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Practical Love

6th May 2012

Practical Love: A Sermon preached at Holy Cross Church Cromer Street, London
for Easter 5, 6th May 2012,  by The Rev’d. Dr. James Walters,
Chaplain of the London School of Economics.

There is, on the back of my office door, a quotation that reads:

“I only love God as much as I love the person I love the least”.

Those are the words of Dorothy Day. She’s not that well known this side of the Atlantic but she is something of a folk hero among social activist American Christians. She was originally a Communist but she discovered the faith was baptized at the age of 30 in 1927. She believed that her ideals of social justice were better lived out as a Christian than as a communist and she set up the “House of Hospitality” to work with the poorest residents of New York’s slums.

She was very scathing of American Christianity of her time. She saw a lot of supposed faith, a lot of people who claimed to love God. But those same people could be highly judgmental of those living in poverty around them. This was an America to the “New Deals” of Franklin D Roosevelt - the reforms that brought in the kind of welfare system in the United States that was also coming into being across Europe to protect vulnerable people - the unemployed, the sick, the homeless, the elderly. And indeed, if you’re familiar with the novels of John Steinbeck, you’ll have some idea how much suffering there was. This was a brutal free market America where those who couldn’t afford to eat were just viewed as indolent and inferior. But Dorothy Day believed something else. She believed, “I only love God as much as I love the person I love the least”. She is saying the same thing, of course, as St John in his first letter:

Those who say, ‘I love God’, and hate their brothers or sisters, are liars; for those who do not love a brother or sister whom they have seen, cannot love God whom they have not seen. The commandment we have from him is this: those who love God must love their brothers and sisters also.

That might sound like something we would obviously want to sign up to. We talk a lot about love in church and there are few people who would take issue with any of the warm words that John expresses in his letter about God being love and abiding in that love. But the reality of all this stuff is much more demanding, maybe even offensive to our sense of fairness and justice. Because Dorothy Day reminds us of two things about Christian love.

First, love is not, in the first instance, a feeling so much as a decision. We must love our brothers and sisters, John tells us. But the Gospel tells us that all people are potentially our brothers and sisters, certainly all the baptised as we see in the new bond created between Philip and the Ethiopian eunuch. And Jesus goes further to say that we should love our enemies. Now our culture believes that love is a feeling - most pop songs are all about it. But we are never going to feel love for our enemies. It is impossible to feel love for all people in the way John talks about here. So for the Christian, we are able to love because we decide to love. Essentially we decide not to judge because just as God sent not his Son to condemn the world, so it is our refusal to condemn that makes love possible. And goodness me, condemnation is very tempting.

Second, Dorothy Day reminds us that as well as a decision, love is an action. Love needs to be expressed in concrete form. Dorothy Day really got on with that in practical ways running a soup kitchen and housing the homeless. In a big city like ours with so many different needs, it’s easy to be overwhelmed by a sense of inability to make a difference. But there are always things that each one of us can do to make our love for others concrete. Indeed there has to be if we are truly to be Christians and follow this very direct command of Christ. So love is a decision and love is an action.

All of this is becoming more and more pressing in the society in which we live today, because as our welfare state is rolled back and market forces come to dictate the shape of our society, we are in some ways returning to the kind of world in which Dorothy Day lived - a world where people are not compassionate because they are too quick to pass judgment on the cause of somebody else’s need. Archbishop Rowan got into all that trouble last year in his New Statesman article for saying that we are seeing ‘a quiet resurgence of the seductive language of “deserving” and “undeserving” poor’. And when something causes that much of a stir, it’s clearly because it is an uncomfortable truth.

What we know is that this city is becoming more unequal and more fragmented, more governed by the logic of the market in crucial areas like housing. Maybe that is an issue affecting some of you sitting here. And I think that vision of a fragmented, market-driven city is inconsistent with the New Testament which doesn’t set people in competition with one another but sees everybody as connected to everybody else. We see that in this wonderful image of life in Christ - life on the vine. All the branches bear their own fruit and the parable clearly implies a personal responsibility, a judgment of our individual actions. But all are woven together and connected to one another in an organic way. Essentially the vine flourishes as a whole or it withers and dies as a whole. And it will flourish when the whole vine is grounded in Christ who is the God of love.

