Monday 28 June 2010

Blessing the Mayor

Blessing the Mayor - from Fr Aquilina's blog

There is always something new, even after retirement. I have met many Mayors and corporations, but it was a first for me to be able to bless the new Town Mayor of Sevenoaks as he begins his year of Office. Simon Raikes (related to that great Hull citizen Robert Raikes, pioneer of the Sunday School movement when Sunday Schools, for such as the children of Chimney Sweeps, began the great move towards universal education) is not only Mayor; he is a pillar of St John the Baptist, Sevenoaks, and sings in the choir there.

Fr Ivor Aquilina, who, many will know, comes originally from Malta, has a wonderful minsitry of outreach through town and parish - 'Fresh Expressions' might have been coined to describe his multgi-facetted approach - except that he would prefer to be thought of as simply a traditional parish priest. Perhaps the C of E has had so many re-inventions of itself that only traditional parish ministry is genuinely a novelty.

There are pictures galore on Fr Ivan's website, so I shall content myself with just posting some words. They are the sermon from yesterday's Mass; but friends from Chelmsford who were at Fr Ivor Morris' Anniversary of Priesting will recognise something of what I said there - for both events were in honour of S John Baptist. By curious coincidence, Fr Ivor's celebration was at his church in Maltese Road: and Fr Ivan is the genuine Maltese article. I suppose yesterday's sermon was a fresh expression of what I'd said the day before; or maybe it was just a little recycling. At all events, here it is - and do go to for the full story. Oh, and I could not resist one little picture which relates to the sermon....

The Lord called me before I was born: from my mother’s womb he pronounced my name. Isaiah 49.1

Did you see the crowds on televisions as they greeted the midsummer sun at Stonehenge? It’s no coincidence that St John the Baptist and the summer Solstice occur in the same week. It was a deliberate act on the part of the Christian Church to fix St John’s birth here. We are told, of course, that he was Jesus’ cousin, and a few months older than Jesus; so late June for his birthday matches well with late December for the birth of Our Lord. It is not just that, though. Midsummer has always been a great time for pagan celebrations; rather than try to stamp such celebrations out, the Church in her wisdom decided she would bring them into the faith.

So it is too that midwinter was chosen for St Thomas’ day; doubting Thomas. Equally, the equinox is marked; the spring equinox with the Annunciation to Mary, the autumn equinox with Michaelmass. These became the quarter days, time for settling debts, buying and selling property, the feast days that marked out the year.

Back to Stonehenge. GK Chesterton said that when people stop believing in God, they don’t suddenly believe nothing; they'll believe anything. Looking at those crowds at Stonehenge on the TV screen, you could see the truth in that. They did not seem to know why thery were there. It was something to do with midsumer sunrise. There were people with beards dressed as they imagined Druids might have dressed - though all we know about Druids is pretty unflattering, and comes to us from the Romans. Twenty four, I think, were arrested. (I expect it is different in Wales). Yet the Christian faith has been mocked and downgraded, so that some foolish councillors in Leicester decide to abandon prayers at their meetings, and companies refuse to let their staff wear a Crucifix. A Burkah, of course, but not a Crucifix. But if you shut out Christianity, the faith of our nation, the gap will be filled.

Those who complained about the Church will find the alternative much worse. A week ago was the Glastonbury pilgrimage – not the Festival, that is on now, but a Christian pilgrimage to that ancient religious site. Twenty years ago, crowds would line the streets on that Pilgrimage day, singing hymns with the procession of pilgrims making their way to the Abbey ruins. Today, there are mostly just a few un-interested bystanders. What they have really come to see in Glastonbury are the shops, the places that will offer you magic crystals, or the latest gear to wear when you attend your coven, or will give you tattoos of mysterious meaning.

But the Christian pilgrimage continues, reclaiming in its small way this place as a place of deep religious meaning. Its history claims to go back to Joseph of Arimathaea; certainly Arthur and Avalon are local to this place, as are Alfred the Great and St Dunstan. Here too the last Abbot, with two of his monks, was dragged up the hill outside the abbey and there hacked to pieces on the order of the king. It is very reminiscent of the Saint we commemorate today, your saint, John the Baptist. Like the Abbot of Glastonbury, John refused to support the king in his amorous desires, and paid for it with his head.

Christianity always has to be ready to be unpopular, to stand out against the spirit of the age. Woe to you, says Jesus, when all men speak well of you. The hippies told us this was the dawning of the age of Aquarius, and it was all about flower power and an end to sexual repression. It ended with AIDS, and the me generation, and the claim that there was no such thing as society. Selfishness was the name of the game.

So it is brave, maybe even a bit foolhardy, for the Mayor and Council members to attend a paternal festival here. But wonderful that he is here, together with colleagues from numerous neighbouring towns and boroughs. St John the Baptist did not say easy things, which his hearers would find palatable. He challenged them. But good for you, Mayors and Deputy Mayors and all, for perhaps that is what you want in Sevenoaks and these parts of Kent; not an easy ride, but a church which welcomes you, and also demands a great deal of you.

It was very fortunate, or perhaps clever, of your forefathers in this place to dedicate this church in honour of St John the Baptist. Apart from our Blessed Lord himself, and Our Lady, St John the Baptist of all the Sints has his borthday remembered, and not just his death. A Saint's death, his engtry into paradise, is what the church usually remembers, but today we thank God for his marvellous birth. So you get two festivals where most churches only have one. But more important than that, your Patron Saint reminds us that all of us will have our deepest beliefs challenged at times. Our political beliefs will be stretched; I think some Liberal Democrats are discovering that in the new Government. But that is as it should be; a coalition means deciding where our bottom line is, the place where we will no longer compromise. Human beings are at our best when we are tested – not to breaking point, but very near it.

Pray God our faith will never have to stand the test of a John Baptist, or an Abbot Whiting; that is why we say daily, “Lead us not into temptation; deliver us from evil”. Yet St Paul reassures us, and says we will not be tested beyond our endurance.

Yes, we are put to the test, priest and lay person alike. As it becomes daily less cool, less fashionable, to be a Christian, it is harder for the boy or girl at school to stand out among their friends, to say, ‘no, I won’t do that, it is wrong’. But the devil is very subtle, and in each generation the temptation is different. It may start with Ouija boards or Tarot cards. Or it may begin with “Just try this, it’ll give you such a high!” But the horoscopes can lead to believing the whole farrago of witchcraft, and the party drug can start the spiral of degradation which ends in the gutter. And the temptation for the business-man, or the politician, is to cut corners, take the easy option, not face up to honest decisions. But that way disaster lies; one little compromise leads to another, and before we know it no one will trust us, we are morally bankrupt.

So John the Baptist is a great patron to have in this present day. He constantly calls us to repentance. It is always a danger for the Christian to look at those outside the church and suppose their sins are worse than ours. Not so, says Our Lord. He is always most severe with those who ought to know better, the religious people of his day, the Pharisees and the teachers of the law. The word of God teaches us that all have sinned, all have fallen short. The only difference between the Christian and the non-Christian is that we know we are sinners, and ask to be forgiven, and are, not just once, not seven times, but seventy times seven.

Among those born of women, says Jesus, none is greater than John the Baptist. How good to celebrate his day, and to remind ourselves once more that God is not religious – he is concerned with every aspect of life, not simply with what goes on in church. Here, and in our political life, and in our life at home and at work, John the Baptist challenges us all; repent, and prepare the way of the Lord.

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