Marth and Mary – 21 July, 2019
There are two stories from the readings today about hospitality. But note well, they are about hospitality to God.
The First Reading from Genesis says that Abraham was sitting outside on a hot day. He looked up to find three strangers standing nearby on the path, apparently nourishing their curiosity about the tent and its occupants. It is not clear that Abraham knew who they were, but for our part we are told that they were God appearing to Abraham.
So, how does Abraham react to this presence of God?
Well, excellent hosts manage somehow to get everything ready but also to truly listen and converse with the one who has come.
Abraham bows deeply. He flies into action. He begs the men to relax from their journey and accept comfort, nourishment and rest. This is the beautiful hospitality from that part of the world.
Abraham quickly rushes into his great tent, issuing hurried commands to Sarah, his wife. “Quick, quick, three measures of fine flour! Knead it and make rolls. I will get the best calf and command the servants to prepare it.” He dashes outside to get curds and milk and after a long time, sets the whole meal before the men.
It’s quite a scene, it’s quite welcoming.
As the dinner progresses, Sarah is standing behind the tent flap listening. All at once the men make a sudden, astonishing statement to Abraham. Next year Sarah will bear a son by Abraham.
Now, Sarah actually laughs out loud as she hears this absurdity about her dried-up body, nearly 89 years old. She is supposed to issue forth a tender baby.
Even so, as you may know, the amazing thing does indeed take place, after a time, and thank God that Abraham listened to these men, the presence of God.
Now we come to the second story. In the Gospel according to Luke, Our Lord enters the house of his friends Mary and Martha, and is warmly welcomed.
Let’s think about who was there with him. There would have been Martha and Mary, maybe her brother Lazarus whom St Luke never mentions, and then at least the twelve that were hanging around with Our Lord. So, we are talking about a crowd of 15 or 16. There are always suggestions that this was not the only crowd: St Mark, for instance, tells of the women who travelled with Jesus and used to provide for him out of their own means as well. So, it could have been a much bigger crowd. Now any meal like that takes a bit of preparation: imagination the number of potatoes that need to be peeled, if only potatoes had been discovered by then. No one seems to be suggesting that the men should give a hand, so it was up to our hostess to do the work, with some help from her sister.
As Our Lord sits down, Mary organizes herself at his feet and focuses her clear wide eyes upon him. Who is preparing the dinner? Mary’s sister Martha bustles about doing just that.
It’s always curious in this passage that the house is described as Martha’s. Was Mary just visiting as well? Or was she somehow too junior to be a co-owner, maybe much younger, someone who was there really to help in the kitchen and clean the house. If that is so, then you can imagine Martha’s indignation.
So, Martha grows tired and exasperated, of course, and finally comes over to demand that Our Lord tell Mary to stop lounging and help out a little.
Surprisingly, Our Lord says, no. “Mary has chosen the better part,” he explains.
Maybe Martha should have said, “We are not having any food tonight, we are just going to sit and stare at you.”
In truth, Martha’s trouble was not that she was scrambling about, but that as she did so, she forgot about Our Lord. She was not making him welcome; she was constructing a meal. He even tells her that she was anxious and worried about many things, not the one thing necessary.
What is the one thing necessary?
The one thing that is necessary is a relation to Christ. Real hospitality means a two-way relationship in which host and guest both open to each other and become present to one another in various ways. Yes, hosts do work on the details, and work hard. But they always remember the visitor while they prepare. Excellent hosts manage somehow to get everything ready but also to truly listen and converse with the one who has come.
That is how we are supposed to act every day.
Scholars argue a bit about why St Luke has included this story. But they note how St Luke places it just after the parable of the Good Samaritan, who showed mercy by acts, and here the better part is not acts but learning.
I think that the balance between the two stories is important. Through the Good Samaritan we learn that we need to act to show justice and mercy: it’s not enough to walk piously away. But works by themselves are not enough: to have a balance you need also to spend time at the feet of Our Lord: learning and being quiet.
We are to find God in all things, in all the people we know and/or help, and no matter how busy we might be, to relate to them because God is within them, deep in their souls. Touch them. Hear them. Prepare meals for their presence without forgetting about them. We will be giving hospitality to God himself.
Abraham gave it. Mary gave it. Martha forgot like you and I do, but she learned. Let’s learn it too.
Being Disciples – 7 July, 2019
This is one of those Sundays when the readings are a little scrappy. No juicy parable to work on, instead one of those slightly rambling parts. We have part of Isaiah, a rather long book which we think was written by three different authors, this part full of beautiful imagery. Then we have the passage from Galatians, one of Paul’s earliest letters. Finally, we have the story about the sending out of the seventy, two fragments stitched together. That section is perhaps the hardest, as it has to do with St Luke’s record about how missions were sent out and also that mysterious line about seeing Satan fall from Heaven like a flash of lighting, and giving power to walk over snakes and scorpions: not perhaps the most useful modern gift to have.
Let’s consider those seventy. No doubt, they began with the expectant enthusiasm of aspiring novices, but they returned as seasoned ministers filled with genuine joy. We can discover the quality and meaning of this kind of joy as we think through the guidelines and warnings Our Lord set for them in the sending. And we can use it as the current generation of Jesus-followers.
Our Lord sent them as lambs into the midst of wolves. It was a difficult, hostile world Our Lord warned, one true in every time and place. In order to undertake the task, they had to overcome their fears with courage and resolve. Our Lord told them to travel light – no purse, bag, or sandals. In order to get the job done, they would not have time to care about material possessions or to waste time on other distractions. He ordered them, when not welcomed by a group, to wipe the dust off their feet and move on to the next place. The urgency of the moment would not allow them to linger in hopeless situations. They went out on mission. They were so successful that they returned in a spirit of joy. It wasn’t a superficial, but a deeper, satisfying, inner joy of the soul.
