A snatch of song at Hallowe’en

The darkness is here again. For the next two weeks we’ll hear nothing but the pop and fizzle of fireworks, and at our doors gaggles of kids will stand with deceptive smiles saying ‘Trick or treat?’ We’ll dish out sugar to the already sugar-crazed, and hope they leave our stuff alone.

But this time of year need not be creepy. The Church regards each night’s darkness as an invitation to commend ourselves to God. “Lighten our darkness, we beseech thee, O Lord,” we ask, “and by thy great mercy defend us.” At the start of November, Christians think of those whose perils and dangers are past. On All Hallows’ Eve, we celebrate the well-known Saints who spent their lives in charity and prayer, or who relinquished them for Christ in bloody martyrdom. At All Souls’, we turn our attention to departed family-members and friends, those who have been significant to us, even if they are unknown to the wider world. We call out their names in church, keeping their memory bright and insisting that, even though we see them no longer, in Christ they are ever-present.

For some, this will be nothing more than whistling in the dark, albeit in very fancy dress and with highly-trained whistlers. But the season of All Saints and All Souls does more than simply redeem the bad weather with some pretty stories. Instead, it announces with confidence that the life seen in Christ can be lived by us all; the new life given to Christ by the Father at Easter is a life in which we can all participate, whether we are Saint Andrew himself or Auntie Mabel.

In this way, Hallowe’en is an anticipation of Christ the Light whose coming we celebrate during the darkest days of the year. It is in the deep pitch of December that we insist that at the heart of all life there is light, and that the light cannot be overcome. The saints and souls we celebrate next week are the fruit of all this. In them we hear a snatch of song we will one day sing in a truer key, in all its unimaginable splendour.

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Hope, Riches, Power: redrawing the All Saints map

 

Thoughts for a homily at All Saints 2016

Daniel 7.1-3, 15-18; Ephesians 1.11-23; Luke 6.20-31

In the first of the readings selected for All Saints’ Day, the prophet Daniel alludes to ‘the holy ones of the Most High’ who remain faithful in the face of competing conquerors, thus coming to  ‘receive and possess God’s kingdom for ever’ (Daniel 7.18). It should come as no surprise to anyone following in the way of Jesus Christ that our own discipleship has the same sole purpose of learning fidelity and holiness: we are hoping to become saints, numbered with all the Saints whom the Church venerates on or around 1 November (one of several acts of remembering in which we engage at this time each year).[1]

Working against us in this project are what St Bernard calls ‘two chief evils which war against the soul: an empty love of the world and too much self-love’[2].

These are indeed significant obstacles on the road to holiness, each of them a variety of self-absorption which suffocates the awakening spirit and immobilises a pilgrim’s first steps on the road of obedience. The first is the failure to rise above our animal identity, so that we remain mired in the demands and consequences of mere appetite[3]. But if you’re preening at this point, quietly congratulating yourself on your modest intake of wines and spirits, fats and sugars, know that the appetite for self-satisfaction and self-glorification —though it does not harden the arteries— does harden heart and mind, making them quite impenetrable to the guidance of the wise and the redeeming grace of Almighty God. The Christian disciple, avoiding such things, should instead be learning how ‘to set our hope on Christ’ and to live life for the praise of his rather than our own glory (Ephesians 1.12).

Hope in this context means more than the sort of mildly optimistic desire with which we are familiar: ‘I hope the rain holds off till I get the washing in. I hope the car starts in the morning.’ Hope as we meet it here is the sole source of our life’s motivation and the means of our daily navigation of the way ahead: it helps us select where we’re heading, and enables us to get there.

As for glory, we surely need no reminder that Christ’s glory is not the glory of a king reclining in sumptuous clothing (his ‘silken girls bringing sherbet’)[4]; neither is it the renown of a commander of victorious armies. It is rather the glory of One made flesh so that he might pitch his tent among us; the glory of One who emptied himself out in loving service, becoming a slave and washing the feet even of his betrayer. This One was stretched out for his pains on the agonising rack of the cross. Having then been vindicated and raised from death by the Father to an eternal and cosmic pre-eminence, he is the ascended and glorious One whom the author to the Ephesians prays again that we will know as our hope, recognise as ‘the riches of our inheritance’, and experience as ‘the immeasurable greatness’ of God’s power. It is another way of praying that we will be filled with God’s grace, that constantly-multiplying capacity for the imitation of Christ, without which our efforts are no more than a flawed and fruitless human striving.

