Words on the Word

On Swift Steeds

Homily on Thursday in the third Week of Eastertide, on the last day of a retreat preached to the bishops of England and Wales

Acts 8.26-40: ‘Go up and meet that chariot.’ 

The persecution that arose in Jerusalem after the lapidation of Stephen caused the apostolic nucleus to explode. The Twelve, who since the Ascension had huddled, first in fear, then in creative confidence, with Mary the Mother of Jesus (Acts 1.14), scattered. 

With remarkable energy they started the mission entrusted to them: to make disciples of all nations, to go to the ends of the earth (Matthew 28.19). According to apocryphal tradition — fanciful, perhaps, but full of deep sense as narrative theology — the Twelve only met again when the Mother of God reposed. At that point, we read in the fifth-century Book of the Dormition of the Blessed Virgin Mary, purporting to be the apostles’ testimony, ‘as we were standing perplexed by many thoughts, how we might go [to her], each of us from where he was, our Lord sent us swift steeds and clouds of light.’

The gathering that resulted forms a central motif in Christian iconography, a timelessly moving image of the Church’s apostolic and Marian nature. 

Supernatural conveyance was not new to the Twelve. Today’s reading from Acts shows us Philip moved by the Spirit. The Spirit both directs and shifts him: once he had instructed and baptised the Kandake’s minister he was ‘taken away by the Spirit of the Lord’, finding himself all at once in Azotus, historically the centre of the cult of Dagon, whose idol was knocked over there by the presence of the Ark back in Samuel’s day (1 Samuel 5.1-7).

The Lord’s Presence moves up and down the land henceforth, not in a sacred object on an ox-cart, but in the apostolic college expounding the Word, breaking Bread, exuding Christ’s sweet aroma (2 Cor 2.15), introducing people to life in the Spirit. 

The mission continues. We can only marvel at the designs of divine providence. Like Philip we are called to be men of encounter, following the highways and byways to look out seekers of truth where they happen to be. We are to expound the Word of God and explain the coherence of his plan of salvation unfolding from time’s dawn. We must be soaked therefore in that Word, letting it infuse our very consciousness, guiding our approach to everything, for Christ is not just Alpha and Omega, but all the other letters in between. We are to administer the sacred mysteries, enabling believers to encounter Christ through his Body, the Church. Then, once our work is done, we are to move on with perfect freedom, letting the Sprit guide us to where we’re needed next.

To minister thus requires at once a deep grounding in essentials and great lightness, an aptitude for movement on ‘swift steeds and clouds of light’, sensitive to the Spirit’s most delicate promptings. May we ever live and work on these terms, joyfully and gratefully. Amen.