As the current members of the Body of Christ, we are the seventy for our generation. Our mission is not unlike that of those mentioned in St Luke’s Gospel account, and the guidelines and warnings are largely the same. We seek to serve God’s people by offering to them the good news of the Gospel, both in sharing the truth and in the actions of care and love.
We, too, go out among wolves. We live in a world that is fearful, emotionally paralysed, or aggressively angry as a result of a kind of shell-shock. Many of us suffer from acts of violence, near financial depression, or natural disasters.
Perhaps the hardest example to follow from St Luke is to take with us no semblance of purse, bag, or sandal. Many are afraid of loss in the midst of a materialist culture, in our desire not to give up anything of our substance, of not being willing to do without what we want and think we need. But we can easily see how the baggage of materialism can disable us from taking committed action.
Making sense of shaking dust off our feet, a practice of pious Jews during New Testament times, is also difficult. Perhaps the application for us is to make the best and wisest use of our time and energy – a prioritizing intended to maximize the effectiveness of our call to carry out God’s work.
With all this in mind, we can follow these guidelines in our efforts for Christ and to find the deepest joy that life in faith can bring. We use the challenge from Our Lord to the seventy as a model to move into our everyday world, into the lives of those around us – our friends and neighbours, strangers and enemies, sceptics and unbelievers, the poor and victims of injustice – all who are in need of God. We move forward with courage and commitment in telling others about Christ, bringing them into the life of the Church, welcoming those who come into our midst, sharing with them what we have.
Above all, it is necessary to leave behind fear of failure, the inclination to avoid acting because we are afraid that we will be embarrassed or rejected or that it will be too time-consuming or too difficult or costly. We must grasp life with joy in Christ and seize the opportunity to be among the seventy for our generation.
If we go at our task in this way, following a modern expression of the work of the seventy, we are certain to experience the same deep, meaningful, fulfilling joy found by our forebears in the faith. Not a superficial kind of happiness or delight, but the joy that takes root deep down in our hearts.
Another link for us with the seventy and Our Lord’s instruction to them is found in his sending them out two by two. Like them, none of us acts alone in carrying out the mission and ministries of the Body of Christ. We are all in this together, and we take comfort in the partnerships we share in carrying out Christ’s charge to us as the seventy of this generation. The beauty of a true vocation, however, is that it involves all of the elements mentioned above, while looking completely unique for each person. This is a reason for excitement and joy in itself! God is excited for you to be you, and to follow the joy and passion in your heart right back to him.
Finally, Our Lord regularly tells his followers some version of be not afraid. Our story today finishes with Our Lord declaring that Satan has fallen and that nothing will bring his followers real hurt. He teaches them to rejoice over their names being secure in heaven, rather than being secure in the power they possess. Again, we must unlearn, for the world wishes to teach us that are plenty of things of which we should be afraid. Always remember that the last thing we should carry around with us is fear! Let us also do what we are meant to do—practice the habits and disciplines of the Kingdom, give witness to the hope that is in us—and live rightly, wisely, and Godly.
Corpus Christi – 23 June, 2019
I must be getting old, because I’m revisiting some of my ideas again. I’ve mentioned in the past thin places and I would like to revisit that today. Thin places are those places, or even events, that touch something beyond the ordinary. A thin place may be a requiem or grave, when we feel the presence of the departed, a holy shrine when we feel the presence of God or our Lady in a particular way. It is called a thin place because it is where we feel the boundaries that separate our world from the other is particularly weak, or thin.
The experience of the other is common to most people. The question for us, is why do we have these experiences? What makes us open to the experiences of a world beyond ours?
This is where we Christians come to our theology of who we are. Christians believe that our Lord, the Son of God, became human. Furthermore, by becoming one of us, he took into himself the nature of being human – he was both God and human. Then he took our humanity with him through death by the resurrection, and assumed it into the Godhead at the Ascension. Therefore, our Lord has changed the nature of what it means to be human. For as he has two natures, human and divine, so we share in this inheritance. Each one of us shares in the inheritance of our Lord; each one of us is part divine. This means not only that we will share in his resurrection, and are assured of a life beyond this world, but that we are also aware of a world beyond here. We cannot but help feel the world beyond here, for that is the yearning of the divine within us. We can ignore it, deny it, but we will still be susceptible to the call of God.
Therefore, we will find the thin places of this world. Thin places where God and the divine are closer than usual.
Even more, we will seek out the thin places. We know that our Lord comes to us, in those thin places. For Christians, we have the great gift of his presence in the sacrament, where in our joint celebration and worship he is with us in his body and blood. We come, take his body and blood, and are joined to him. The worship and celebration of the mass is a thin place where we meet God. We therefore surround it with the best we can offer, with music, liturgy and art, as well as our own personal preparation and devotion, so it is a worthy place and time.
This morning we celebrate in particular the thin place of meeting our Lord in the sacrament. Each Sunday we have the tremendous privilege of encountering our God. Day by day, in this place, the sacraments are celebrated, making a focus for our Church. The presence of our Lord stays here, in the tabernacle with its light perpetually burning, to say to all who come, that this is a holy place, this is where you meet God, this is a thin place of the world.
