Welcome back to College, and if you’re new to College or to Oxford, a sincere and affectionate welcome to this chapel. Liturgically, we are still in great 40 days of Christmas, at this point celebrating specifically Epiphany – meaning ‘showing forth’ or disclosure. A celebration rooted in the Christian conviction of the revelation of the most fruitful picture, that of the greatest scope, for human being, in the incarnation. And so, tonight’s readings attempt to lead us to an appreciation of the dignity and destiny of humanity.
I mentioned last term a memory which, since then, if anything has become more vivid. About seven years ago I was asked to celebrate at a Sung Eucharist for All Souls Day in New College here in Oxford. If you have never visited New College, please do. The chapel and its cloisters are freely visited, and in there usually is hung an El Greco painting, some extraordinary sepia coloured painted Windows at the west end, under which is the sculpture of the raising of Lazarus by Jacob Epstein, an image of which is above.
Altogether it’s quite overwhelming, the visitor and the congregation look eastwards towards the altar, and behind this is an imposing Wall of Saints, each in their proper, ordered place. The impact is very authoritative – no wonder Richard Dawkins with whom I ate afterwards, is intimidated by it, and rails against the religious certainty it communicates.
But, for the celebrant, it’s a very different series of images – less coherent and connected, more juxtaposed then integrated. And as a model of faith, I cannot but think this is a better path. For faith is a way of looking and listening: and in contrast to the ordered edifice the congregation look at, the priest has the privilege of glimpsing in all the diversity of vision and sound, something of the systematic incompleteness of creation. There is the robed choir, the assortment of parents, students, fellows, visitors of every walk of life: there was the dying light through the stained glass windows, and at the back of chapel in the distant dusk, Epstein’s extraordinary statue of Lazarus.
I must admit thinking as I was listening to the agitated, fearful, and almost at times angry Requiem of Mozart – interspersed with moments of real tenderness, but never ‘solved’ or ‘sorted’, and certainly not smoothed-out like Fauré’s.
‘What is Lazarus and doing in the dusk at the back?’. I think the only place the statue can really be seen is from behind the altar: so he’s certainly not getting in the way. And there certainly does not seem to be any of the usual apparatus of Christian worship around it – no candles or kneelers, no encouragement to stand and contemplate or pray there. He stands alone in the dusk. Is he pulling himself together, bringing himself back with pain from happy unconsciousness? Is there a reluctance in his being called back into life from non-being again?
Or is he trying to struggle away? Is he human being come of age – taking leave of God, walking away with agony and some regret from the sentimental familiarity of religion, the things that have been swaddling bands in our infancy now to be cast aside like the bonds which bind Lazarus? From pious childish comfort to unsentimental adult life confronting the painful light of scientific and philosophical truth? Is he looking back, with one long lingering glance, before stepping forward, casting off the grave-clothes and stepping out through that western door into the free light and open air of day? Could this be a secular statue, similar to Elisabeth Frink’s Walking Madonna outside Salisbury Cathedral?
If so, there is a powerful message in this sculpture. There are things from which we must turn away in the familiar presentation of religion, in the violence of religious history, in the appeal to the cultic rather than truthful. There are moments when we must question very deeply assumptions that are unaddressed. I like football matches, sometimes. But there are moments when I feel as if I am completely in the wrong place. When the crowd starts singing chants, which caricature protected characteristics, and undermine human dignity, I want to walk, and I get agitated and angry. What does it matter if bad referee happens to be ginger, or overweight? There is sometimes homophobic, or inappropriate use of the word ‘gypsy’, even though I have never heard racist language about black players. It’s as if somehow it is acceptable to revert to a completely inappropriate value-system when part of a tribe. I seriously thought about not renewing my season ticket, because it’s just so uncomfortable. I felt like a Lazarus looking back with some sentiment to something that no longer really fits. But on Saturday there was also a long conversation with a woman who had supported her team for 60 years, and whose sister had died that week, it was an opportunity of encounter and support; one which may not have happened had I not been there. Here was a dark epiphany: faith is another way of looking – of seeing problems, feeling pain, and knowing contradictions: yet remaining committed, if not to an institution with its bad practices and habits, then to the people.
At the beginning of last term, as some of you may know, my mother was diagnosed with inoperable kidney cancer. Perhaps rather naïvely, I was quite suprised to see her so instantly depressed, a woman full of confidence and humour suddenly gripped with fear, and embodying a sense of giving up. There was no putting on a happy face to pretend it’s alright. But, due in large part to the devotion of her husband, she is gradually hearing in the facts of the diagnosis, not just the worst, but also with that perhaps opportunity and life. Quite clearly, that doesn’t take away the anxiety, that awareness will not stop the pain, and there will inevitably be moments of fear again. But it is almost as if this dark epiphany, this unwelcome disclosure, comes also with a truthful dynamic. A little like Lazarus, this calling into the state of almost death, makes us capable of feeling nothing but that which immediately confronts us. There is also reawakening. I understood why people used to pray not to die unprepared or suddenly, perhaps less for the self-interest of saving one’s own soul, than preparing those who we love, parents, children, partner, friends, to prepare to keep on loving in difficult circumstances.
Our second reading tonight reflects on the coming of the Word: the Light of the World breaking through the twilight, to reach even Lazarus in the realm of the dead. This Word rings in his bound ears, this Light filters through closed eyelids. Epstein has captured something wonderful about stone coming to life, about our material world being animated, and about light and life being restored. As we look at this statue we must be Lazarus, bound by moribundity, weakness, and death: yet called to return to life. And like Lazarus, we are placed in the direction of struggling out of chapel, out of the culture and faith which has formed us in so many ways, in pursuit of freedom, to enjoy the sun even if it is setting in the west, because it is sweet, it is brilliant light, it is tender, the truth of a dying world. Mozart’s agitated peace fits this image well – because for all the joy of science and nature and philosophy expanding the universe’s discourse, will have no currency when tongues are tied and heads bound in death.
Perhaps then, Lazarus is looking back into the sanctuary towards the East, not to the familiar certainty to be taken leave of, but to truly disconcerting Mystery – looking towards the East and the breaking dawn, light shining from an altar, where bread and wine recall the slain sacrifice which beings life, the cross and sepulchre, the Dawning Light that will, like the Morning Star, never set, and outshine the world – the light to which our painful eyes must strain – as Mozart’s Requiem puts it:
Lacrymosa dies illa
Qua resurget ex favilla
Judicandus homo reus.
Huic ergo parce, Deus,
Pie Jesu Domine,
dona eis requiem.
[Tearful will be that day
when from the ashes we shall arise
all humanity to be judged.
Spare us by your mercy, Lord,
Gentle Lord Jesus, (and)
Grant them eternal rest.]
The disclosure and the call come to us, bound as Lazarus was, and we rise from dust to judgement and, may it be, find mercy. In that call, this epiphany, what have we been given? The power to consent to His omnipotent and universal predestination, and not content with that alone, God would also woo our consent with ‘truth in its beauty, and love in its tenderness’ and sacrificial Love.
To that Word made Flesh, and Him Crucified, be ascribed no less than to the Father and the Holy Spirit, all might, dominion, majesty and power, now and for ever. Amen.
 From the text of W. A. Mozart Requiem K626. In the recording notes by Edward Hickinbottom of the CD by the Choir of New College Oxford, and the Orchestra of the age of Enlightenment, under the direction of Edward Hickinbottom. Novum label, 2010.