Abiding Journeys

Myles has played the organ for us here in Pembroke for over two years: he is director of music, lay chaplain, and supernumerary Fellow at Harris Manchester College. He will be leaving us to join Helen-Ann, his wife, who is the newly-appointed Bishop of Ripon in the summer. We are unfeignedly thankful to him, especially for this fine sermon preached in Pembroke Chapel on 29 April, 2018.

In 1925, London-born author G. K. Chesterton wrote, ‘There are two ways of getting home; and one of them is to stay there. The other is to walk round the whole world till we come back to the same place …’.[1]

Thank you so much to Andrew for the most kind invitation to speak this evening: it’s exciting to be in another part of chapel!  If I may, I would like to take this opportunity to reflect on the themes of journeying and abiding that we have heard in the readings, and to share some experiences of my own travels.

I wonder how many of us have had unexpected journeys, where we have found ourselves on roads and routes that we could not have anticipated or imagined?!

Helen-Ann and I would never have anticipated visiting New Zealand, let alone living and working there, but exciting and unexpected opportunities arose for us to leave posts in Oxford in 2012, and we had a very happy six years there: two in Auckland and four in Hamilton, both on New Zealand’s North Island.  In Hamilton, I worked as an organist, and Helen-Ann was Bishop of Waikato: a large Anglican diocese with wonderful diversity of rural and urban areas, which even included the town of Matamata – used by Peter Jackson as his location for Hobbiton in his film adaptions of J. R. R. Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings trilogy.[2]  Local friends joked that Helen-Ann was bishop of the Shire, and in fact one Ascension day, Helen-Ann ascended part way up Mount Ngauruhoe with a party of teenage girls – the very volcano Jackson used as Mount Doom!

Thankfully, all went well, but it was significantly more challenging than the tower ascent Harris Manchester choir will be doing next week for our Ascension day Service!

It’s good to reflect on Tolkien here: in this, his own college, where he was a Fellow whilst writing his epic narratives of journey The Hobbit, and first two volumes of The Lord of the Rings.  Bilbo and Frodo Baggins, central characters of these books undertake dangerous, unexpected and arduous journeys with companions, and return home transformed: the progress implied by the Chesterton quotation. Bilbo himself is an author, and entitles the record of his journey, ‘There and back again’.

Helen-Ann and I feel that we have been there and back again, have walked around the world even – albeit with thanks to Air New Zealand.

I even feel a sense of return here in this very chapel. Though I’m from Cumbria originally, from the age of eight I was a pupil at the Cathedral School on Brewer Street, just the other side of the chapel’s south wall, and next door to the birth-place of Dorothy L. Sayers.  She was a friend of the Inklings, and translator of Dante’s poem of the spiritual journey, The Divine Comedy[3] – Dante, son of Florence, where the choir toured in 2016.  At school I used to practise the organ at Campion Hall, and Oxford has felt home to me for a long time: a place to abide, to use language from the NRSV John reading, or a place to remain, to use the translation of the Greek word ‘menō’ by Campion Hall’s Nicholas King.[4]

Indeed, as we move towards the end of the academic year, for some perhaps a time of uncertainty concerning the next step, this college and chapel are places of abiding: places that we can hold onto and return to, even many years after the exams have been sat, and the dissertations submitted.

I certainly had an abiding connection to the UK whilst overseas, but was ever grateful for the amazing opportunities of New Zealand, the incredible welcome and hospitality of friends and colleagues: a true ‘home from home’.  I learned a great deal about abiding in that country, strength of family connections and friendships, Anglican faith and identity, particularly whilst in Hamilton, and from Māori and Pacific Island friends. Māori have the wonderful word whanau, meaning extended family, friends and community.  In a real sense, this college and chapel are examples of whanau.

To use a motif from the visual arts, an integral symbol for Māori is the koru (the Māori word for ‘loop’), which is a spiral shape based on the appearance of a new unfurling silver fern frond. You see this in carving and tattooing, where it symbolises new life, growth, strength and peace, a symbol very similar to the vine for John.

John’s vine imagery encapsulates Jesus’ teaching about relationality, about home and dwelling in God: Jesus the true vine, God the vine grower, and the branches called to bear fruit, inter-connected to the very source of being.

If we relate these themes to the Acts reading, Philip’s unexpected journey, to borrow Peter Jackson’s film title, shows that such abiding is not a place of stasis, or of comfort necessarily.

Through abiding in God, Philip is called to a hard desert journey, at first seemingly without reason.  In hindsight, through his meeting with the Ethiopian official, Philip enables new branches to grow on the vine: individuals and then whole communities both in Ethiopia and nearer to Philip’s home: physical and spirit-filled journeys of unexpected relocation and profound transformation.

The image of the vine also highlights that pruning is necessary for growth and transformation; the vine cannot prune itself!  To return to the journey metaphor, this is to recognise our limitations: that we can only carry so much for the road, only travel so far alone – to recognise that there are moments to grasp, and moments to release.   In words of the New Zealand poet and medical doctor Glenn Colquhoun,

The art of walking upright here

is the art of using both feet.

One is for holding on.