“God is love, and those who abide in love abide in God, and God abides in them.”
Those aren’t warm fluffy words for our comfort. Those are challenging, radical words for our time. So let’s be people who stand against condemnation, people for whom love is a decision and an action. And so let’s pray that this city might be a fruitful vine where all are fruitful together and where we all grow in the love of God.

The Reality of the Body

22nd Apr 2012

“They gave him a piece of broiled fish and he took it and ate it in their presence”  Luke 24.40
Luke 24.36b-48

    •    The Body and Embodiment

We can’t avoid the fact that the gospel writers found the resurrection of Jesus quite puzzling. Except, that is, in one point: in different ways, all the gospels labour the point that Jesus was no ghostly apparition. They tell us the tomb was empty; that he ate, broke bread, spoke, allowed Thomas and others to put their fingers in his wounds. He was very much embodied. It’s interesting that they labour this point, because of course they also tell us that his friends walked along in conversation with him for several miles without knowing him, that he appeared in locked rooms, that he suddenly disappeared from their sight – all things which sound much more like the ways we think of disembodied ghosts.

So why this focus on the reality of the body? Why, at this moment of resurrection vision, do we come to the frankly mundane sounding sentence: ‘They gave him a piece of broiled fish’?

One of the real dangers for people of faith is that we fail to recognise the importance of the physical, tangible world of which we are part – that we make our faith ‘other worldly’. This has always been a danger – right back in the early centuries of the church when Gnostics denied that God had made the physical world, believed that it was evil, and taught that we had to be saved out of it. But Christians have always believed that all of this is God’s creation, and that it is (at the very least potentially) good.  We, like him, are of the body and of the spirit; the resurrection tells us that the true life is one which does not oppose the physical, but goes beyond it. With our bodies, and our hearts and minds, we are called to behold and proclaim God’s glory in the very real present, in the very cold light of day.

The post-resurrection appearances of Jesus are not ghostly or figments of their imagination but real encounters with the living God, who had lived and moved and had his being with them as their teacher and master, but who now lived among them as “Lord and God”, and who now was to exist for The Church as the divine presence which remains always…

    •    The Vision and the Visionary

We are still in the season of Easter, and will certainly remain so for some weeks. This is The Church’s intention. It is to allow for a protracted period of time, Eastertide, in which we experience and re-experience the Resurrection and its aftermath so that we may come to realise its meaning for ourselves. The Resurrection was and is never seen as a simple end-point in the life of the Jesus. It exists dynamically in time. The apostles had already shown the emotional freedom and courage to set aside their existing attachments and follow Jesus, they now had to grasp the far more unsettling message that their lives, and the life of the whole world, would now be utterly changed.


The grave clothes of winter
are still here, but the sepulchre
is empty. A messenger
from the tomb tells us
how a stone has been rolled
from the mind, and a tree lightens
the darkness with its blossom.
There are travellers upon the road
who have heard music blown
from a bare bough, and a child
tells us how the accident
of last year, a machine stranded
beside the way for lack
of petrol, is crowned with flowers.

R S Thomas

So it’s right that we are taking our time to reflect deeply on the Resurrection - it is the ground on which the life of the Church is built. The Resurrection brings the Church into new birth as the wellspring of its life. It is not isolated in history but an ever-present fact for the Church and its present and forward momentum. We can’t ‘do’ the resurrection on Easter day and then get on with the rest of life: The Church is called  to stay in the resurrection so as to be able to live and not die:

Breathe on me, breath of God,
Fill me with life anew,
That I may love what Thou dost love,
And do what Thou wouldst do.

Breathe on me, breath of God,
Until my heart is pure,
Until with Thee I will one will,
To do and to endure.

Breathe on me, breath of God,
Blend all my soul with Thine,
Until this earthly part of me
Glows with Thy fire divine.

Breathe on me, breath of God,
So shall I never die,
But live with Thee the perfect life
Of Thine eternity.

