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.”

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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

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[Revd Dr] Andrew Teal Chaplain, Fellow, Lecturer in Patristic & Modern Theology, Pembroke College, Oxford. Faculty of Theology and Religion, University of Oxford Warden, Community of the Sisters of the Love of God. ADVANCE NOTICE: Inspiring Service. November 23rd 2018 The Pichette Auditorium, Pembroke College Oxford. A panel of speakers to inspire adventurous and fulfilling service. Speakers: Lord David Alton of Liverpool, a leading lay British Catholic; Elder Jeffrey R. Holland, one of the Twelve Apostles of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints; Revd Prof Frances Young, leading British Methodist; and The Most Revd & Rt Hon Prof Rowan Williams (Baron Williams of Oystermouth), formerly Archbishop of Canterbury and Primate of the world-wide Anglican Church.

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