Revd Canon Malcolm Bradshaw's Sermon at the annual Eucharist of the Nikaean Club
Thursday 18th October 2012A sermon preached by the Revd Canon Malcolm Bradshaw, senior Anglican Chaplain, Athens, at the annual Eucharist of the Nikaean Club in the chapel at Lambeth Palace on the feast of St Luke, 2012.
The full sermon is below:
A queue, at least four persons wide, stretched from the chancel, through the nave and around three sides of the extensive square that borders onto the entrance of the Orthodox Cathedral in central Athens, Greece.
Such a queue was there five days, even nights, constantly refreshed by new faces. Only in the early hours of the morning did it show signs of diminishing.
This queue was largely made up of the poorer section of society – those living in small unattractive apartments within the densely populated neighbourhoods of the city. Some were bused in from urban and rural parishes beyond Athens. All ages were represented. Up to two hours they waited. And to what purpose? - to venerate a revered, ancient and wonder working icon of the Mother and Child, flown in from Jerusalem. It was situated on the chancel step with two bearded priests keeping guard. They kept the queue moving, assisted the physically and mentally challenged slipped in from a side entrance and quietened the occasional outburst from the emotionally disturbed.
I mention this scene for, as many here tonight will know, within the Orthodox tradition, St Luke is said to have written the prototype of at least two of the standard icons depicting the Holy Mother and Child – that of the Icon known as the ‘Mother who leads the way” and that known as the ‘Virgin of Loving kindness’. Whether this is historically so or not cannot be evidenced. Yet no one can doubt that such icons are ‘Apostolic’ using the word in the manner that it is employed to describe the Nicene Creed, the Canons of the Church or the succession of Bishop. These icons possess an ‘Apostolic’ character and authority; they are of the ‘Apostolic’ tradition. Furthermore, these same icons capture features which are particular to St Luke’s Gospel – a gospel where Mary has a more prominent place than in the other Gospels, and in which the compassionate and forgiving side of Our Lord’s character and mission is emphasized.
This evening we rejoice in Luke’s witness to Our Lord in and through the Gospel carrying his name; in his description of the impact of the spirit of the same Lord working in and through the hearts of men and women from Jerusalem to Rome as found in the Acts of the Apostles; and, just as important, in him being a contemporary and actual companion in the faith within the glorious company of the saints.
Let’s return to that continuous flow of vulnerable and lowly people seeking to venerate that icon of the Mother and Child within the Orthodox cathedral in Athens. What is happening here? The cynic might scoff, ‘Another form of lottery, a religious alternative to the state or soccer lottery – a desperate chancy hope for a change in fortune’. Well, may be. The ardent left wing politician may castigate the Church for setting up, yet again, a cruel distraction for the vulnerable that changes nothing – ‘Opium for the people; and nothing less’. Well, may be.
Yet, perhaps there are other ways of understanding what is taking place? Undoubtedly what’s within the minds and hearts of those waiting in the queue is varied, complex, confused and they may find it hard to articulate what they are about. Yet within it all there may be that sense, so integral to the Orthodox tradition, that while venerating the icon the person doing so is opened up to God’s new creation - the icon being a door leading onto the actuality of that new creation which the risen Lord ‘embodies’ and is its very epicentre. This being so, might I suggest that the veneration of icons is perhaps not so different from the saying of the Daily Office, a practice strong within the Anglican tradition and other denominations. Both, the icon and the Daily Office open us to this new creation of God’s making. And once we are sensitised to the reality of this new creation of God’s making, we find ourselves being drawn by it, such is its attraction, energized by it and our perspective on life begins to change as does our mode of living. We aspire, within all the brokenness and weariness that is both within us and around us, to be citizens of this new world of God’s making - citizens alive in prayer, vibrant in holiness and keenly active in social justice of which the costly business of forgiveness and healing (emphasised in Luke’s Gospel) plays such an important part.
Among those who were in that queue venerating the icon of the Mother and Child, some years past, will be those same people who today, conscious of being citizens of God’s new world, live out their citizenship within the harshness of the economic crisis that afflicts present day Greece. They are the ones who, this morning, as on every other morning of late, have prepared and distributed at parish soup kitchens ten thousand meals to the impoverished, no matter who, within the Orthodox Archdiocese of Athens. They are the ones who distribute in central Athens eight hundred meals each and every day to illegal migrants from as far afield as Afghanistan and sub-Saharan Africa. Such generosity is sustained and widened by ‘Apostoli’ the central planning and administrative office for the welfare work of the Greek Orthodox Church. Through the combination of volunteers and the staff of ’Apostoli’ over a thousand twice monthly parcels of appropriate provisions are given to young families with no employment and no state support – and this giving of parcels is to be extended; access is made available to free medical support; the provision of night shelters and hostels for the mounting number of homeless because of the inability to pay rent; the establishment of a kindergarten school in a poor neighbourhood, setting up of language schools for young people whose parents can no longer afford the fees of private establishments and the planning and establishing of even more substantial long term projects that will provide full time employment over the course of years. I am delighted to say, and in this chapel, that through the Anglican Chaplaincy in Athens the Diocese in Europe and, indeed, the Church of England are significantly identified with and participating in this work of giving hope and bringing healing to an afflicted people.
So this evening we rejoice in the gifts Luke has extended to us – the Gospel bearing his name, and the icons now permanently associated with him. Both are doors, opening us and drawing us into the actual reality of God’s new world, God’s new creation, a reality that has been born from out of the old creation and embodied in our crucified but risen Lord.
And it is this new creation which is the very experience at the heart of this service, the Holy Eucharist. Little wonder that within its opening section there is that powerful allusion to the song of the angels found at the beginning of Luke’s Gospel heralding the appearance of God’s long awaited new creation through the birth of the world’s Saviour, the one who is now the embodiment of God’ new creation – those familiar words ‘Glory to God in the highest’. And as we journey on into this service to the Good news of the Gospel, and then do as the Lord commanded us, so we arrive at that moment when we hear the words ‘through Christ’, ‘and with Christ’, but even more intimately, ‘in Christ, in the unity of the Holy Spirit’. Can we be more enfolded within the actuality of God’s new creation than that? I doubt it. Then, in the receiving of the sacrament we are fed with the very life of the new creation - that of the life of our risen and living Lord. Shortly afterwards we are sent out ‘in peace’, (yet another throw back to the words of the song of the angels in Luke’s birth narrative), ‘to live and serve the Lord’ as citizens of God’s new creation. We go and, as best we might, we extend God’s healing and new hope to a dark and desperate world.
‘The untrained eye sees only darkness,’ these were words my eyes fell on during a short taxi journey this morning. They were within an advertisement for an insurance company. Brother Luke, thank you for your Gospel and for the icons associated with your name. Thank you for pointing us to the reality and actuality of God’s new creation which enfolds us and infuses us with its spirit of our risen Lord. Thank you for alerting us to its healing, radically compassionate and forgiving nature. You, with others, through the grace of God, the merciful creator, have helped our untrained eyes to be opened - to see that startling and energizing light that is there within the darkness, never overcome but always making all things new. Thank you. Amen.
Revd Canon Malcolm Bradshaw
Senior Anglican Chaplain, Athens
Apokrisiarios of the Archbishop of Canterbury
to the Archbishop of Athens and All Greece.