Lent II ~ GSC, 8th Mar 2020
Even when I’m holiday, I love going to churches. And so it was that Anne-Marie and I were on the beautiful island of Mauritius and made the journey from where we were staying to the capital city, Port Louis. There, next to the Cathedral of St Louis is the burial place of one known as the Apostle of Mauritius, Father Jacques Laval, who died in 1864. It’s not a particularly grand Cathedral; nor is the shrine particularly elegant. An image of Père Laval’s body lies in bright colours as if his body is there and he looks very much like many of those other slightly gaunt nineteenth century devout priests, like St John Vianney. What’s particularly struck me is that, though he died one hundred and fifty years ago, the local people to the shrine and the devotion on their faces is such that you’d think he was a member of their family, it is as if he’d been their parish priest and they gather there to ask him to pray for them and their loved ones. It’s powerful stuff.
And of course, those contemporary pilgrims and tourists and we ourselves six thousand miles away are all bound together by one faith, one Lord, one Baptism. Mauritius is about as far away from Africa as you can get while still being in the African content. It’s one of only two places in Africa I’ve been to, and Africa is the continent that our Lenten sermon series looks at this evening. Many of you will know bits of Africa very well indeed and maybe you can share those stories with each other after Mass. I want to gather my thoughts about the Church in Africa around three messages for us.
First, the call to share the Good News. In our first reading, God calls Abraham (at this stage still known by his original name of Abram) to travel the huge distance to leave his home. Abraham has to act in faith. We forget that your clergy and your Pastoral Assistants have all left their home to come and be with us and to make their home among you in Tottenham. This was how Africa first heard the message of the Good News as well: it has a venerable foundation. St Mark, the author of one of the Gospels and companion of St Paul took the message of Jesus Christ to Alexandria in Egypt, on the northern shores of Africa. Elsewhere, in the Acts of the Apostles 8, we’re told that St Philip baptised a eunuch who had prominence in the court of the Queen of Ethiopia. He returns to that country to spread the Gospel.
Through the centuries African soil has brought forth many saints who strengthen us today with their prayers. St Athanasius in the third century faced loneliness and public derision for sticking to the truths of the Faith. St Augustine decades later heard God’s call to turn his life around and put aside the attraction of sin so as to know the rest given by putting his heart in the hands of God. His mother, St Monica, knew how important it was that her family convert to Christianity and to lives filled with worship. St Cyril of Alexandria, one of their contemporaries, fought hard that we might know how important it is for us to call Mary, Mother of God, so that we can assert the truth that Jesus is both God and man. We gather here this evening so that we can be nourished in the truths of the faith so that we can then take it to wherever we’ll be for the rest of the day, for tomorrow, for the rest of the week. We’re called to share a message of hope and truth, as these saints of Africa did.
Secondly, in Paul’s second letter to St Timothy, which we heard this evening, we heard him exhort us to “bear the hardships for the sake of the Good News, relying on the power of God.” Today, Christians face huge persecution in Africa, bearing many hardships of imprisonment, intimidation and execution. Yet, the largest number of Christians in any continent in the world at the moment is in Africa. The temptation is to say that there are so many Christians despite that persecution but in reality it’s probably because of that persecution that the Church flourishes. The blood of the martyrs is the foundation of much faith.
Earliest among the Church in Africa to die for their faith were Ss Perpetua and Felicity who died in the year 203. We celebrated their feast day yesterday. These two women came from Tunisia in north east Africa and are patron saints of mothers and pregnant women. Perpetua’s father tried to discourage her in her faith, especially because it was dangerous then to be known as a follower of Christ. Amid all the pressure, Perpetua said to her father, “‘Do you see this vessel—waterpot or whatever it may be? Can it be called by any other name than what it is?’ ‘No,’ he replied. ‘So also I cannot call myself by any other name than what I am—a Christian.’ Felicity remained faithful even though she was imprisoned just a few days before she gave birth to her son.
When we feel pain we so often use it as a reason to break from our Christian faith. Something becomes difficult and so we stop it, something is inconvenient and so we say it doesn’t matter to make ourselves feel justified in the decision. If the Spirit was saying that to the Christians in these countries where Christian are persecuted, there’d be no persecution because everyone would have given up the Faith. The plight of those Christians shame us in our comfort. This evening’s reading of the Transfiguration is given to us in Lent by the Church that we might keep the Lord’s Heavenly glory before us as we deny ourselves things and take on things to admonish the flesh and prompt the spirit of Jesus Christ to work within us more deeply.
Thirdly, there are some greatly encouraging examples from the continent of Africa where the Church’s different denominations work together. In recent months, the Archbishop of Canterbury and the Pope have been using their combined influence to bring some sense of peace in South Sudan, where violence has reigned owing to political animosity. Elsewhere, over a hundred years ago amid the persecution in Uganda both the anglican bishop James Hannington, a court official Charles Lwanga and many other Roman Catholics and Anglicans were executed because of their faith. The devil doesn’t see these differences as he tries to attack the Church. It’s good for us to learn this lesson.
I want to finish with two quotations from two African Christians who have much to teach us. First, prominent among the churchmen of our own day and from Guinea is Cardinal Robert Sarah, whose books “The Day is now Far Spent” and “The Power of Silence” are internationally recognised as great works, though I must confess I’ve not read them myself. In the former, he writes of us in places like the UK, “The West no longer knows who it is, because it no longer knows and does not want to know who made it, who established it, as it was and as it is.” Secondly, St Josephine Bakhita, a Sudanese slave who became a nun and died in 1947. She summed up her life as a Christian and the poverty at first forced upon then which she then embraced: “I travel slowly, one step at a time, because I am carrying two big suitcases. One of them contains my sins, and in the other, which is much heavier, are the infinite merits of Jesus. When I reach heaven I will open the suitcases and say to God: Eternal Father, now you can judge. And to St. Peter: Close the door, because I’m staying.” Amen.