This day we celebrate the feast of the Body of Christ, Corpus Christi, the presence of our Lord in our sacrament. The sacrament is not only for our communion, but also for our worship. We worship it in our mass, by our genuflecting when we pass his presence in the tabernacle, and also in the devotions of benediction, that particular service where we just adore Christ made present in the bread and wine. We worship the presence of God and give thanks for this way of meeting him. We have a thin place where we can feel our Lord and give thanks for his presence here, and in our lives.
This mass today, uniquely, has a procession of the sacrament at the end. This proclaims that there is a special public element to this: that the sacrifice of Christ is for the salvation of the whole world. We must bring Christ publicly on the roads of the world, because He whom the fragile veil of that little white host hides, is that what came to earth just to be the life of the world. In some countries this procession is a big outdoor event, here we do it more quietly inside.
With a procession we are always making point as we wander around the church, which is why at St George’s processions usually include the congregation, that we are “missionaries”, and also people with a holy goal, namely “pilgrims.”
It is important that we worship and adore the sacrament. Communion without adoration is not enough, for then we just take and do not give thanks. Adoration is the time when we appreciate what we have here, the presence of our Lord. It is a privilege that we are called by our Lord to take his body and blood, that we do this in memory and re-entering his great sacrifice; but any act that we do over and over again, has the danger of losing its special-ness: we forget the privilege. Benediction, the service with which we will conclude the 9.30 mass today, the worship without communion, restores that emphasis that we need also to adore. The Benediction we will join into today helps remind us of this privilege. It reminds us again that this is thin place. That we are more than just beings bound into this world, limited by time, but that we are also heirs of our Lord, his children who yearn for him.
The Trinity – Trinity Sunday, 15 June, 2019.
There is much theology that treats the Trinity as a mathematical game, trying to work out how three can be one and one can be three. But maths, important as it is for many things, is not the way of salvation.
Holy Mother Church, of course, didn’t preach the Trinity just to solve a mathematical puzzle; the Church preached the Trinity because that seemed to be the best, maybe the only way, to preach salvation. Our Lord Jesus, a human being, was so god-like that his followers concluded that he wasn’t just like God but was God. It started when, among other things, when Our Lord walked on water and stilled the waves of the Sea of Galilee. That isn’t normal human behaviour. Then his resurrection showed conclusively that this man was indeed God. Then Our Lord sent the Holy Spirit, the Advocate, to do the godlike things he had done. So it was that the disciples experienced three Persons acting like God in a way that only God could act. That’s why theologians have been trying to do the maths ever since. But to help the maths, tradition gives us the Creeds, from the early Church the Apostles’ and Nicene, and later the Athanasian, to make us remember what it means. The Apostles’ Creed goes way back to the early days of the Church, and is the statement of faith for those being baptised, to show they understand who God as Father, Son and Holy Spirit. The Nicene Creed came later, originating at a Council at Nicaea near modern Istanbul in 325, at the time of the peace of the Church after the great persecutions, to help unite all the different Christians by remembering how God was. It was originally a profession of faith for bishops to make sure they understood. The Athanasian Creed came later for us Westerners in the Middle Ages
But let’s reflect on one of the most important of the godlike acts of Our Lord and the Holy Spirit.
Our Lord got in trouble with the religious authorities for many things, but probably the most serious of them was claiming the power to forgive sins. He did this when the paralytic was brought down through the roof by his friends so that he might be healed, (Mk. 2:5) and he did it again when the Sinful Woman poured perfume over his feet at the house of Simon. (Lk. 7:47) The Pharisees were incensed because Our Lord, a human being, was doing what only God could do. The Gospel writers agreed that only God could forgive sins and Our Lord had, in fact, done what only God could do. Before he died, Our Lord promised to send the Holy Spirit to be an Advocate who would lead them further into the truth of who Jesus was. When the risen Our Lord breathed on the disciples in the upper room, he passed on to them and, through them to us, the ministry of forgiveness of sins. (Jn. 20:22–23) Fifty days later, Peter exercised this power to forgive sins when his listeners asked him what they needed to do to be saved. (Acts 2:38)
The Trinity, then, is not a mathematical puzzle but a story of sin, forgiveness and love. In the Old Testament, in spite of some outbursts of anger, God claimed to be a God who was full of loving kindness and mercy. The attitude of the Pharisees towards the paralytic and the Sinful Woman suggests that they thought forgiveness should stay up in the heavens where it belonged and not get mixed up with humans on the earth. In our angrier moments we tend to feel the same way. But God’s mercy did get mixed up with humanity: first in the person of Our Lord and then in the disciples through the Gift of the Holy Spirit. So it is that we humans are given the Gift, not only of having our sins forgiven, but we have the Gift of forgiving the sins of other people. Note that it isn’t we who forgive, but it is God who forgives through us. That is, the divine act of forgiveness that came the earth in the person of Jesus has, like the Holy Spirit, spread throughout the whole world.
We have to remember that nothing is more true, life-giving and comforting to us than the presence of the Holy Trinity in our lives. Nothing, in fact, can exist or act or become perfect without the three divine Persons, without God, so that Saint Paul does not hesitate to say that “in him, in fact, we live, we live and we are” (Acts 17:28).
God is near and we think far away. It is in reality and in events and we seek it in dreams and impossible utopias. That’s like getting lost in a maths problem and not coming back to the application.
