and say “If you don't see it the way I see it – you must be wrong and I reject you!” It amuses me a little to see that those who condemn the church for not being able to agree are themselves not agreeing! That we as humans never seem able to agree, to find harmony with each other is what I define as the source of human sin. The fuel that powers it is self-importance, self-centredness and self-satisfaction. As I have often commented, in sermons and elsewhere, note the prefix of all those words.
Yes, I agree that it is a sin that our Anglican Dioceses cannot find a way to agree on how to implement the rules, strategies and actions to achieve that which we all agree must be achieved. But it is a human sin, one that permeates every part of human society. It is the same sin that nurtures sexism, racism, ageism and all the isms that blight human society.
But pointing fingers never changed anything for the better. Our dwindling church congregations throughout the world, or more particularly the developed world, are the result of the church being seen to be critical rather than constructive, condemning rather caring. Nobody wants that, and I have never heard God saying it was part of the deal. The deal is “Love one another as I have loved you.” God is aware that the more you really try to live up to that, the harder you realize it is to achieve. But I have nearly always found that the greater the effort, then ultimately, the greater the prize.
Beloved I do not consider that I have made it my own but this one thing I do: forgetting what lies behind and straining forward to what lies ahead, I press on towards the goal for the prize of the heavenly call of God in Christ Jesus. Let those of us then who are mature be of the same mind; and if you think differently about anything, this too God will reveal to you. Only let us hold fast to what we have attained.
Ven Bill Beagley
reflections and occasional thoughts (appearing in the Parish newsletter)