One is for letting go.[5]

 

Or, in words of Ecclesiastes chapter three, translated by Nicholas King:

For everything there is a time,

and a time for everything under heaven:

A time for giving birth, and for dying;

a time to plant, and a time to pluck up what was planted;

A time to kill, and a time to heal;

a time to destroy, and a time to build up;

A time to weep, and a time to laugh;

a time to mourn, and a time to dance.[6]

As a music finalist here, I remember a sense of holding on and letting go in selecting which topics to revise fully, which to consider in a more general way, and which to omit; similarly, I remember the sense of release, and dare I say relief, on handing in submissions.  At occasional times of feeling overwhelmed by revision and sense of limited time, I was given comfort by the advice to be attentive to the present moment – to rest in uncertainty if need be, to abide:

A similar message perhaps to these words from the New Zealand Prayer Book in the liturgy for night prayer:

It is night after a long day.
What has been done has been done;
what has not been done has not been done;
let it be.

The night heralds the dawn.
Let us look expectantly to a new day,
new joys,
new possibilities.[7]

In this time, season, and place of new possibilities, I would like to finish by wishing you a wonderful continuing Trinity term – good luck to finalists, and those with exams and submissions!

Inspired by this place, community, whanau and home, may we abide in our journeys: whether academic, work-related, physical or spiritual, even dramatic and unexpected like Philip’s, and may we enjoy the companions on the way.

To return to and echo the theme of my initial Chesterton quotation, I conclude with an extract from T. S. Eliot’s Little Gidding, the final poem of the Four Quartets:

What we call a beginning is often the end

And to make an end is to make a beginning.

…..

We shall not cease from exploration, and at the end of all our exploring will arrive where we started, and know the place for the first time.[8]

 

Amen.

[1] Chesterton, G. K., The Everlasting Man (Hodder and Stoughton, 1925).

[2] J. R. R. Tolkien, The Lord of the Rings (Allen & Unwin, 1954 & 1955).

[3] D. Alighieri, The Divine Comedy, volumes I & II translated by D. L. Sayers D.; volume III translated by D. L. Sayers & D. Reynolds (Penguin, 1949, 1955, 1962).

[4] N. King, The New Testament, Freshly Translated (Mayhew, 2004).

[5] ‘The trick of standing upright here’ by G. Colquhoun from The Art of Walking Upright (Steele Roberts Ltd Aotearoa, 1999).

[6] N. King, The Bible, A Study Bible Freshly Translated (Mayhew, 2013).

[7] A New Zealand Prayer Book He Karakia Mihinare o Aotearoa (The Anglican Church in Aotearoa, New Zealand and Polynesia, 1988).

[8] T. S. Eliot, Little Gidding (Faber & Faber, 1942).

Arte et Labore

The above arrangements, though in the Convent Chapel, are not those referred to in the address, below.

Address at Sunday Eucharist, 6th May, 2018, Convent of the Incarnation, Sisters of the Love of God, Oxford.

This morning’s address comes courtesy of Blackburn Rovers Football Club. Yesterday, at the match in Lancashire, opposite where we were sitting, was their Latin motto: Arte et Labore. ‘Gift’, skills given by God, Grace, without which there would be nothing; together with labour are needed; because without disciplined practice and working, those God-given gifts, the seed that God has planted, can be choked because of the world, folly, and laziness: and come to nothing. Fruitfulness requires God to plant the seed, and our active response and participation which allows that seed to grow.

There’s an anecdotal story about a vicar visiting a gardener, and having to listen to all the stories of her hard work over the years. Perhaps through boredom, or wanting to reprimand her lack of faith, he challenges her with the words: “Don’t forget that it is God who is the source of all beauty and fruitfulness: he is the real gardener.” Her response was “All I can say is that you ought to have seen when it was left to him alone!”

The lectionary readings today have in common an acknowledgement of the Christian community’s development in understanding of what to do now that the Lord is raised. Acts explores the practical boundaries between Christian community and the Jewish Church, which values and norms are lasting? It is Peter, so often depicted as the Conservative Jewish-orientated leader of the apostles, who asks the question “Can anyone really withhold baptism” from those in whom Holy spirit is clearly present? This is part of the unfurling agenda in which all foods, peoples, and nations are declared clean. (Acts 10:44-48).

This startling departure redefines Israel’s priestly rôle for all nations. Cultural distinctiveness and identity is seen to have come to fruition, not in a radical departure from the vocation of Israel to be a light to the Gentiles, but in a new fruitfulness and power: this is a victory which we hear of in the second reading, from the first Epistle of John (1 John 5:1-6), a victory of love, bringing obedience and faith to equip all to love God and all His children: ‘this is the victory that conquers the world.’

The Gospel (John 15:9-17), yet again this week, with simple vocabulary drives home a straightforward truth, which is difficult to appropriate. To be fruitful, as we heard last Sunday in the story of the vine and vinedresser, depends upon our abiding in Christ; being in communion with him means being connected to one another, so that we, to adopt a phrase of Sister Anne, might “love our neighbour whatever”.

But despite this being repeated Sunday after Sunday since Easter, as if saying “How many times do I have to tell you this?!”, despite this theological priority and power, it is remaining in the love of the Father for the Son, and being satisfied with the Holy Spirit which is that Love, that is so very difficult.