The Resurrection stands in contrast to life that is fossilised and atomised. It is the perpetual declaration if new life in the immediate present for the insurance of life in the future. It is also RS Thomas’ “…stone being rolled from the mind”.  I was in Leeds last week at a Church Urban fund Conference and heard the Archbishop of York, Dr Sentamu offer these words from Archbishop Temple on the passing of the acts for the establishment of the welfare state:

“This is a once in a lifetime expression of a Christian ethic embodied in an act of parliament”

William Beveridge spoke of the sound establishment and the solid expression of ‘social insurance’ in the life of the nation. The coming of these things was, in the light of the devastation of war, a small but miraculous thing. A significant leap of faith in the life of the beleaguered people, a Christian ethic embodied in an act of parliament. And all this because in the thick of war there yet existed among influential minds a vision for a dynamic peace. When such things happen they stand alone, as great political landmarks. So much more for the Resurrection vision in the life of the Church which calls Christians to confidence in the present life and a dynamic hope for the outworking of its future. Confident because the witness is sure and founded on firm foundations which, as Paul reminded us ‘have already been laid’. 1 Corinthians 3.11. Sure because of the reality which for the Church is “Christ in us, the hope of glory”. Colossians 1.27

Doubting Thomas

15th Apr 2012

Then (Jesus) said to him “Do not doubt but believe”.
Thomas answered him “My Lord and my God!” John 20.27b,28.

In the painting ‘The Incredulity of Thomas’ by Caravaggio, Thomas is a gnarled old peasant, who, with furrowed brow and inquisitive and amazed eyes, has placed his bloodied index finger into a wound in Christ’s side. Two other disciples look down at the implanted finger as though medical students at an examination in a teaching hospital. But they are not young medical students but rough old peasants with dirty finger nails. In a fascinating detail, Jesus guides Thomas’ finger into the wound. The scene is spine tingling. You are a witness to a startling scene, and you feel its effect viscerally, with your nerve endings, and it makes you want to shudder!

The painting takes the dialogue between Jesus and Thomas and involves us to the extent that it is WE who are made to feel the finger going into the Christ’s wound ourselves. The spiritual reality of the resurrection is to be experienced in the flesh. The Resurrection of Jesus presents for the mind of the sceptic a difficult or even impossible level of understanding. In this context Thomas becomes the hero of the piece, for he echoes that all too human incredulity which befalls the one for whom faith and wonder exist on the unreachable or neglected side of the human imagination. But Jesus is there as the abiding reality, for Caravaggio he is bathed in light. He is the one who with guiding hand, allows us to see that the spiritual and the physical, the past and the present, have become one in him. As the hymn says ‘Only believe and thou shalt see, that Christ is all in all to thee’. But belief is not a simple business. Thomas makes it look very easy.

But for Thomas the disciple, this was not always the case. Several chapters earlier in John’s Gospel, when the news reaches the ears of Christ that Lazarus is dead, Jesus speaks at first of Lazarus as being asleep, and that he must go and wake him.  The apostles are concerned that Jesus will be stoned if he returns to Judæa.  What follows tells us more about Thomas, and surprises us:

‘Then said Jesus unto them plainly, Lazarus is dead.  And I am glad for your sakes that I was not there, to the intent ye may believe; nevertheless let us go unto him.  Then said Thomas, which is called Didymus, unto his fellow disciples, ‘Let us also go with him, that we may die with him.' John 11.16.

Here Thomas is far from doubting, he is the one who is willing to follow Jesus unto death and to risk the consequences. It is the believing Thomas who cries ‘Let us go with him!” John 11.6.  No wonder then, that in the eastern orthodox churches, Thomas is known not as a doubter but as ‘Thomas the Believer’. If we are honest, we might say that Christian Faith finds its centre of gravity somewhere between a kind of certainty and a kind of doubting. Many of our well-known hymns express this kind of faith, in which God is seen in hiddenness and inaccessibility.  ‘Immortal Invisible God only wise, in light inaccessible hid from our eyes’, we sing.  And in the hymn ‘Jerusalem the Golden’ comes a ringing endorsement of the existence of heaven with the admission that ‘I know not, O I know not, what solid joys lie there…’ Thomas sets before us the existence of faith and doubt as part of the one offering to God. This is echoed in the poetry of R S Thomas as he describes the idea of faith as both presence and absence, and as the confounding of that desire as TS Eliot put it, to ‘verify, instruct yourself, inform curiosity, or carry report…’:

Why no! I never thought other than
That God is that great absence
In our lives, the empty silence
Within, the place where we go
Seeking, not in hope to
Arrive or find. He keeps the interstices
In our knowledge, the darkness
Between stars. His are the echoes
We follow, the footprints he has just
Left. We put our hands in
His side hoping to find
It warm. We look at people
And places as though he had looked
At them, too; but miss the reflection.