Hope. Riches. Power. There can’t be much more to receive. But before we start any premature counting of chickens, we should turn to the gospel passage and read again its stark topsy-turvy presentation of hope and dread, riches and poverty, power and weakness. If Jesus calls poverty a blessing, and happiness a curse, we have some clear thinking to do and a significant recalibration of the scales we thought we were living by. This gospel is a reversal of what we had taken to be the natural order of things: it flies in the face of how, in perfect decency, we live our own lives, maximising income and belongings, seeking contentment and enjoying honour.

If learning to be holy means giving up all this, we might conclude that holiness isn’t desirable after all, and opt instead for the car and the cash.

It is certainly startling to be told that the blessed ones are not those with the BMW parked on the immaculate drive, but rather those refugees being forcibly dispersed from the Calais Jungle or arriving in Croydon without possessions, in search of a new life. The blessed are those who live without the consolation and buffer of any luxury items or creature comforts. Talking to an audience already at the mercy of occupying armies and the vagaries of the harvest, Jesus sees the blessed as those suffering absolute penury rather than slight financial embarrassment. And unlike Matthew, Luke doesn’t spiritualise the categories of blessing and curse: Luke’s Jesus isn’t talking about the ‘poor in spirit’ or those who hunger ‘after righteousness’ (Matthew 5.3, 6): these people are straightforwardly poor and hungry.

Note too that the system of rewards and penalties is far from uniform. Some of them are timetabled for an unspecified future: ‘you will be filled… you will mourn’. Others are reserved for a specifically celestial compensation: if you suffer like a prophet now, you get a heavenly reward in the end. (This will presumably be denied if you’re favoured and fêted now, as were the false prophets of old.)

So what’s the message? Best get your suffering over with, and look forward to better days on earth —or perhaps in heaven? And would we be happy with that if it were? Hardly: ‘pie in the sky when you die’ has never been an attractive or satisfactory account of the Good News of Jesus Christ.

There is something more subtle and robust going on, concerning the process of knowing and receiving, with all the saints, the abiding presence of Christ as hope, riches and power. This is truly realised in those whose poverty and hunger deliver them from the brutal first of St Bernard’s ‘chief evils’ (an ‘empty love of the world’), and whose tears of mourning, frustration and sorrow save them from the vainglorious second (‘too much self-love’). In the same way, those doing woefully well in the world are so occupied in reaping their harvest of good things that the reception of Christ as God becomes all the harder. The blessing is not that we might be poor, but that we might thereby know God as our riches and reality. The woe is not that we are happy, but that (like Job’s family struck down in the midst of celebration) our laughter will rob us of receiving God in repentance (cf Job 1.18f; Ecclesiastes 7.6).

For repentance is at the heart of any serious reception of grace (Hope. Riches. Power.). A regular touching of the tiller and resetting of the compass towards a newly-clarified horizon is crucial if we are to be available to God for a life of holiness. It is thus fortunate that Luke includes prophets alongside the poor, hungry and heartbroken. Their voices will be instrumental in the rousing of repentance and a consequent renewal of the lives of the dispossessed. This can take place only because a bold and tireless breed of men and women insist and proclaim in the name of God that the kingdoms of this earth must order their business according to the principles of the kingdom of heaven. This calls not for violence or bloodshed, but rather a revolution rooted in the overwhelming and relentless power of love. This is the love seen later in that same gospel passage; the love of those who bless in response to a curse, who give away their goods with foolish abandon, and who hope resolutely that God will teach others to live the rich and powerful life of a learned generosity.