Saint Augustine of Hippo, the great African theologian of the 5th C, said that we are led to a God who “Lover (Father), Beloved (Son) and Love (Holy Spirit)”), a God who is love and dialogue, not only because he loves us and converses, but because in himself is a dialogue of love and therefore forgiveness. But this not only renews our understanding of God, but also the truth of ourselves. If the Bible repeats that we must live in love, in dialogue, and in communion, it is because it knows that we are all “images of God”. To meet God, to experience God, to speak of God, to give glory to God, all this means – for a Christian who knows that God is Father, Son, and Spirit – to live in a constant dimension of love and forgiveness. The Trinity is a truly wonderful mystery: revealing God to us, it has revealed who we are.
Forgiveness is the air we breathe. Unfortunately, just as we can pollute the air, we can pollute the breath of the Holy Spirit through our own anger. But fortunately, there is no getting rid of God’s mercy and love. It is all around us and we can breathe it any time we wish. And when we wish it and breathe in the Spirt, we share the life of the Holy Trinity with other people and so help them share the same forgiving life.
Seeking the Spirit – Pentecost, 9 June 2019
There are two things to ponder today on the feast of Pentecost: three if you want to consider the colour red as well. The first is how Scripture, in particular the reading from Acts, is re-writing itself, and then how the Spirit works in us today.
But let’s first just enjoy the red of the day. Red is used in the church for the shedding of blood, hence the feasts of the martyrs, and also for the Holy Spirit, as it was recorded in Scripture that the Spirit came down in divided tongues of fire. We therefore use the red theme today: in vestments, such as this wonderful chasuble with the Spirit represented as a bird, originally belonging to the late Fr Gordon Williams and made by his wife. It’s a wonderful modern piece of work, we have not only some great old pieces but newer ones as well. In some churches they deck the place with red – in some churches in Italy they often put red hangings around the pillars for high feasts and in the Parthenon in Rome, that ancient building dating back to Roman times, they throw red rose petals down this day from the great opening in the roof. It makes our efforts much more restrained and Anglican indeed.
But let’s look at the reading for today. The first reading from Acts describes the day of Pentecost. Now you have to remember two things as you read this. Firstly, what Pentecost meant for the Jews – it was the feast when they commemorated the giving of the Law to Moses on Sinai. Secondly, you are meant to remember the origin of having many languages, how in Genesis the story of the Tower of Babel when they peoples came together to rival god and make a tower to heaven and God gave them different tongues and they abandoned the work and went away. So keep these things in mind.
Now St Luke presents the story of the new Pentecost as a reversal of the old Tower of Babel. Whereas the Tower had been built to rival God, this time it is God giving the Spirit. Whereas the giving of languages at Babel had been a curse to divide, here the disciples are given the gift of understanding languages to unite. Once again there are two things happening. The first is that in Genesis, God is seen as someone who thwarts humanity’s desire: God stops the building of the Tower to rival heaven. Here God gives the Spirit to ennoble humanity. God is no longer seen as putting down humanity. The second is that languages, which had been seen as a curse to divide people, causing them to misunderstand each other and lead to conflict, is now overcome by the gift of understanding, when they disciples through the Spirit can speak other languages and understand. God brings the Spirit to overcome divisions of languages.
Then remember how Pentecost commemorates the giving of the Law to Moses. This was the way the Jews were to live; by keeping its commandments they could lead lives that were pleasing to God. But this Pentecost will be the giving of the Spirit that allows a new way to live, a way outside of the rules of the Law. By the gift of the Spirit Christians were to live outside the old rules: they were instead to live lives in the gift of the Spirit, conscious of God’s presence.
Now this would take some time to work out how individuals could live in the Spirit. St Paul spends quite a bit of time in his letters reprimanding those who don’t get it. It’s not a freedom to do what one wants – the Spirit is not the preserve of any individual. Instead, the Spirit lives in us all as the Church, and we test our understanding of the call of God within that community. Rampart individualism is the absence of the Spirit, as it breaks down community.
Now the Holy Spirit has been blamed for a lot in Church history. Some say the monastic movement, or the Crusades, or the Reformation, or the revivalist movements in the US, are all the work of the Spirit. Well, we don’t know, we have to judge by the fruits of these movements, which often are fairly mixed. But all this makes the Spirit seem like it’s only a player in the great events of our history. The Holy Spirit is much more than that. The Spirit is the presence of God in our midst here keeping us as community, causing us to reach out and help each other and those around us, even in making sure the cup of tea is made after mass so we can have friendship together. The Holy Spirit is also the great gift of beauty we share. We love and see beauty from God, the maker of all that is good. This whole church, with its wonderful furnishings and beautiful vestments are all proof of the sense of beauty of the Spirit that we have sensed over time. We have never done things on the cheap here: we want to give the best to God. Now, this is not to say that ugly churches filled with enthusiastic people are devoid of the Spirit: far from it. But the reverse holds true as well: beautiful churches filled with quiet prayerful people are just as filled with the Holy Spirit even though we don’t put our hands in the air or play guitars. I often think we neglect this sense of the Spirit: the senses of beauty and music and good food are all gifts of God that are manifested and created by the Spirit working in the world. That’s one reason why we should always give grace at meals and thanks for beautiful things – we have been touched by the Spirit at those moments as well. This Church is a manifestation of the Holy Spirit just as much as everyone holding up their arms speaking in tongues.
So, I encourage you to be Spirit filled this morning. Enjoy this beautiful church and be proud of it. Look at the red we have here and wear and enjoy its symbolism. Remember that the gift of the Spirit calls us into community: and if you live in division from someone, question in your heart how you can have the Spirit of God to heal that division. Taste the nice cup of tea later or lunch and savour this gift of food: the Holy Spirit is with us.