Via Negativa    R.S. Thomas (1913–2000)

The Resurrection of Jesus was only slowly realised by the disciples. The Gospel of Mark, which we have been following this year is known to be full of their misunderstandings. The disciples are not learned men. They struggle with their own  intelligences and partial understandings. But the Gospel writer is able in this way to make a larger point about the nature of human perception itself. The point is that faith in Christ may be asserted only in relationship to its being something which unfolds as it is revealed to us. It is never the finished article or a final statement. It grows and develops and may in the right circumstances grow deeper and more mature. More vision and trust may be granted. It takes a while for us  to come to the fuller realisation and understanding of all the things which have taken place. The fact of the resurrection is not just a romantic adjunct to the life and death of Jesus. It is the arrival at an understanding of the identity of Jesus in all its fullness. The brief and pithy dialogue between Jesus and Thomas tells us that Jesus is a truth that can only be apprehended by faith. After all, the new relationship which the Resurrection has founded is the one in which Jesus of Nazareth, the rabbi and teacher, the healer, the worker of miracles, the one who died that shameful death on the cross is now risen from the dead!  He has become for Thomas and for Christians for all time, “Lord and God!” Remember that it was Mary Magdalene and not one of the twelve disciples who witnessed the Resurrection. Remember too that Thomas was not before this incident a witness to the Resurrection. John tells us that he believed only on outward evidence, the witness of his own eyes; but my understanding is that this was witness to something  he had known all along. He was like us only too human…

In the final analysis, an understanding of the Christian faith does not rest on belief and doubt in a theory. It is not about supposition but about reality. It is about us and what we are and why we are alive and what we are doing with our lives and whether we are becoming what we were made to be and whether we acknowledge that we are chosen and cherished by a loving Maker, who has sent his son to live among us, to die for us and to raise us to new life. This is the belief that the Christian risks. The risk as I say to myself, ‘Let me go with him, that I might die with him”.  Let us go, anyway. There is nothing to fear. God has already taken the initiative. He has made his choice and we are now to make ours. But with the caveat that we are not to doubt but only believe.

“Long before any human being saw us, we are seen by God's loving eyes. Long before anyone heard us cry or laugh, we are heard by our God who is all ears for us. Long before any person spoke to us in this world, we are spoken to by the voice of eternal love.”  Claiming and reclaiming our chosenness is the great spiritual battle of our lives, for in a competitive, power-hungry and manipulative world, it is all too easy to forget that God has always known us, and God has chosen us – even when we slide into self-doubt and self-rejection. Knowing that we have been and are known by God, and that we have been chosen, is the first thing we need to claim as we behold what we are and become what we receive in Him.

Henri Nouwen.

Easter Vigil

7th Apr 2012

We are bound to say as we now arrive at this glorious Easter time, (in the words of the song)  ‘What a difference a day makes’. Within the space of three days, everything for the Christian Church changes. And in the passing of this oh so brief period of time --  of Holy Week and now of Easter, the Church has endured the pain of death and now all is transformed for ever. The Church’s proclamation is the one which has proceeded out of the death of Christ, and through his Glorious Resurrection proclaims new life for the world. It has all been encapsulated into a week, and the saving events into three days.

The days we have lived through cannot be experienced separately but together. They define The Christian Church, and this evening’s Easter Liturgy allows us to celebrate new life in Christ as we recapitulate the saving events of our Faith. This faith emerges out of the life that Easter makes possible, and it is ushered in as a flame, flickering delicately, The Light of the Risen Christ proclaimed as “Christ our Light” and then acknowledged and honoured in the glorious Easter song The Exsultet…

Then there is a Liturgy of the Word for the recapitualtion of Christian Faith; the tracing of its origins. It begins with The Creation Narrative in Genesis, and then proceeds to the Exodus and Abraham and then the promise of the coming of the One who will promise us the God not our of religious duty alone, but his own being from the communication of one heart speaking to another. This Easter Liturgy will be a profound celebration of the sacramental life that God has granted us through the blessing of the font, of the baptismal water and of the renewal of our baptismal vows. Everything is to find its renewal through the grace which is Easter. We then celebrate the Eucharist, dominated by the great Easter candle…

