Dear brothers and sisters in Christ
Dear Mark, my son and my brother
When I was a youngster, there was a television advert for a particular model of Remington electric razor, long before I ever needed one. It starred the American entrepreneur Victor Kiam who said famously ‘I liked the shaver so much, I bought the company.’ But perhaps a lesser known quote of his was this: ‘Even if you fall flat on your face, you’re still moving forward.’
These are encouraging words for anyone, maybe especially those of us called to ordained ministry. And yet, I want to say something more to you tonight, dear Mark, as you offer yourself, through the Church, for ordination to the diaconate. What I really want to say is this: unless you fall flat on your face, you cannot move forward. What on earth am I talking about?
In a matter of minutes you will, quite literally, fall flat on your face. Your prostration is an act of abandonment and submission. Your promises of celibacy, obedience, charity and service; your being bound to Christ and His Church – and to me as your bishop; all this is distilled in this wordless act of laying yourself down on the ground. ‘A man can have no greater love,’ says the Lord Jesus ‘than to lay down his life for his friends.’ In humility and vulnerability you give witness to the world that the glory on the face of Christ demands nothing less than a single-hearted love which sweeps you off your feet.
It is always the servant who bows low, not the master. It is the servant who lowers his eyes in the presence of greatness. Falling face down tonight makes it clear that all power comes from God, that all honour belongs to Christ. Any greatness you have comes because of Him, and only to the extent to which you embody and stay in His love. This evening the earthenware vessel of your being is placed in the kiln of Jesus’ heart, to be fired for His purpose, to be glazed with His grace. You stand in continuity with Abraham, Moses and Aaron who all fell on their faces before God’s glory. The disciples and the angels, even the Lord Jesus Himself before His heavenly Father, all fell down in awe and wonder. So, be encouraged. Have no fear. This is exactly where you are meant to be in God’s wonderful plan.
Be reassured, dear younger brother, that it is the Lord who reaches out to you personally through these sacred rites. It is the Lord who lays His hand upon your head and touches your lips. He puts His word into your mouth, His love into your heart, His joy into your service. Never doubt that He is with you to protect you. Long before you could ever know or love or choose God, God knew and loved and chose you. And He loves you now, in this very moment.
We know that toddlers often totter and fall down as they learn to walk. You too, like the Prophet Jeremiah, may feel you are merely a child, not knowing how to speak, not quite sure stepping forward. Do not be afraid. You are a child, in fact, a son, a son of the most high God. Tonight you do not lay yourself down by accident. You lay yourself down as a subject of providence, as the object of the Father’s love, as a servant who knows His master’s business so intimately that He is counted a friend of the king.
In idiomatic English, to fall flat on one’s face is to make a mistake, to try, yet to fail, to be the cause of embarrassment. This is, of course, part of being human, a consequence of that original fall. Those of us already ordained can testify readily that ordination is no guarantee of sanctity. But bringing our wounds and weakness to Christ is intrinsic to our discipleship. And what is true for every baptised Christian is equally true for the deacon, the priest, and the bishop. The third and fourth century desert fathers and mothers knew this only too well. When a monk was asked: ‘What do you do up there in the monastery?’ he replied: ‘We fall and get up, fall and get up, fall and get up again.’ This is good advice for the challenges we all meet as we climb the mountain on the way of perfection.
But here’s the great and incomparable truth of Christ: in whatever ways we fall, we rise because of Him – through Him, with Him and in Him. St Paul puts it beautifully: Christ, being raised from the dead, will never die again. (cf. Rom 6:9) And so we who rise with Christ have an eternal hope. This is why, Mark, you can have confidence in the ministry entrusted to you through ordination, by which your soul is fashioned anew into the image of the risen Lord. We may well fall down by our own faults, but we are lifted up by the power of Him whose cross and resurrection sets us free. Take courage then. We do not need to preach ourselves. We cannot muster our own merits. No, we preach Christ Jesus as Lord, as servants for His sake. We are merely, but also wondrously, stewards of His mysteries, called to shine with the knowledge of God’s glory.
Unless you fall flat on your face, you cannot move forward. This is certainly true practically in the rite of ordination. Before the laying on of hands, and the prayer of consecration, you must prostrate on the ground. And as you lay yourself down, we will invoke the intercession of the saints in heaven. What does this prostration mean? It is not just some liturgical nicety. It is the disposition for the rest of your life as a deacon and, please God, a priest. I think it means reverence before speech; reverence before action; reverence before entitlement. To minister from a place of reverence means holding the holy things of God in unity with the holy service of God’s people. Before and above all else, it means living the demeanour of a servant. Such is the way to move towards greatness in the kingdom. If I want to imitate Christ’s friendship, I have to love as He loves, trusting His Father and my Father, utterly reliant on the Holy Spirit.
In all of this, our ministry is never freelance. It is wedded to Christ’s body, to His bride, the Church. After your ordination to the priesthood, there will be one day in the year when you make a public prostration – Good Friday. It will remind you, dear Mark, that your life is a sacrifice, given over to Christ’s mission through His Church. You are to live celibacy in order to love. You are to live simply and prayerfully in order to be enriched. You are to live in obedience so as to find freedom. This is the way of fruitfulness and it blossoms in joy.
My son and my brother, your particular calling is to fulfil by ordination the commandment of the Lord Jesus: as the Father has loved Him, and as He loves us – as He loves you – you must remain in His love and be His love for others. So, beloved, fall on your face in order to move forward. Step into the adventure of service that God has prepared for you and His Church.