Walking Downhill – Ascension Sunday, 2 June, 2019
The Mount of Olives, the traditional site of Our Lord’s Ascension, is some 800 metres, 2,500 feet in the old scale, above sea level at its highest peak. So, before he was lifted up into the clouds, Our Lord led his followers up a mountain. It now has a most beautiful little octagonal chapel on its top, from crusader times, that at times was a mosque before the Muslims returned it to the Christians as a sign of good faith in the times of Saladin.
Now I don’t have much mountain-climbing experience, but I have known a few mountain-climbing clergy. One of the bishops I had in Wangaratta was Paul Richardson, who was for many years bishop of the very mountainous Aipo Rongo diocese in the PNG highlands, and was used to walking that diocese. He told me once of walking up Mount Buffalo and soon after he started a bus pulled up and out came a whole lot of Uni students who rushed up the hill and overtook him. He had great pleasure of slowly overtaking them over the next few hours as their energy waned. He knew from walking that you need to work out your energy, so you have enough to get up, and also importantly, have enough to get back again. For those of you who have climbed even Mount Lofty, you know that the muscles that ache on the way down are completely different: you have to prepare properly to walk down as well as walk up.
Let’s think of those disciples today. It must have been grand view. It had been a relatively quick ascent for them. From casting nets or working in the family business, to finding themselves following in the ways of Our Lord, inspired by his healing, transformed by his teaching, learning to take on some of his grace, catching his vision for a kingdom on earth, and becoming all the while more than they ever knew they could be. By now, they had lived through his death, they had wrestled with their own fears, and finally encountered him as the risen Lord who kept his promise to return to them. Well, with all of that adrenaline, they must have raced up the mountain in their ongoing contest to determine just who was the greatest after all. And once atop the mountain, they could look back and imagine just how far they had come, overcome with the breathless longing that such peaks can give us.
Up on the mountain they find themselves in what Celtic Christians would have termed a “thin place.” It’s a place so elevated that the veil between earth and heaven, human and divine, seems to thin to where it is so easy to see God, to hear God’s voice, to sense God’s Spirit lifting you.
And that’s so often what we seek. That’s so often what we prepare for, to ascend to those places: the mountaintop; the dazzling light; the grand view; the feeling of satisfaction.
The theme of mountain climbing is popular. Often, it’s used by business leaders. They set goals for their lives because goals help us know if we have lived successfully. They make plans and necessary preparations. They measure progress based on the day’s mileage. And they rarely stop lest someone else should leave them behind. But if you sweat, climb and reach what you thought was the goal of your life; but when you reach the top and it levels out, chances are you feel a little empty, as though in all of your striving there were things that you missed. Because most of us don’t ever prepare to walk down from there.
And it’s not just the over-achievers. It’s so many of us in so many parts of our lives: career, home, community service, family life, education, maybe with our expectations of our children, maybe in our lives of faith; so many of us only prepare to walk uphill.
There is a story of a woman who had a life-changing opportunity some years ago to spend a summer in Calcutta, India, where she worked in the homes of Mother Teresa. She had prepared for months, with so much leading up to this moment when she would work alongside Mother Teresa, one of her idols, maybe holding the hands of those who were nearing the end, or running programs for children that would help them to know that they were the beloved of God.
Only when she arrived, Mother Teresa wasn’t there. The woman learnt that Mother would be spending those months on an international benevolence tour. And then when she reported for work her first day, she was placed in the kitchen, washing pots. And then the next day in the laundry, washing sheets. This went on for weeks, frustrating her. So, she asked one of her supervisors, “Hey, I’ve been spending all of my time washing pots and cleaning sheets and folding bandages. I came here to work with Mother Teresa. What does Mother Teresa do when she’s here?” And the supervisor said, “Well, when she’s here, Mother Teresa cleans sheets, she folds bandages, and she washes pots.”
And somewhere the whisper could be heard for all of us racing up the mountain of ambition: “The greatest among you will be your servant.”
And that way down is so unnatural. The disciples resist it. As Our Lord rises, they’re left gazing up into the clouds, along with so many of us who seek the risen Christ. We act as though he’s elevated and beyond us in a place we have to strive to reach or strain our necks to see.
But even as he rises, Our Lord, who taught them so much of power in weakness and greatness in service, is teaching them the way down. “Stay here, in the city,” Our Lord says in Luke’s first telling of the episode in Luke 24. The phrase comes from a verb normally translated “sit” or “sit down.” So as Our Lord is rising up, he asks his disciples to sit down. It’s such a juxtaposition. He must have known they longed to follow him into some cloudy, idyllic existence at the right hand of God away from the confusion and chaos. But as he rises up, he tells them to stay down. Just to reinforce his words after he’s gone from view, we hear in Acts that two men appear and ask, “Why do you stand here looking up?”
How many times have we assumed the way of a Christ, the way of faith, is a journey up? But it’s actually the story of coming down, Christ coming all the way down into our brokenness, woundedness, fear, and then Christ’s people following in that same way. Yes, the message of Our Lord from the manger to the cross, from the tomb to this Mount of Ascension is that this world is changed not from the top, but from the bottom. For all of us wanting a mighty Messiah, he arrives as infant refugee. Instead of a powerful ruler, he operates as a homeless teacher. It is not his super strength that saves the world, but his enduring love. He humbled himself to death, even death on the cross; and as risen Lord he carries not only the wounds in his wrists and side, but the wounds of all those beaten down, cast out, and despised. He has borne all of our sorrows. So, as he rises, we hear him tell us to keep our eyes fixed on this earth and head back down the mountain to the places where he made his life.