I was in Waitrose this afternoon and saw the sad sight of the Easter eggs which were becoming too difficult to be sold. They sat on the shelves, forlorn, with their expensive price tickets waiting to suffer the ignominy of being reduced by half, or even more when the supermarket’s ‘Easter effect’,  marketed since the end of February, becomes redundant. We live in a supermarket economy in which sell-by dates mix with sales trends and Waitrose’s own seamless thread which runs both vaguely with and absurdly counter to the church calendar – how else can we explain the fact of hot cross buns sold in Marks and Spencer’s at Christmastime? In the popular mind’s eye, very little would be known about Maundy Thursday or Good Friday except as adjuncts to Easter. Easter-time stretches out for weeks. Lent is passed by, forgotten; after all how do you market Lent? A little speech was made after a show three weeks ago at a local theatre in which we were all wished a Happy Easter on the Second Sunday of Lent! And so we experience this disjuncture between a popular, commercial culture which no longer remembers this time of Holy Week and Easter.

For Christians this is very strange. For this is the most important time of the Christian Year, one in which Maundy Thursday, Good Friday and Easter Sunday are each and alone significant in very specific ways. Each belong to one another, and they all belong to that part of The Church’s life which places a premium on the hallowing of time. The Church’s calendar allows us to inhabit time in a way in which it is not thrown away, discarded as a passing fad. It commemorates and celebrates and marks time. And at this time for the Church there is the concentration upon so many different parts of our lives with the life and death and resurrection of Christ. The passing of time is not made without its being offered to God in and through his Son. And this for the Church is, in the words of The Bishop of London ‘deeply inspiriting’. It is life-giving and is a way of living the Resurrection in the present and in the time to come. This is because, through our worship, it finds its place within our hearts. And so we don’t speak of the ‘Easter Effect’ or ‘The Easter Experience’ without it’s having been written on our hearts. And when this is done, we become as the followers who rush to the tomb. The Easter joy is not only held in our hearts but proclaimed to our communities as joy and life and hope.

The contrary movement is the experience of an Easter Bank Holiday with the true Easter taken out, and we return to our unsold but expensive eggs! We see a society which no longer memorises a calendar which allows for Easter as the time of Resurrection and as the one which is the holder of new life and a deeper, richer sense of the presence and purposes of God with the hallowing of time. ‘On the third day he rose again from the dead’ we say in the Creed. It has been important in this church celebrate  The Resurrection through the preceding death. The joy is like that of the followers of Jesus who come to the empty tomb and hear the words of the angel

Why seek the dead among the living. He is not dead. He has risen, as he said he would. Go therefore to Gallilee where you will find him’.

We can value the Christian manner of time-keeping as it draws us more surely into The Holy Time of Easter, which has proceeded out of the life and death and resurrection of Jesus Christ, not by accident, but in and through time – the same time frame that we inhabit. The joyful message of Easter is that his time and our time have become everlastingly one. Now, in Christ, our hearts beat as one!

Good Friday 2012

6th Apr 2012

I well remember as a boy that the Mass contained one expression in the Creed which then and even now never ceases to shock me. It is an expression which unnerves the believer and sticks in the gullet, for it is the one which says that Jesus ‘descended into hell’. However this expression is qualified by the Resurrection, the fact of the descent into hell is given to us as the mark and purpose of Good Friday. And it relates most closely to that has been called the awful particularity of the Cross. God has sent his beloved Son into the world to die for the world as the world is, and as we are. To enter completely into the human condition is for Christ to take it all upon himself. To take it into himself, into his heart and to offer it back as love from the place of his own death, a death which is ‘freely accepted’. This is an action which involves a ‘descent into hell’ and the scope of this action is all-encompassing and all embracing.

The dying body of Christ on the Cross is being shown to the world today as both a spiritual lightening conductor and as ‘the eye of the storm’. The body of Christ on the Cross is to be the instrument which for Orthodox Christians brings about ‘the harrowing of hell’. The Cross is a force field into which all human sin and all human hope and longing is drawn into the body of Christ, like a lightening conductor. This body draws everything into itself as darkness covers the face of the whole earth, as lightning strikes, and as the veil of the Temple is torn in two. The body of Christ can draw all the world’s pain into itself because within the sacred heart of the dying Jesus lies God himself, the Creator of all things and perfect love, which exists in the middle of the violence of the crucifixion as the eye of the storm, the place of perfect, God-centred stillness out of which his love flows. This is the harrowing of hell.

