And the lord said unto the servant, Go out into the highways and hedges, and compel them to come in, that my house may be filled. (Luke 14: 23)
When I was at school stories about explorers were still in vogue. We listened excitedly to tales of polar explorers who braved the elements to reach their goal and to the stories of those who beat their way through dense jungles and traversed barren plains to reach the source of a river. When the explorers arrived they invariably pitched the flag of their nation – those being the days of empire.
For a different reason that thought came back to me when I was at the shrine in Walsingham last week. Almost a thousand years ago God chose that place when the Blessed Virgin Mary appeared to the Lady Richeldis and commanded her to build the Holy House modelled on her own dwelling in Nazareth, to remind people of the wonder of the Annunciation and to provide a place of pilgrimage and spiritual refreshment. Why there? From a human point of view it is not easy to see. Perhaps because it was a remote location which would test the mettle of the pilgrim and offer a retreat from the stresses of daily life.
God has done this before. He chose the hill of Zion, over against Salem which was to become Jerusalem and there he commanded that a temple be built.
For the Lord hath chosen Sion to be an habitation for himself : he hath longed for her. (Psalm 132: 14)
He refused the tabernacle of Joseph : and chose not the tribe of Ephraim;
But chose the tribe of Judah : even the hill of Sion which he loved. (Psalm 78: 68-69)
Why there? Perhaps because the location would be perfect for the setting of the gospels and the establishment of the Kingdom – or perhaps for a completely different reason.
Whatever the reasons these places were chosen and have made their mark in the story of faith. In such places God raises his flag. But there are many more, not all of them so highly exalted. Cathedrals and parish churches are numbered amongst them. God’s flag is raised here at St. Peter’s because this is the house of the Lord and here he is pleased to dwell. Within these walls and amongst those who worship here God may be found in all the richness of theophany and revelation.
The flag should also be raised in a Christian home. I was reminded during the week of the role which Priscilla and Aquila played in the life of the early church, supporting the ministry of St. Paul with whom they were partners in the gospel (and fellow tent-makers) and in teaching the riches of an orthodox faith to Apollos who had not yet heard Christian teaching in its entirety. Wherever they went, whether that was Rome or Corinth, they raised the flag for the Lord. And we should note too that it was in homes like those of Pricilla and Aquila that the Christian family often met, there being as yet no buildings dedicated to the task like this one. And during times of trial and persecution that would not have been an easy option, but the flag was raised nonetheless.
Our places of worship make a bold statement about the importance of faith and the centrality of worship in the lives of believers. Parish churches, at their best, are places where God is encountered; places to retreat to and find peace and a renewed strength; places to work from in the service of the gospel because we don’t live here. We come alive here and then go out in God’s service – to raise the flag in other places.
Go out into the highways and hedges. This is a parable of the Kingdom. At one level it is all about the invitation which God extends. People are invited to a banquet – and it is the banquet of the Kingdom. Refer back to that oft quoted passage in Isaiah.
And in this mountain shall the Lord of hosts make unto all people a feast of fat things, a feast of wines on the lees, of fat things full of marrow, of wines on the lees well refined. (Isaiah 25: 6)
This is the most generous of all banquets, inclusive of all those who seek the Lord. Its Christian interpretation is found in the Book of Revelation at the wedding feast of the Lamb.
At the end of St. Matthew’s gospel Jesus charges his disciples with the task of proclaiming the Kingdom. The longer ending of St. Mark’s account does the same.
And he said unto them, Go ye into all the world, and preach the gospel to every creature. (Mark 16: 15)
This imperative operates on every level because it applies to all the baptised in each and every age, to all Christians equally, varied according to his or her calling. Through the ministry of the Church God places his hand where he wills from Jerusalem, to Little Walsingham to Bushey Heath. In all of these places the Lord’s flag is raised. It is the flag of an eternal empire because it is the flag of the Lamb who was slain. Wherever the flag flies there is a sign of the redemption which he has won for his people. It is a story worth telling.
Father Andrew Burton SSC
13th June 2021