And it’s so unnatural. Our muscles ache. But isn’t that so often the case with the paths that lead toward the heart of God?
If we wonder with the disciples why Our Lord would send us down from the heights, we find our answer as we read ahead. Because it’s down in the city that the Spirit comes, rushing through the streets, crossing background and language, and organizing all those followers into a new existence.
Maybe we would prefer to stay where the air is thin and the view of God’s glory is so clear, but the mountains and the valleys of our world are right next to one another. And while we strain our necks, the messengers of God call all of us people of Galilee to lower our gaze and to look around. For down the slope, there are people who can still be caught up in a vision of a new community of the risen Christ. St Luke says that “day by day the Lord added to their number those who were being saved.” And that doesn’t happen if the people gathered around the risen Christ some 800 metres in the air.
The disciples eventually adjust their gaze, and descend just as Our Lord had taught them, from the mount of ascension to the centre of the city. And thank God, for the Church that flowed from their experience of Jesus and his Spirit eventually came to include you and me. Today they make their journey to Jerusalem once more, and we are called to follow in that same way. But if you do, just be prepared that it’s a walk downhill.
Based on a reflection by the Rev’d Alan Sherouse of First Baptist Church in Greensboro, USA.
Revelation – Easter 6, 26 May, 2019
One of the little things I always like teaching is how to remember the number of books in the Bible. Well, if you look at the titles “New Testament” and “Old Testament,” there are three letters in “new” and “old” and nine in “testament.” Then all you have to remember is that the Old Testament has 39, the New Testament has the multiple of the letters, so three nines make 27. So 39 books in the Old and 27 in the New. I’m going to skip the Apocrypha at the moment like a good Protestant, but there are 14 there.
Now another curious thing about these numbers is that if you add them, 39 and 27 make 66, and the number 666 is talked about in the 66thbook of the Bible, the Book of the Apocalypse, or the Revelation of St John. By the way, this St John is almost certainly not the same writer St John of the Gospel and letters. We are using the Book of Revelation during the end of the Easter season, as the church starts to look forward to the coming of the Spirit at Pentecost. This book was perhaps the last book to be taken into the Bible as we know it: and even then it’s had a history, being loved by all the wrong people. The Protestant reformer Martin Luther described it as “neither apostolic nor prophetic. My spirit cannot accommodate itself to this book. I stick to the books which present Christ to me clearly and purely.” Martin Luther was very heavily into Romans and justification of faith, and as a result didn’t like Revelation or the Letter of St James either which didn’t fit into his theology as easily. He even called James “an epistle of straw.” John Calvin, who we very ecumenically remember today in the calendar of holy people and saints despite being a heretic, wrote commentaries on every book in the New Testament except Revelation. Today, among Eastern Orthodox believers Revelation is the only book that they don’t read in their public liturgy.
But amongst the loonies it has been well loved.The two churches most common for sending its members knocking on doors to ‘evangelise,’ Seventh Day Adventists and Jehovah’s Witnesses, nearly always begin their door spin with Revelation
More troubling is the extent to which Revelation is fascinating larger numbers of contemporary evangelical Christians, especially in the United States, as seen in the Left Behindseries of books. That view that Christians will be taken suddenly is one that only originated in the 19thC and was popularised in the late 20thbut has no place in mainstream Christian belief.
But that’s not what the book is about. The Book of Revelation shows us a picture of the beastly powers of violence finally collapsing into their own hell-hole of violence, together with a plea to the faithful to maintain their faith. In the midst of relating his vision, John of Patmos pauses to speak directly to those faithful:
Let anyone who has an ear listen: If you are to be taken captive, into captivity you go; if you kill with the sword, with the sword you must be killed. Here is a call for the endurance and faith of the saints. (Rev 13:9-10)
Could the call to nonviolence be any clearer? Yet the images of violence, including the possibility of divine vengeance, seem to overpower such a call to nonviolence. How does one sort through this barrage of images that are rather foreign to our modern worldview? For those who see the New Testament as a call to nonviolence, being able to interpret the Book of Revelation as part of that overall message depends primarily on a strategy of seeing how Revelation takes violent apocalyptic imagery from the Hebrew tradition and means to subvert it from within, primarily through the dominant actor in Revelation, the Lamb slain. It’s that lamb who was slain who is the light of the Temple that we heard in our second reading today.
The point of Revelation is that it is conveying to us, that the terrifying violence that we so often face in this world is decidedly not God’s violence but the violence of empires under the deception of Satan, the dragon. God’s defeat of that violence is not one of superior firepower, of simply having more of the same kind of violence to subdue that of the empires. No, God’s defeat of violence is to expose it through the love of the Lamb slain whose self-giving love lets itself be slaughtered by the violence, and the Lamb’s resurrection shows its power of life to be victorious. Disciples of the Lamb follow not in a hope that there would be a different kind of victory someday, a victory in which the Lamb became a Lion and devoured all its enemies. But followers of the Lamb believe that his slaughter and resurrection have already won the victory, so that we wait with endurance and hope, following in the Lamb’s loving nonviolence if we must, until the day when Satan’s violence finally becomes its own defeat, collapsing in on itself.