This agenda of grace and goodness is not simply a doing of good things to the poor. It is, rather, a radical redrawing of the moral and practical map of human living, in which the poor are active change-makers rather than crushed recipients of charity[5]. It is this process to which we are called as Saints, following as his Body the Church our Lord as Head. He has gone before us in life, death and resurrection, taking us even now into the forecourts of the heaven whose ways we are to model and minister on earth, so that all may know the fullness which is Christ’s gift.

May all the Saints pray for us in our joyful work. And may Christ our Hope and Riches and Power grant us to be numbered with the blessed now and in all eternity.

[1] The fact that All Souls’, the Commemoration of the Departed, follows on 2 November is an immediate reminder that our life’s work takes place within a context of no little urgency.

[2] Sermon 1 on the Song of Songs. Cf I Peter 2.11.

[3] Cf Colossians 3.2

[4] TS Eliot: Journey of the Magi.

[5] This process is described beautifully by Jean Vanier in the L’Arche context as part of a broader discussion offered by David F Ford in ‘The Drama of Living: Becoming Wise in the Spirit’ (Canterbury Press, 2014), 71-75.

‘That we might contribute a verse’: Celebrating Bible Sunday 2016

 

October 23 is the last Sunday after Trinity, one that our Church of England calendar permits us to observe as Bible Sunday. This used to irritate me: surely we give thanks for Scripture every Sunday? But then it occurred to me that if we make a special occasion of giving thanks for the Sacrament —which we do in the summer at Corpus Christi— then it is surely right to accord the same dignity to Scripture. Sacrament and word are the two elements married together in the Eucharist, their Christ-revealing character signalled and celebrated by two of the three kisses that are given in every liturgy: first the altar table (place of the Sacramental presence of Christ) is kissed at the entry of the ministers; then the gospel book is kissed when, through its words the Word has been proclaimed and the people have turned to face the reading in order to acknowledge Christ’s presence in it.

 

Having decided to observe this festival, for what are we particularly thankful? First, we are thankful that the Scriptures exist at all. We necessarily know very little about how these manuscripts were formed and gathered into a collection of agreed texts, from about 600 years before Christ’s birth to around 400 years after it. So we are grateful to God for all the poets and prophets, the musicians and mystics, the storytellers, scribes and scholars, the copyists and compilers, the preachers and printers, the translators and travellers by land and sea, without whose love and labour we would not have these 66 books that occupy a central place in the lives of all who call themselves Christian.

 

But what is the precise significance of the Scriptures? What is their purpose? Obviously they tell us something of God, offering a crucial account of that portion of the everlasting converse between God and humankind which Jews and Christians have engaged in for three or four millennia. They also attest to the realisation that a human being is rather more than ‘a certain type of ape on a small planet, circling an insignificant star’[1]: we who are only a little lower than the angels (Psalm 8) are capable of lives of such truth and beauty, wisdom and goodness that we must regard our calling as nothing less than one of loving friendship with God. Like all families who claim and cherish an identity through the stories they tell about themselves, Christians receive identity as Jesus’ disciples through the stories of his life and work set out in the Bible: I know who I am (and how I ought to live) because I have heard and know who he is.

 

This does not mean that we are ‘people of the book’ (dread phrase): we are people of a Person in relationship with other people, and even if one of our prime points of contact with him is through a book, our relationship in the Spirit is with Jesus, Son of the Father. This is always the pattern. As we see in the readings today, the person of Jesus always fulfils the word written about him. What Paul describes as words ‘written in former days for our instruction’ (Romans 15.1-6) lead to a life lived ‘in accordance with Christ’, so that we may come to glorify God his Father. We move from words to the Word to the Source of the Word. Similarly, in the gospel (Luke 4.16-24), the prophet’s scroll is rolled up and put away in the Nazareth synagogue because it is superseded by the Son, anointed for his work by the Father: from words to the Word to the Source.

