Given at ecumenical Evensong at the Cathedral of St Alban on the occasion of the Pilgrimage of mercy to St Albans on 8 October 2016
We gather in this historic and wonderful Abbey Church of St Alban, the proto-martyr of England, for Evensong during our pilgrimage of mercy. The timing of our pilgrimage is providential as we recall that last Wednesday, Pope Francis and Archbishop Justin celebrated Vespers together in the Church of St Gregory on the Caelian Hill in Rome as part of the meeting of the International Anglican-Roman Catholic Commission for Unity and Mission (IARCCUM). From this place, Pope St Gregory the Great sent St Augustine to Britain in 597 AD.
This historic meeting celebrates 50 years of dialogue and friendship together and seeks to give impetus to our work together. It is a call for action for Catholics and Anglicans to engage jointly in Christian mission, from the pews upwards. Nineteen pairs of Anglican and Catholic bishops were sent to the countries of the world as a sign of the common desire to renew our common service together and witness to our common mission to spread the promise and hope of Jesus Christ.
In the Jubilee Year of Mercy, the meeting in Rome and our pilgrimage today are symbols of the way in which we seek to proclaim the power and freedom of God’s mercy not only to believers but to those who are distant from the Church and those who have never heard the promise of Christ to love, save and walk with all people.
We have come on pilgrimage to St Albans, the site of the proto-martyr of Britain and have enacted his story. This story speaks of the way in which Alban sat at the feet of the priest Amphilabus and learnt of the saving message of Jesus Christ. He listened, learnt and was enlightened. Surely our busy and frenetic world needs to learn again to listen and hear this word. When the soldiers arrived seeking to arrest Amphilabus, St Alban disguised himself as the priest and so allowed him to escape. He was subsequently arrested and brought before the magistrate but refused to offer worship to the emperor and professed in faith the living God of Jesus Christ. Having received the gift of mercy, his act of mercy was to protect the priest, come to him in his need and help him to escape death. The example of St Alban continues through our martyr saints. We especially recall and pray for our Christian brothers and sisters who are dying for their faith in the Middle East and North Africa.
This evening’s gospel describes the call of St Matthew the tax collector. It is graphically portrayed in Caravaggio’s famous painting in the Church of San Luigi dei Francesi in Rome. Jesus calls Matthew and points his finger towards him. As the light falls across the face of Matthew, he is startled from the avaricious counting of his money. He experiences the gaze of mercy which Jesus casts upon him and is enlightened. His heart melts as he is invited to follow Jesus and leave behind an old way of life for a new path and abandon old treasures that are worthless idols for a new relationship of love expressed in mercy towards him.
The words of the Venerable Bede in his commentary on this text have become known by the motto that Pope Francis adopted at the beginning of his pontificate, three years ago, Miserando atque eligendo. This can be freely translated as ‘having mercy upon him, he called him’. What hope these words inspire in each one of us! Mercying him, he called him; mercying me, he calls me; mercying you, he calls you, again and again.
God the Father deeply desires to draw each one of us, whatever our state of life, into relationship with him. His gaze of mercy is seen in the eyes of Jesus who looks compassionately on those he meets and touches them with his healing. He sees our need, our sin, and bestows mercy upon us, forgives and saves us, and calls us into his love. He reaches into the depths of despair caused by the darkness of sin with the tender mercy of forgiveness and healing. No-one is lost. In fact, Pope Francis has repeated again and again over these three years, that the Church must be open and welcoming to those who might easily be forgotten, shunned or ignored, those on the margins, in irregular situations and those whose lives are fragile and seem to fail and fall foul in the eyes of rules and practices. God’s mercy reaches into all these situations and tries to help the person find a home in the Church. As Jesus says, ‘“I desire mercy, not sacrifice.” For I did not come to call the righteous but sinners’ (Mt 9.13).
The same look of startled surprise is seen on the face of St Paul whose conversion is the subject of the painting found in the Chapel of Santa Maria del Popolo. The strong and muscular figure of St Paul is diminished by the power of the horse which towers over him and in his weakness and vulnerability he receives the gift of God’s mercy deep within his heart. Later he writes, ‘Mercy, however, was shown me, because until I became a believer I had been acting in ignorance; and the grace of our Lord filled me with faith and with the love that is in Christ Jesus’ (1 Tim 1.13-14). His heart is filled with gratitude which is the only appropriate and possible response to the gift which he had been given. Gratitude is our only possible response to this gift. Thanks be to God!
Like any gift, the joy of receiving it is to share it with others. Through grace, we are filled with faith and love in Christ Jesus. St Paul captures the meaning of his experience in the Second Letter to the Corinthians. We are summoned to see in fresh ways with the eyes of Christ and so to see every person as a new creation, one to whom we are invited to reach out in mercy. Christ has reconciled us to himself and given us the ministry of reconciliation, of bringing together people and establishing right relationships between them, and serving them in their need. It is as though a cataract had been removed and our eyes had regained their former sight and vision. People who have had a cataract removed are moved to tears as they see again a world in colour and focus.
We are ambassadors for Christ and so called to see Christ in our neighbour and proclaim his mercy to others. We understand that the corporal acts of mercy are practical ways in which this gift of mercy is to be shared with others. Many medieval paintings depict these acts: feeding the hungry, giving drink to the thirsty, clothing the naked, burying the dead, sheltering the traveller, comforting the sick, and freeing the imprisoned. Perhaps less well known are the spiritual acts of mercy: instructing the ignorant, counselling the doubtful, admonishing the sinner, bearing wrongs patiently, forgiving offenses willingly, comforting the sorrowful, and praying for the living and the dead. In so many ways the people in our parishes carry out these actions and often act as Christians together in our dioceses. Our prayer, witness and mission are the means by which we as brothers and sisters can live these works more fully.
As we leave this Cathedral, we carry in our hearts the hope and encouragement given by Pope Francis and Archbishop Justin together in Rome this week. In the words of their joint declaration as they sent out pairs of bishops, ‘Let their ecumenical mission to those on the margins of society be a witness to all of us, and let the message go out from this holy place, as the Good News was sent out so many centuries ago, that Catholics and Anglicans will work together to give voice to our common faith in the Lord Jesus Christ, to bring relief to the suffering, to bring peace where there is conflict, to bring dignity where it is denied and trampled upon.’ (Common Declaration of Pope Francis and the Archbishop of Canterbury Justin Welby, 5th October 2016).
We renew our commitment together and pray, ‘By the tender mercy of our God, the dawn from on high will break upon us, to give light to those who sit in darkness and in the shadow of death, to guide our feet into the way of peace’ (Luke 1.78-79).