Revelation begins to subvert this hope right from the very beginning with the one who has truly won God’s victory on the cross, the Lamb slain. And the Lamb is never portrayed as someday coming back like a lion. Even the great battle in heaven, when Michael fights against the dragon makes the point that the victory is not by force, but by the blood of the lamb. (Rev. 12:7-12)
This is why in Our Lord’s ministry he does not fight. It is the self-giving of Our Lord through his death for us that brings about the resurrection. Exposed by the greater power of loving self-giving, human beings need no longer look to the Satanic powers of violence as heavenly powers. Duped by the beastly deception, we will continue to be led astray for a time. But the battle has already been fought and won, signified by Michael and the angels throwing Satan out of heaven. And was this victory won by superior divine firepower? No, the nature of the victory is made crystal clear: “they have conquered him by the blood of the Lamb and by the word of their testimony, for they did not cling to life even in the face of death.” It is a continuation of the ministry begun on this earth by Our Lord and furthered through his disciples – his witnesses (martyrin the Greek) – who continue in his way of loving self-giving instead of hate-filled vengeance.
This way of discipleship is obviously not an easy choice. It requires great faith indeed. We love the idea of a sacred divine violence, a Lion of Judah, to attack and destroy evil-doers, is a hope deeply engrained in our way of creating gods to justify our own violent actions against enemies. The Satanic powers of violence have been our heavenly powers since the foundations of our human worlds. But God the Father doesn’t work like that. He gives his Son, Our Lord, into the hands of those who make him a sacrifice. Then that Son, Our Lord, the Lamb, rises again at Easter to unveil that violence. We are then shown that God is not about violence, not about legality, but about the heavenly power of unconditional love and forgiveness, a revelation that continues to take place through the work of the Holy Spirit that we now turn for and wait at Pentecost. We worship the Lamb slain, the great symbol of Revelation.
Based on a paper by Paul John Nuechterlein of the Lutheran Church in the USA.
Love – Easter 5C, 19 May, 2019
If you knew you were about to die, what would you tell the people you love? What cherished hope or dream would you share? What last, urgent piece of advice would you offer?
In our Gospel this week, we hear Our Lord’s answer to this difficult question. Judas has left the Last Supper in order to carry out his betrayal, the crucifixion clock is ticking down, and Our Lord knows that his disciples are about to face the greatest devastation of their lives. So he gets right to the point. No parables, no stories, no pithy sayings. Just one commandment. One simple, straightforward commandment, summarizing Our Lord’s deepest desire for his followers: “Love one another. Just as I have loved you, you also should love one another.”
Then, right on the heels of the commandment, a promise. Or maybe an incentive. Or maybe a warning: “By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another.”
What Our Lord doesn’t say? When death comes knocking, and the Son of God has mere hours left to communicate the heart of his message to his disciples, he doesn’t say, “Believe the right things.” He doesn’t say, “Worship like this or attend a synagogue like that.” He doesn’t even say, “Read your Bible,” or “Pray every day,” He says, “Love one another.” That’s it. The last dream of a dead man walking. All of Christianity distilled down to its essence so that maybe we’ll pause long enough to hear it. Love one another.
What’s staggering about this commandment is how badly we’ve managed to botch it over the last two thousand years. It’s simple, and we can easily memorise it, yet we fail so badly at it we remain embarrassed how poorly we comprehend it and put it into practice.
It’s not too hard to name why we perpetually fail to obey Our Lord’s dying wish. Love is vulnerable-making, and we would rather not be vulnerable. Love requires trust, and we are naturally suspicious. Love spills over margins and boundaries, and we feel safer and holier policing our borders. Love takes time, effort, discipline, and transformation, and we are just so busy.
And yet Our Lord didn’t say, “This is my suggestion.” He said, “This is my commandment.”
For the St John in this Gospel, for the word “commandment” he uses the word “entolen” that means precept, advise, instruction and prescription. It is like the prescription that a doctor writes to get the medicine needed to cure an illness. It is up to the patient to follow or not to follow what it prescribes. In this case a command is not a peremptory order or something we must do. The countercheck that this is the meaning that St John wants to give to the word commandment, is in his gospel where, to define Moses commandments, he doesn’t use “entolen” but “nomos” which we translate as law. To follow and to serve Christ we don’t need that sort of rigid law. Our relationship with God is much more than to follow some rules even if they are good. God has given us commands (entolen) that guide us, shape us and takes us on his path, indications that manifest his willingness for our salvation.
We do this commandment therefore not out of fear, but because this is what we need to do, like taking medicine, to live lives full of health.
But what does it mean that Jesus commands us to love? We fall in love. Love is blind, it happens at first sight, it breaks our hearts, and its course never runs smooth.
But we know that authentic love can’t be manipulated, simulated, or rushed without suffering distortion. Those with children understand full well that commanding them to love each other never works. The most we can do is insist that they behave as if they love each other: “Share your toys.” “Say sorry.” “Don’t hit.” “Use kind words.” But these actions — often performed with gritted teeth and rolling eyes — aren’t the same as what Our Lord is talking about.
Our Lord doesn’t say, “Act as if you love.” He doesn’t give his disciples (or us) the easy “out” of doing nice things with clenched hearts. (I doubt that the people who flocked to Our Lord would have done so if they sensed that his compassion was thin or forced.) He says, “Love as I have loved you.” For real. The whole bona fide package. Authentic feeling, deep engagement, generous action. Doesn’t it sound like he’s asking for the impossible?
Maybe he is. G.K Chesterton once wrote that “The Christian ideal has not been tried and found wanting. It has been found difficult and left untried.” Imagine what would happen to us, to the Church, to the world, if we took this commandment of Our Lord seriously? What could Christendom look like if we obeyed orders and cultivated “impossible” love?
We may ask these questions fearfully, because we don’t know how to answer them, even for myself. I mean, I know fairly well how to do things. I know how to make care for the homeless. Or send money to my favourite charities. But do I know how to love as Our Lord loved? To feel that depth of compassion? To experience a hunger for justice so fierce and so urgent that I rearrange my life in order to pursue it? To empathize until my heart breaks? Do I want to?
