There was standing room only at Westminster Cathedral on Saturday night when Archbishop Vincent Nichols presided over a Taize-style candlelit vigil to mark the end of the Year of St Paul. During the service there was Veneration of the Icon of St Paul. The singing was led by Jesus Christ the Fullness of Life (JCFL). The text of Archbishop Nichol's reflection follows:
One of the great Fathers of the Church, St Gregory of Nyssa, said this: ‘More than anyone, Paul knows exactly what Christ is, and showed through his deeds what a person should be like who has been named after him’ - a Christian. (cf On Christian Perfection.)
It is on this thought, and at the close of this Year of St Paul, that I would like to reflect here this evening.
More than anyone else, Paul knows Christ best, Paul understands most clearly Christ’s true nature and his mission. But, remember, Paul did not know Jesus, the man of Nazareth. Yet he, more than anyone else, came to understand the full meaning of Jesus, who is the Christ, the fullness of the Godhead.
This is a great consolation and encouragement for us. We, like Paul, do not meet Jesus in the flesh. We are separated from him, as was Paul, by time and place. But like Paul we are invited to know him in the greatest intimacy, understanding him to the fullest extent. Like Paul, we too are invited to bind ourselves to Jesus for he is the living Lord, the Christ, the anointed One of God. With Paul we are drawn to say: ‘It is no longer I who live, but Christ lives in me’ (Galatians 2:20).
During this Year of St Paul we have attempted to learn all we can from this great Apostle. Of course we learn about him, about his journeys, his suffering, his successes and failures. But more than anything we try to learn from his faith in Christ, we try to absorb something of his great fervour and faithfulness.
Let’s listen again to some of the titles which Paul gives to Christ. In each of these titles an element of the whole mystery of Christ shines out. They are like the pendants of a chandelier, reflecting a single source of light in a wide variety of ways.
Paul tells us that Christ is the Power and Wisdom of God (1 Corinthians 1:18-2:5). This means that Christ is able to deliver all that God, in his power and wisdom, wills for us his beloved people. Therefore we can say, with Paul, that Christ is our Peace and our Reconciliation.
Is there anything we long for more than peace in our hearts and homes? Peace in our world? Reconciliation between those who are at odds, and whose anger flows over into our lives and into our world? These are among the strongest longings of our hearts and Paul reminds us that Christ, who is the Power and Wisdom of God, is uniquely able to give us what we want – if only we would trust ourselves to him.
Paul speaks of Christ as our Sanctification and our Redemption (1 Corinthians 1:30). Paul knows only too well that we are broken beings, pulled this way and that. Our hearts are divided, one moment wanting all that is best, the next being deceived as to what truly is best for us or for those we believe we love. Paul reminds us that Christ is the one who can save us from ourselves, who can heal that divided heart and purify our desires so that we do not pull ourselves astray.
But this is costly work. Paul knows that it is only achieved once the full force of our divided nature is confronted, and its raw energy absorbed and tamed. Christ, he tells us, is our Sacrifice, a Sacrifice rooted in the Passover (Hebrews 9:23-26). Christ redeems us by his blood, smeared not simply on our doorposts but taken into the inner temple of our hearts. Through that blood we are sheltered from avenging anger to which our waywardness gives rise. Christ, then, is our High Priest, who stands before the Father, taking upon himself our sins and returning to us with the Father’s blessing (Hebrews 2:17).
Indeed in Christ we learn again the nature of that blessing. We are to be born again into the new life of God, created as God’s sons and daughters, built into a new temple where God chooses to dwell. So we come to realise that in exchange for the broken body on the cross we receive the glorious Body and Blood of Christ as our food and drink. The one we break becomes the unbreakable Rock, the cornerstone of our new lives. From Him flows the living water of new life.
Now Paul really is entering into the heart of the mystery of God’s plan for our human family. Now Paul helps us to glimpse the overall plan, a plan of astonishing boldness and hope. He tells us that Christ himself is the Head of a new Body (Ephesians 1:22-23), that he is the first fruit of God’s work (1 Corinthians 15:23), the first to be born from the dead, and what has happened in Christ is what will happen in us! There will be a new heaven and a new earth. All will be made new in Christ!
No wonder Paul wants us to align ourselves on Christ, to be building ourselves into him, to centre our hearts, our daily efforts, our love, on him. Paul understands, with a joy and determination which is still astonishing, that Christ is the Brightness of the Father’s glory (Hebrews 1:3) and that we are meant to be filled with that glory, too.
In comparison with this, Paul shouts out that everything else is of little worth. ‘Nothing’, he says, ‘can outweigh the supreme advantage of knowing Christ Jesus, my Lord!’ (Philippians 3:8).
Here is our calling. Here is the joyful invitation that faces us each day: to know Christ Jesus more and more in the way that Paul knows him, in the way that Paul presents him to us. Little by little we offer ourselves to Christ in the footsteps of Paul.
We follow Paul as our teacher of Christ and we note, as we heard in the first reading this evening (1 Timothy 1:12-17), that Paul’s effectiveness as a teacher springs from his own experience of being forgiven, of accepting his own failure and shortcomings. It can be no different for any one of us. We cannot be a teacher of Christ unless we are first of all a grateful disciple, acknowledging our utter dependence on the Lord.
We follow Paul as a servant of the unity of the Church (cf. 1 Corinthians 12:1-13). This is so because we recognise that it is in the Church that all the grace of Christ, all our contact with him, is best found. If we are to grow into Christ then we need the coming together of all the gifts given to the Church. We cannot do it on our own, by our own judgement, on our own authority. That is the joy of being a Catholic. We are in this together and as each of us struggles to be close to Christ, so he draws us close to each other in the mystery of the Church.
We follow Paul as a man of prayer, as we heard in the third reading (Ephesians 3:14-19). Paul lives by that inner life of which he speaks so eloquently. He lives, then, from the inside out. His words, his actions, are formed by the inner life of the Holy Spirit within him. Most of us tend to live from the outside in. Our lives are formed and influenced by what we see and experience around us. We react – in joy, in anger, in frustration. But, for the most part, Paul teaches us that the strongest source of life, and of daily action, is the inner life of each one of us. He tells us not to be tossed around by fashion and the latest ideas. This poise and peacefulness can only be achieved if, within each one of us, there is a strong inner life, the fruit of the kind of prayer which Paul teaches us.
Today, as we honour Paul, we are proud to be called Christians.
Let us, with his help, strive to live as Christians, so that the meaning of all that we draw from Paul of the great wonder of Christ may be seen in our every word and deed.
Lord, may your light shine in our wonderful world through our words and actions. May we be led by your great apostle Paul, and by Peter, as we honour them together on this Feast. May St John Southworth, too, pray for us today. Amen
Archbishop of Westminster
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