Again and again we vainly imagine that there are other theological truths which are more significant than this communion, participation, and unity. And the Church’s history is peppered with schism and heresy, which put opinion over communion. God is relationship: he is communion. And yet despite our stubbornness, God has not abandoned us, even when we refuse to see that we are all still part of the same vine which is Christ. He has left us no ‘perfect church’ or single communion which we are to join: he has not abandoned us, in whatever branch of the Church we find ourselves. ‘I call you friends; I choose you; I appoint you to be fruitful’ Jesus says in the gospel. The commandments he gives us are not absolute ends in themselves, but given to equip us to love the Lord, and one another, and remain in that love which is the All-Holy Spirit – as St Seraphim makes clear again and again.

Many problems and disappointments we may feel as we earnestly make our intercessions, how often that which is longed-for does not come, and the end we have asked for remains elusive: we must abide, remain, and continually pray that the deepest level of unity, in the mystery of God himself, be not breached by any of our impatience, folly, inadequacy, or sin.

Abiding, remaining, is not always easy. Far from it. We remember with love and affection sisters of this community who travelled with us for however long, but who found that abiding here was just too hard: not what they thought it would be, or not what they were really for.

And even if we don’t leave, how many times a month do we, in the words of George Herbert, do we strike

the board, and cry

No more! I will abroad! (‘The Pulley’)

It’s very hard to see sometimes what we are all contributing, or able to make a difference, how we might serve, even, when all the opportunities we’d like to take seem hemmed-off. But he has chosen us; loved us; and in his mercy, placed us where we are to serve him, even if, in this life, we can’t see how.

Last week there were moments of God nudging this blind and unobservant priest speaking to you. In the Eucharist on Thursday the words of the Eucharistic prayer “how wonderful the work of your hands O Lord” nearly stopped me in my tracks. The magnitude of the word meant I suddenly found it difficult to just push on. In Sister Claire Louise’s words, I had almost say to him ‘Put me down, Lord: I have to finish this!’ It is a rare but wonderful thing to be surprised by a familiar truth, which comes from beyond ourselves.

But it was last Sunday in particular that I was struck by another extraordinary vision. I so often don’t notice things like flower arrangements, but I was left nearly breathless as I saw one in front of the Lady Chapel, one of the foot of our Lady, and an arrangement at the bottom of the lectern. They opened me up to see what is here every week, and indeed all around me all the time. I sort of understood what their beauty was really about. Floral arrangements at special occasions, (wedding receptions, college “dos” and the like) can be rather showy things, putting on a front. But these arrangements were ‘all around’: someone had placed purple tulips by the altar and by Our Lady, among other flowers with variegated green around the lectern. They were arranged in such a way that made one aware of the space between the flowers. The arrangements made the flowers, the blossom, and the leaves – all beautiful in themselves – into a connected arrangement: a model of communion. And it was this arrangement, which the flowers had not themselves chosen, that showed and enhanced the space, and ordered wonder between them.

God arranges us, unique and beautiful in ourselves, loved ultimately by him, in such a way so as not to be a showy ‘front’, but to make visible his Love: to show the beauty of space in creation: to make visible the invisible God.

That is a sacramental sign to remind us to trust the Lord in his wisdom, who knows what he is about: he who has chosen us, places us is in such a way together that his arrangements are truth, and love, and light for the world. Our mission, therefore, is to remain where he places us: to live really in this present, knowing it won’t always be the mountaintop experiences of religious inspiration, or always receiving gift upon gift, but there will also be the need for labour, for laborious obedience and trust. Arte et labore, as the motto of the newly promoted Championship team Blackburn Rovers tells us: as laborious as it is, as impatient as we can get, abide in this Love: remain in him. That way, we can learn the patience to appreciate that this Arranger knows what he is about: let’s remain where he has placed us – until we are clothed with the power from high.

The Father and I are One.

The Father and I are One.

Tuesday 24th April         Epistle: Acts 11:19-26     Gospel: John 10:22-30

Luke tells us in Acts that when the early church was scattered because of persecution, ‘the hand of God was with them.’ The moment of apparent desolation becomes a turning point for the Church. At Antioch, a great number became practicing disciples, seasoning that city with their presence, so that they acquired the nickname Christians. Barnabas was sent to see this situation, and he rejoiced and encouraged them: he was ‘a good man, full of the Holy Spirit, and of faith.’ Plain practical kindness and goodness marked him out – his encouragement brought Saul out of anonymity in Tarsus – Barnabas discerned that it was time for Saul to begin his public ministry within the Christian church as Paul.

Saul’s history as a Pharisee was notorious. He had persecuted early Christians: it was at his feet that those who stoned St Stephen had put their cloaks. Then there was that episode on the road to Damascus, where the persecutor had a vision of Jesus, who confronted him, with the blinding question ‘Saul, Saul, why are you persecuting me?’ Not ‘Why are you persecuting my people’, or ‘my Church’, but ‘me. Exactly what that meant for the status of Christian believers, however humble, however incomplete and inadequate we might be, overwhelmed Saul, and it should overwhelm us.

In today’s gospel, John tells us of Jesus at Hanukkah. People took the opportunity to ask him to speak plainly about himself and his mission. His answer was that his works have already told that story, it’s how people respond to what they have seen that marks whether or not they wish to be part of his flock. The community is called into being by listening to Jesus – he knows us, and gives us time to know him, giving us eternal life so that we may never perish, and never be snatched away from Him. The Christian community is entrusted to Jesus by the Father: the Father and he are one.