And so we are led to see that the death of Christ has a vast scope of cosmic significance. It could never be cosmetic. “God so loved the world that he gave us his only begotten Son so that anyone who believes in him should not perish but have everlasting life”. The sacrifice of God, if it is to be cosmic rather than cosmetic, must take all things into itself to issue in a complete outpouring of everlasting love. And so there is something mighty that is happening here. There is something which is being fought for us and won for us by Christ on our behalf. There is something worth living and dying for here…

When at school I could never really grasp the laws of science. One of my reports for physics reads ‘Christopher just doesn’t have a scientific mind’. It’s just that I couldn’t connect up scientific laws and principles with the realities of my existence, which were no larger or more narrow than most boys, but which were bound up with the Church and the glimmerings of a Christian Faith and a wandering, romantic imagination. But I did learn a basic bit of science which informs and enriches the realities around which people relate to one another. And it is contained in Isaac Newton’s Third Law of Motion “To each and every force (or gesture or action) there is an equal and opposite reaction”. If we translate this scientific law into our understanding of the Sacrificial death of Christ on the Cross we are to say that above and before all else it is an action which proceeds out of God’s love for us. And as perfect love is offered to a fallen, ambivolent world the reaction it creates is at best a variable one, or as Newton might have said ,‘something like equal and very often opposite’. The Grand Inquisitor:  “You loved us too much and you gave us too much freedom” Dostoevsky.

The risk for the issuing of love toward a person or persons hurt and defended from being loved is that it will result not in acceptance but in defensive anger, resentment and an acting out of that anger in ways which turn out to be spiteful or mean or merely obtuse. Or the response may just be a numb one. Those parts of our nature which have not been loved cry out, perhaps silently, for a healing of the past, a healing of minds and hearts and memories.

Always the same hills
Crowd the horizon
Remote witnesses
Of the still scene.

And in the foreground
The tall Cross
Sombre, untenanted,
Aches for the Body
That is back in the cradle
Of a maid’s arms.                        

RS Thomas  The Pièta.

We come before God wounded, vulnerable and broken. That is our Cross. And it is Christ, who lies before us in this church dedicated to the Holy Cross who tells us this. And the teaching we receive from the Cross is the teaching that issues out of Christ’s own manner of living and dying, as the Letter to the Hebrews informs us: “…during his life on earth, Jesus offered up prayer and entreaty, aloud and in silent tears, to the one who had the power to save him out of death, and he submitted so humbly that his prayer was heard”.

The Spanish Mystic, St John of the Cross tells us that “…we too must have our Cross as our beloved had his Cross until he died the death of love”. We all have our crosses to bear and they are not little ones. We are cross bearers too. Many people come to this church in King’s Cross defeated by addiction to alcohol. One of these visitors said to me that she had come into this church because prompted. For out of all her suffering came a prayer, which appeared out of apparently nowhere. It was one which told her that something that to give, something had to be done. But this prospect was awful because with it the terrible realisation of all that had gone before and what had brought her to this place. But she came into church as many at rock bottom do – to come to a place of seeming truth. And her coming into this church and the sense of communion with God had both addressed and exacerbated the pain. This is the scope of the Cross.  ‘It is after all a terrible thing to fall into the hands of the living God. Terrible, because all is caught up in God, even and especially when no easy resolution lies in sight…life as unfinished business, the painful waiting for a deliverance which lies beyond immediate reach, the pain of remaining where we are in the midst of so much that is intractable and insoluble with the possibility of the healing of past hurts and their memories… This is a veritable Cross.

But it is not the end of the matter. The Cross holds out the possibility of what lies beyond it. In the Cross lies the world’s turmoil held within the place of unconditional and inexhaustible love. This is the eye of the storm, the place of healing power and the Divine stillness, the arrival at the place of truer witness. This is the lightening conductor through which the pain of this world’s ransoming is held and channelled. All is being drawn into the Cross as he said “When I am lifted up I shall draw all things to myself”. We are to bear the Cross as the Cross bears us, for in it the promised Resurrection to new life is already being made.





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