 

This recognition that the words of Scripture are like the Sacraments —not the end, but the beginning; not the destination but the road— is further emphasised in our Anglican tradition by the insistence that our understanding of God rests not on Scripture alone, but also on our God-given reason and on the tradition of the Church. Thus we are never required to believe anything at which our intellect and conscience rebel (the thought of Jonah, perhaps, living happily in the belly of a fish for three days?). Neither are we left alone to fathom these matters for ourselves: we always approach Scripture in the apostolic and catholic breadth of time and space that the tradition affords us: we read with those who have gone before us and with those on the other side of the world; to say nothing of those of other Christian denominations and religious traditions. It therefore pays us to come to Scripture with a certain degree of care and humility for we come with those from whom we will have much to learn and who may not want to be ceaselessly battered by the clamour of our own opinions.

 

Indeed, the moment we find ourselves hurling quotations like missiles or engaging in a sort of biblical ping-pong to prove at all costs that we are right and everyone beyond our tiny tribe is wrong, we know that we have joined that faithless and stubborn generation that misses by miles the heart of the gospel of love.

 

Which brings us conveniently to our final thought. We noted at the start that there are three kisses in the Eucharist: first altar, then gospel book; and finally at the peace we kiss our neighbour. Of course, in Britain this is usually commuted to a tight-lipped handshake, but a kiss it is meant to be; it is the kiss that marks the third location where we find Christ in our worship: not only in bread and word, but in our fellow human beings also.

 

It is fitting that this should be the final kiss of the three, as it turns our attention from the Church to the World we are called to serve. This is not only a reminder that the Church exists to tend the wounds of the bruised and broken  —and how wonderfully we have seen this in the past week as so many Christians (and others) in Croydon have welcomed refugees and strangers in our midst, as they would welcome Christ himself.

 

It also serves to remind us that there is one book of the Bible that is not yet finished: the Acts of the Apostles, their successors and those baptised and commissioned by them, will continue to be written as long as there is human life on earth. As we give thanks on Bible Sunday for all that has come down to us from the past, we need to commit ourselves afresh to this present time and to our own unknowable future in order that ‘the powerful play [might go on and that we might] contribute a verse’ (Walt Whitman).

 

What, I wonder, will my verse be? What will yours? How will we who are nourished by Sacrament and word continue to play our part in the drama of salvation? We know that it is to nothing less that we are called, and that there is nothing more wonderful, more urgent and more blessed than that we should respond.

[1] William Boyd: Sweet Caress, 52.

Sobering thoughts at harvest time

I distinctly remember the time, thirty-five years ago, that Barry Phillips stood up in a meeting of the sixth form and told us about the dangers of alcohol. Barry was a florid and eccentric little man, a much-loved figure around the school. He looked after the library, and taught a few periods of lower-school history. We seemed to know already that he was a bit of a boozer. But when he gave us an insight into the causes and consequences of his alcoholism, it was surprising, not least because it was entirely undramatic.

 

It began when he was a young teacher in a boarding school in Ireland in the 1960s. A sherry before lunch. A gin before supper. A few pints, a few times a week. It was nothing uproarious or seedy, not at all extraordinary. It was just how professional young men lived. Just how things were.

 

But without his noticing, the habit turned to necessity, and before long he was left wriggling on the hook of a substance over which he had less and less control. His end was predictable, and unhappy.

 

I think of Barry as we give thanks in church today for the good gifts of the earth, among which surely we number both grain and grape. Yet I can hear him warning us how easily things go wrong, how we shouldn’t be taken in. Of course, it’s hard to say these things without sounding stuffy. Booze has burrowed its way into our civilisation, and it’s going to be hard to shift it.

 

Some are perhaps recalling that the Bible is chock-full of references to ‘wine that maketh glad the heart of man’, and that Jesus’ first miracle was to turn gallons of water into fine wine. But we can’t translate such stories lock, stock and oak barrel into our own culture and use them to sanction a substance which leads so many to ruin. For the Bible is also full of stories of escaping slavery, of receiving God’s gift of freedom to enjoy a truly abundant life, focused on serving God and neighbour. Calling into question our relationship with a drug that’s become such an old family friend might be a challenge, but it could be the first step on a long march to freedom that many people need to take. Harvest might be a good time to begin.