The extraordinary good news is, that in every twist and every moment of each human life, as we say in the Communion Service: “The Lord be with you“– He is here. Our mission lies in his truth – Christian life and the service of God is to name this powerful and gentle extension of God himself to his world. Throughout many centuries this church has stood to say to everyone, on behalf of God, ‘Every day, the door is open for you’. In our worship and self-offering, we tell God ‘Every day the door of our heart is open for You’.

In the real man, Jesus, God never stops seeking the lost – and neither do we. God desires to restore a loving relationship with every soul – and so do we. When we are lost, God himself comes to find us in Jesus. And when we are found, God himself rejoices in us, because we are made and restored in God’s image. Jesus and the Father are one. Our destiny is to be one with him, and one with each other.

God himself makes this happen this in many ways. It can all seem a bit far from the grind of the everyday, but it is God’s purpose in each place throughout all history to reconcile all things in Jesus.

This work of God himself, of the Holy Spirit, is going on now, here. It is been going on in every situation within these stones over the last thousand years. God’s purposes working out in Saxon life, in the establishment of this city and university, through the trauma of the Reformation, in the trials of Cranmer and others; it takes place inconspicuously too, in daily silence, and prayer, and worship; in conversations, amid troubled emotions and conflict, in civic ceremony; in ancient liturgy, and beautiful music that makes us hear God’s stillness. Visitors, and regular worshippers glimpse the living God with his people, and begin to see that in Jesus we all belong to him. And the eyes of love learn to see how Christ himself departs, quietly and invisibly, from the sanctuary. The singing will continue to resound, human fellowship will abound, people will wonder at the beauty of the music. And Christ will go out through the church porch, and mingle with the crowd[1]: the poor, the desperate, the embittered, the lost, the tourist, the student, the strong, the rich, migrant worker, those who live on our streets with their dogs, the addict, drug seller, Oxford residents, night-clubbers, schoolchildren. Christ goes out into these streets, and beyond them to the prisons, the hospitals, to places of power and poverty. He goes in our flesh, yours and mine, because in him forever, the Father and humanity are united: God has become eternally human: the Father and we are one in Jesus.

 Botero_Jesus_and_the_Crowd

Fernando Botero, Jesus and the Crowd, 2010, oil on canvas, 107 x 78 cm, Private Collection.

———————————————————————————————————————————————————————————————

Notes

[1] Cf. Maria Skobtsova (St Maria of Paris).

Enjoy good luck in an Ordered Universe

Pembroke College Oxford

Sunday 22nd April 2018. Preacher – the Chaplain

The Ordered Universe Project is a multi-disciplinary engagement with medieval science, philosophy and theology. One recent project was on Augustine’s de Musica, resulting in the construction of an instrument from the period. The most recent study was on the work of Bishop Grosseteste of Lincoln, exploring how he understood the inter-connectivity of the world’s order, and the emergence of interpreting it evidentially, even its systematic incompleteness.

Alexandra Carr writes of her work:

Suspensio is a site specific work made to coincide with the launch of the conference ‘Science, Imagination, and Wonder: Robert Grosseteste and his Legacy’ at Pembroke College, Oxford, presented by the Ordered Universe.

It draws upon the treatises on Light and on Colour (De Luce and De Colore), by medieval thinker, Bishop Robert Grosseteste.

The structure of Suspensio is informed by key architectural features of the Damon Wells Chapel. Steel cables cross each other to form 25 nodes in suspension above the aisle. A single glass bead is hung from each node to every other node, creating a clustered network of points of reflection.

During the day Suspensio floats effortlessly, with a delicate and subtle presence, allowing the viewer to see into its structure. When night falls, the projected illumination brings a bolder yet more elusive character to the installation.

The nebulous nature of the entire structure beguiles and draws the viewer in to see the delicate network that creates the whole. Suspensio is a fitting reflection of the methodology and nature of the Ordered Universe project; the sum of its parts never fail to sparkle into a glorious unity.

If you look at the illuminated installation from the perspective of the altar, it has seemed very appropriate for this liturgical season – over passiontide, resembling beads of sweat and longing, recollecting the words set by Gibbons into an anthem: Drop, drop slow tears.

            Drop, Drop slow tears

And bathe those beauteous feet

Which brought from heaven

The news and Prince of peace.

 

Cease not, wet eyes,

His mercies to entreat

To cry for vengeance

Sin doth never cease.

 

In your deep floods

Drown all my faults and fears

Let not his eye

See sin, but through my tears.

As well as this image of penitence and Grace, it also echoes visually the gift of manna falling from heaven of which we heard in our first reading. The image of open clouds dropping provision, in terms of water in this instance, carries themes of baptism and renewal; cease not mercy, and crying not for vengeance but for a renewed community.

I think that this art installation enables us to consider what words alone don’t really get to. In fact Art has a redeeming capacity to draw us out from our compulsive binary literalism when it comes to argument and language, into a more poetic engagement, which is immensely more fulfilling then ‘winning’ an argument.

A lot of my friends are considering giving up social media: Facebook, Twitter and the like; partly because of the way in which personal information has been abused, but partly also for a much more humane reason. I find myself constantly being drawn and goaded into engaging with arguments which seem aggressive and unfulfilling. Somebody today had a go at a London Church for wishing ‘good luck’ to a couple who got married yesterday, with the sarcastic remark ‘who doles out this good luck, the good luck fairy?’ I don’t really know why the reaction is so over the top, I suspect that the writer has been taken in by a common (but erroneous) argument, that it’s unchristian to believe in ‘luck’. Perhaps he believes (as some do) that Luck was a derivative from Lucifer, it isn’t of course it comes from the middle high German Glück, but it’s driven I think, by his conception that God is the source of every blessing and luck has nothing to do with anything. But he obviously haven’t heard Callum’s excellent sermon last year on the significance of the insignificant, nor can he support a football club. So in a way, the debate and interaction can be creative and prompt real thought. It made me realize that perhaps the real reason I enjoy football is because I don’t think that God cares in the slightest who wins. I believe God is concerned for every person there on the pitch and in the terraces. But it doesn’t seem to me that God supports any football team consistently. The evidence certainly doesn’t suggest so!

An exciting thing about something as pointless as football is that it doesn’t matter, and that’s what matters. It’s not permeated with morality, it doesn’t depend on who deserves to win, it’s enjoying the freedom to play, inhabiting that systematic incompleteness of creation which we already mentioned: in terms of humane life it seems to me to be more enriching than finding theories of everything, or general universal theories –its rich because it doesn’t matter, it inhabits the gaps, it encourages human play.

And it’s not a self-indulgent sort of play because it’s unpredictable and free. I wonder if you ever seen on a film set in the 70s or 80s a rather familiar executive toy, Newton’s Cradle? Five chrome balls suspended in a cradle, often on the desk of manager or Chief Executive. If you raise one ball the energy will be communicated to the ball at the other end of the sling; likewise with two, but if it’s three of five balls that are raised, then strange but predictable things happen. I guess it was a symbol of the power at the boss’s fingertips that made this toy popular. If so, it’s a rather indulgent toy, symbolic of that desire for power at one’s fingertips to cause others to move. Self-indulgence on your desk top.

But if that is the case, it’s also rather salutary reminder of our impotence: because it only works for a short time, perpetual motion – or really moving things for good for ever – does not exist in our physical universe: I’m willing to be corrected over dinner, but I suspect that energy dissipates over time: friction is part of the problem, which is why there is an every molecule in the universe and energy to keep going in its lifespan: there is half-life in the old atom yet. Gerard Manley Hopkins puts it much more poetically, as you might imagine he would!

Their lives the dearest freshness

Deep down things. (God’s Grandeur)

God’s grandeur is shown in the eternal delight of energy in the world: it is not superficial or self interested, but ‘deep down’, and this charged power is not raw aggression but a ‘dearest freshness’. Easter celebrates resurrection, the emergence of one who can reorder and give life to our dissipated energy and renew our lives ground down by all manner of friction. That’s why this image, like this season, trumps reasonable argument, by setting the wonder of ordered Scientific evidence in a mysterious context which is not mystification.

It is time to be glad for neutral-ness, for incompleteness and space, where we can wish people good luck, without that being restrained by a puritanical desire to box everything up in predestined and unfree notions of God’s sovereignty.

For this coming term, then, make your own luck, work hard and morally, but in the neutral spaces, Good Luck!

The intimate touch of the living God.

Easter 3, 2018: 15th April, 2018.

CONVENT OF THE INCARNATION – Community of the Sisters of the Love of God

We continue to relish the astonishing purposes and power of God in creation and redemption, and the energy of the Resurrection. During the Liturgy this week, aware of the ‘layering’ of images and stories of the Lenten and Easter celebrations, I noticed with some delight the overlap of ‘grip’ that the risen Lord has in the Victory icon of the Resurrection that we blessed at the Easter Vigil, and that of the incredulous St Thomas by Caravaggio. At Easter we see and delight in the strong grip of Christ on Adam, and on all of us. It’s not a polite handshake hold,  but a fireman’s grip – strong enough to lift us out of the mire and out of the fire to himself. And that rescue is our eternal delight.

So I am a bit perplexed at the amount of religious anger and bile that there is on social media. ‘See how these Christians love one another’ is likely to be said in response only in irony.

In particular I am prompted to ask of us all – ‘Why are we so angry so much of the time?’ I know that passions run high on things that matter, and I’m not being a ‘snowflake’ just wanting everything to be inoffensive (though why be unnecessarily provocative?). It’s rather the invective and aggression that I just don’t get. Perhaps it’s because I’ve not had a Puritan ‘phase’ (yet!). Though Britain suffered Oliver Cromwell, many of his fellow Puritans had sailed away from English shores hoping to find a new life of spartan misery elsewhere. (Philomena Cunk, Cunk on Britain, BBC 4, April 2018) A Pembrokian, George Whitfield, and a like-minded Calvinist, Jonathan Edwards, were two who fuelled the ‘Great Awakening’ in America by their ‘hell-fire’ preaching. Now, I suppose that it is a counter to the insistence on the power of positive thinking and the arrogance of the Enlightenment project and is an attempt to stress the sovereignty of God, but it is its distorting and abusive theology that veers far from Christian truth and love. Edwards’ 1741 sermon Sinners in the hands of an angry God, for example, has these words: ‘The God that holds you over the pit of hell, much as one holds a spider… [He] abhors you, and is dreadfully provoked: his wrath towards you burns like fire; he looks upon you as worthy of nothing else but to be cast into the fire.”

the_calling_of_saint_matthew_hand_cropped

Caravaggio: The Calling of St Matthew, 1599-1600. Detail: the inviting hand of Jesus. Contarelli Chapel, San Luigi dei Francesi, Rome.

The hand of God ready to crush a creature that God abhors isn’t what I get from Scripture, tradition, or the depictions of art and literature. Above is a detail from Caravaggio’s The Calling of St Matthew, echoing the tender touch of God creating Adam by Michelangelo in the Sistine Chapel (the featured image, above). Creation, and Call, are God’s gentle extension of himself to us. That intimate, loving touch jolts us into life at creation, and beckons us to accompany him for ever – the only thing that can change us and bring us life is his Love. That is how God is to us in Christ – it’s immoral theology to bully people into the terror of a less-than-Christian God even if that can motivate people into believing, and belonging, and – of course – giving! The hand of God in Christ, who describes his work in casting out the power of evil, as being the work of the ‘finger of God’, is seen in the reaching out to the broken and sick, reaching down to the condemned woman caught in the act of adultery and about to be stoned to death, to lift her to stand again, and reaching even to the dead: all are restored by him to the dignity and joy of those in the image of God.

Screen-shot-2013-03-06-at-5.32.42-PM

Jesus raising the woman caught in the act of adultery (screenshot)

That ‘Easter grip’, intervening in Adam’s fate, as in the adulterous woman’s despair, is echoed in Caravaggio’s angel restraining the determined religious logic of Abraham (below). Abraham is so focused on literal obedience that he couldn’t see the biggest picture. Though the text of Genesis praises Abraham’s obedience, it also notes that Abraham after this episode does not remain naively servile – he, and his descendants,  will argue, barter and wrestle with God; and that is called prayer. Whilst the angel grips the hand of Abraham strongly with one hand – he points to the caught ram, the waiting lamb of God, ready to take the place of human sacrifice, and end the cycle of psychotic fear and abuse. This story marks the end of the cult of human sacrifice and it is an invitation that we lay down our knives and violence.

caravaggio25

Caravaggio: The sacrifice of Isaac 1603-1604. Uffizi version, Florence.

That grasp of intervention was replayed in last Sunday’s story of the incredulity of St Thomas, where another puzzled old man is depicted whose hand is led from stubbornness to a place of rest, peace, and healing in the body of the risen Christ.

the-open-wound

Caravaggio: The incredulity of St Thomas (detail) 1601-1602. Sabssouci, Potsdam.

The grip of Christ is consistent with that shown in the icon of the Resurrection and in the harrowing of hell in traditional iconography. Adam and Eve are not able to pull themselves out of the mire of hell by their own bootstraps – death needs trampling down, by Eternal Life, so that ‘death, thou shalt die,’ for ever. Any strategy which depicts his holy, wounded, strong hands as violent also need trampling down and ignoring – such strategic terror is abuse and has no place in proclaiming the Kingdom of Heaven.

resurrection2

Orthodox Icon of the Victory of the Resurrection. Contemporary, from the Serbian Orthodox Holy Trinity Church, Butte, Montana.

In the Eucharist now, as at Emmaus, Christ’s hands are those which break bread and the means whereby, sublimely, he makes himself known as he is.

8782

Matthias Stom, The Supper at Emmaus 1633-1639, Madrid.

Softly and gently, dearly-ransomed soul, in His most loving arms does He now enfold thee; and He tends, nurses, and lulls thee, as thou liest on his breast. O Christ, the Finger of God, and God’s mighty hand & outstretched arm, make Thyself known to us in the breaking of the bread.

READINGS: Acts 3:12-19; 1 John 3:1-7; Luke 24:36b-48

Behold, here I am, the handmaid of the Lord. Be it to me according to your word.

Simple thoughts for the Annunciation

All Saints Sisters of the Poor, Convent, Cowley, Oxford. 9 April 2018.

One short poem gets, I think, near to the heart of the matter. It’s by John of the Cross. He wrote:

With the Word Divine

The Virgin, pregnant,

Comes along the road.

If you will, make her welcome.

I’ve deliberately punctuated the last line in that way. It’s not a conditional coming of Mary and Jesus depending on whether or not we welcome mother and child. They come to us, day by day, moment by moment, regardless – constantly. The challenge is that we learn Mary’s mission of hospitality by embracing the model of her humanity: this vulnerable, first-century, Jewish teenager.

On the day we celebrate heaven and earth being changed, she becomes the temporal Container of the Uncontainable God because she said yes to God’s astonishing proposition that Jesus, his own Son, might be born in this world through her cooperation. She risked being exposed, or even stoned to death, to fulfil this crazy mission. God’s way of doing things can seem seriously unreasonable.

Mary’s response is: ‘Behold, the handmaid of the Lord – Be it to me according to your word.’

Mary is present – she embodies stability: her faithfulness to stay where God has called her, to do what he would have her do, offers us the possibility that we can refuse to run away when things get hard. We can find in Mary’s words ‘Behold – Here I am’ the possibility to find what we are really for, where we really are. It would have been understandable for Mary to abscond, but she faces God down, as someone who hears and is open to his impossible invitation. Mary shows us a pattern of faithfulness and stability where we don’t escape from that to which God has already called us, even if it’s hard, crazy, or unreasonable.

Mary is obedient. That’s not just ‘obeying orders’ as if we’re in a spiritual SS and not personally responsible. Real obedience recognizes that we’re not in this just for what we can get out of it. We are not just independent individuals, but neither are we just part of a tribe: ultimately, we belong to God, and it’s Mary’s awareness of that which makes her ‘yes’ universally fruitful. Mary says yes to a total lifetime of obedience in her response, and an eternal role in Christian spirituality and human history.

Mary displays an assent to constant conversion of life: ‘Let it be to me according to your word’. She is open to whatever God’s beckoning might mean: that adventurousness is what real holiness is. Her ‘yes’ to God is not just a one-off: but an assent to what God will keep on doing in her and in us. Conversion of life in Mary goes hand-in-hand with stability. Mary’s ‘Behold, Here I am’, is an invitation to us to learn her consistent openness to God.

‘Behold, here I am, the handmaid of the Lord – Let it be to me according to your word.’

He is risen. We are risen.

EASTER 2, YEAR B SUNDAY 8th APRIL 2018 Fairacres Convent & St John’s Home Cowley (seriously abbreviated and adapted for the latter context).

ACTS 4:32-35 Now the whole group of those who believed were of one heart and soul, and no one claimed private ownership of any possessions, but everything they owned was held in common. With great power the apostles gave their testimony to the resurrection of the Lord Jesus, and great grace was upon them all. There was not a needy person among them, for as many as owned lands or houses sold them and brought the proceeds of what was sold. They laid it at the apostles’ feet, and it was distributed to each as any had need.

1 JOHN 1:1-2:2 We declare to you what was from the beginning, what we have heard, what we have seen with our eyes, what we have looked at and touched with our hands, concerning the word of life— this life was revealed, and we have seen it and testify to it, and declare to you the eternal life that was with the Father and was revealed to us— we declare to you what we have seen and heard so that you also may have fellowship with us; and truly our fellowship is with the Father and with his Son Jesus Christ. We are writing these things so that our joy may be complete. This is the message we have heard from him and proclaim to you, that God is light and in him there is no darkness at all. If we say that we have fellowship with him while we are walking in darkness, we lie and do not do what is true; but if we walk in the light as he himself is in the light, we have fellowship with one another, and the blood of Jesus his Son cleanses us from all sin. If we say that we have no sin, we deceive ourselves, and the truth is not in us. If we confess our sins, he who is faithful and just will forgive us our sins and cleanse us from all unrighteousness. If we say that we have not sinned, we make him a liar, and his word is not in us. My little children, I am writing these things to you so that you may not sin. But if anyone does sin, we have an advocate with the Father, Jesus Christ the righteous; and he is the atoning sacrifice for our sins, and not for ours only but also for the sins of the whole world.

JOHN 20:19-31 When it was evening on that day, the first day of the week, and the doors of the house where the disciples had met were locked for fear of the Jews, Jesus came and stood among them and said, ‘Peace be with you.’ After he said this, he showed them his hands and his side. Then the disciples rejoiced when they saw the Lord. Jesus said to them again, ‘Peace be with you. As the Father has sent me, so I send you.’ When he had said this, he breathed on them and said to them, ‘Receive the Holy Spirit. If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven them; if you retain the sins of any, they are retained.’ But Thomas (who was called the Twin), one of the twelve, was not with them when Jesus came. So the other disciples told him, ‘We have seen the Lord.’ But he said to them, ‘Unless I see the mark of the nails in his hands, and put my finger in the mark of the nails and my hand in his side, I will not believe.’ A week later his disciples were again in the house, and Thomas was with them. Although the doors were shut, Jesus came and stood among them and said, ‘Peace be with you.’ Then he said to Thomas, ‘Put your finger here and see my hands. Reach out your hand and put it in my side. Do not doubt but believe.’ Thomas answered him, ‘My Lord and my God!’Jesus said to him, ‘Have you believed because you have seen me? Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have come to believe.’ Now Jesus did many other signs in the presence of his disciples, which are not written in this book. But these are written so that you may come to believe that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of God, and that through believing you may have life in his name. 

One of the things that happens when Oxford United are playing away games has been the opportunity to revisit former parishes. Walsall Football Club is in the parish where I was a curate. We lost when we went back. Sheffield United Football Club play at Bramall Lane, at the bottom of the hill where our church, St Aidan’s, was at the top. Once, during a wedding, with perfect timing, after I had asked the congregation whether anyone knew ‘any reason or impediment why these persons may not be lawfully married to declare it now’, Sheffield United scored and large roar from the crowd filled the church as if thousands were objecting. When we went back with Oxford to play in Sheffield, we lost. When Oxford played at Scunthorpe, we went back to Tickhill, had a really horrible pizza, and we lost. The excitement I felt at going back was disillusioned not only because we kept losing, but also disappointing because the world I was seeking, of up to 30 years ago, had gone: and going back did not result in my meeting people who knew me; neither was perhaps my deepest desire fulfilled: I didn’t become 23 again! But there are many key moments in our lives which have significance that we recognize only retrospectively. I think of pastoral encounters – particularly when beginning public ministry – which have lived on, long after the event, and indeed accumulated meaning. So, although the desire to be youthful again is thwarted, the significance and the meaning of the relationships all those years ago is something alive, beautiful, and still enriching.

One of these things happened after a funeral I had conducted. I got to know the deceased person’s widow rather well. One day, she admitted, almost with a sense of guilt, that what she really missed was her husband’s physical presence. With some embarrassment, she admitted that there was an agonizing absence when she reached out her arm in bed to find just cold space. Or that, if she saw something funny in the street or amusing on the bus, she would still anticipate telling him when she got home over a cup of tea. It was his body, his physical presence, his whole life that she had married, and with whom she had shared her life for 50 years. And that had gone. His body had died; he had died; much of her had died.

That honesty and painful love was inspiring, and remains moving, though now she, too, has died. And that is a world which our readings address today, they counter a residual belief that really we are only a spiritual being, rather than being a creature, wonderfully made, organically, in a multi-dimensional way. We’re not just a soul lodging in a body, but whole. An image of today’s gospel by the artist Caravaggio (above) has the risen Jesus grasping the hand of Thomas firmly, and guiding his fingers into his side. It’s quite an explicit painting, but it shows that Jesus is eager to share signs of continuity in these wounds of love with us. He steers the so-called ‘doubting Thomas’ into the place where healing can happen. The one who breathed his last on the Cross, binding together the Beloved Disciple and his Mother[1], breathes the Holy Spirit on the Apostles: the Love which binds the Father and the Son draws all into his life. The disciples are taken into this intimate relationship. And although the Church is entrusted with bearing witness to the risen Lord, those around us know our capacity to delude and to be self-deluded! Thomas knew the Apostles, could he really be expected to simply accept their word at face value? Nevertheless, they (like us) have a delight and duty to ‘show and tell’, to connect people with the living Jesus, and to let him guide their hands and their lives into his body. But it is Jesus who reaches out, through our service. It is he who speaks, through our inadequate words. Then as now, it is not our words, but his Presence which inspires the affirmation of faith ‘my Lord and my God.’ Our mission goes wrong when we start to calibrate it in all manner of executive and managerial speak. We are getting in the way. Our task, the churches mission on behalf of the risen Lord, is to do what St Andrew did: go and find our brother, our sister, and take them to Jesus.

Today’s Epistle, from 1 John, insists that what the church speaks of is simply a declaration of what has been seen, and heard, and touched. The Father’s eternal life is manifest in Jesus Christ, in his death and resurrection, and, now, even in our fellowship. It is a scandal, but we could see, touch, listen to, lean upon, paint the real God incarnate who was never a ghost or soul just dressed-up in a dispensable body. God’s love is sealed in flesh and blood, and his powerful forgiveness is unthwarted, come what may. The writer urges people not to sin, but reassures them that even if they do, Jesus is the atoning sacrifice: still efficacious even to the lapsed, as St Seraphim insisted.[2]

The experience of the real Resurrection, where our bodies are shown their true and eternal value, helps us to see that Christian fellowship in every age is not to be confused with Christendom or ‘Churchianity’. It is, rather, that wonderful communion of Father, and Son, and Holy Spirit. This is what inspired the early Christians, as recorded in our first reading from Acts, to live in real community, sharing all things. This gracefully testifies to the Resurrection with great power: the Resurrection turns around life’s priorities. Life is not just about me, not even just about us and ours, but about you, and about the whole creation. This is the impact of being taken by the hand and being placed, by Jesus, in his still, unfestering, life-giving, and healing wounds. There is power in these wounds to bring extraordinary peace: so often, in spite of all our efforts to be still before God, our minds race and ‘thoughts continue to move restlessly and aimlessly through our head, like the buzzing of flies [Bishop Theophan], or the capricious leaping of monkeys from branch to branch’[3] in the tree of our minds [Ramakrishna]. Those unfestering wounds, bring healing to our injuries; the mark of the crown of thorns stills our minds; his pierced hands and feet stay our violence or our stumbling or running into danger; his risen eternal life in communion with the Father and the all-Holy Spirit holds us, and our loved ones who have died, in his vibrant eternal life.

But only an encounter with the living Jesus can enable us to forget self, ambition, status and to live a life of inviting Love which does not get in the way; that doesn’t go on nostalgic or sentimental self-obsessed journeys (where we, like Oxford United only ever seem to lose!). Our encounter with the Risen Lord energizes us to delight in introducing each and every wounded person, and each strong, lively, promising life, each and every disillusioned, diminished, failing soul, soiled and smeared by sin and grief, to him, the loving Lord of life, who makes all things new.

———————————————————————————————————————————————–

Notes

[1] John 19:26

[2] St. Seraphim of Sarov, On the Acquisition of the Holy Spirit.

[3] Kallistos of Diokleia, The Power of the Name. The Jesus Prayer in Orthodox Spirituality. Oxford: Fairacres Publications, SLG Press, Thirteenth impression, 2013, p.14.