Most of the time, if we are honest, we don’t. We want to be safe. We want to keep our circle small and manageable. We want to choose the people we love based on our own preferences, not on Our Lord’s all-inclusive commandment. Charitable actions are easy. But cultivating the heart? Preparing and pruning it to love? Becoming vulnerable in authentic ways to the world’s pain? Those things are hard, hard and costly.
And yet, this was Our Lord’s dying wish. Which means that we have a God who first and foremost wants every one of his children to feel loved: not shamed; not punished; not chastised; not judged; not isolated: but loved.
But that’s not all. Our Lord follows his commandment with a terrifying promise: “By this everyone will know.” Meaning, love is the litmus test of Christian witness. Our love for each other is how the world will know who we are and whose we are. Our love for each other is how the world will see, taste, touch, hear, and find Our Lord. It’s through our love that we will embody Our Lord, make Jesus relatable, possible, plausible, to a dying world.
This should make us tremble. What Our Lord seems to be saying is that if we fail to love one another, the world won’t know what it needs to know about God, and in the terrible absence of that knowing, it will believe falsehoods that break God’s heart, that is, that the whole Jesus thing is a sham. That there really is no transformative power in the resurrection. That God is a mean, angry, vindictive parent, determined only to shame and punish his children. That the universe is a cold, meaningless place, ungoverned by love. That the Church is only a flawed and hypocritical institution — not Christ’s living, breathing, healing body on earth.
Such is the power we wield in our decisions to love or not love. Such are the stakes involved in how we choose to respond to Our Lord’s dying wish, hope, prayer, and commandment. Such is the responsibility we shoulder, whether we want to or not.
But here’s our saving grace: Our Lord doesn’t leave us alone and bereft. We are not directionless in the wilderness. He gives us a road map, a clear way forward: “As I have loved you.” Follow my example, he says. Do what I do. Love as I love. Live as you have seen me live.
Weep with those who weep. Laugh with those who laugh. Touch the untouchables. Feed the hungry. Welcome the child. Release the captive. Forgive the sinner. Confront the oppressor. Comfort the oppressed. Wash each other’s feet. Hold each other close. Tell each other the truth. Guide each other home.
In other words, Our Lord’s commandment to us is not that we should wear ourselves out, trying to conjure love from our own easily depleted resources. Rather, it’s that we’re invited to abide in the holy place where all love originates. We can make our home in Our Lord’s love — the most abundant and inexhaustible love in existence. Our love is not our own; it is God’s, and God our source is without limit, without end. There are no parched places God will not drench if we ask.
“Love one another as I have loved you.” For our own sakes, and for the world’s.
Based on a reflection by Debie Thomas:
St George Day Sermon by Archdeacon Michael Whiting 5 May 2019
It was my task, as a young rectory boy in rural NSW, every Sunday morning to raise the flag of St George on its flagpole immediately in front of our country church – in the 1950s there was to be no doubt we were the church of the English! Then in recent years Janine and I discovered that St George does not belong just to the English at all! Everywhere in the Holy Land the white flag with the red cross is flying,or there is engraved on many Christian houses reliefs of St George slaying the dragon – we now know that St George is the patron saint of virtually every church in the Christian world, and even the Muslims claim him!
Here are three quite unrelated quotations to muse upon:
The fame of Saint George spread all over the East, and the Crusaders brought their devotion for the warrior Saint back to Europe. Through the Crusaders, Saint George became the patron Saint of England. He is also the patron Saint of Syria and Lebanon. The Emperor Constantine dedicated a church to him not long after his martyrdom, and in later times, he became an object of devotion for Christians and Muslims alike. Saint George is the protector of Christians, and the patron of all who fight for righteousness. His cheerful fortitude and unswerving loyalty have inspired generations of Christians the world over…
Saint George the Victory Bearer, depicted as a horseman slaying the serpent appeared on Moscow’s coat of arms, and became an emblem of the Russian state. This has strengthened Russia’s connections with Christian nations, and especially with Iberia (Georgia, the Land of Saint George) …
William Dalrymple himself visited (the shrine of St George at Beit Jala outside Bethlehem) in 1995. “I asked around in the Christian Quarter in Jerusalem and discovered that the place was very much alive. With all the greatest shrines in the Christian world to choose from, it seemed that when the local Arab Christians had a problem—an illness, or something more complicated—they preferred to seek the intercession of Saint George in his grubby little shrine at Beit Jala rather than praying at the Church of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem or the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem]He asked the priest at the shrine “Do you get many Muslims coming here?” The priest replied, “We get hundreds! Almost as many as the Christian pilgrims. Often, when I come in here, I find Muslims all over the floor, in the aisles, up and down”…
Perhaps you are all set to hear, yet again, a terrific sermon about St George – lances and dragons and princesses, persecutions and martyrdom, a white flag and a red cross? Sorry to disappoint. Instead let us consider the prior question: why are there saints? They always seem to be those ‘other’ people, don’t they? What is it they have and we do not? Are they better Christians?
Saints are indeed always those holy others, with two remarkable signs: they have mastered what I call ‘disassociation’, and, they have embraced the uniqueness of the Christian faith which is an intimacy with Almighty God. What is meant by ‘disassociation’? Well, we usually call it ‘renunciation’ – a turning away from the associations and claims of this world and embracing the divine. This is achieved by them with obedience to Christ’s teachings, bearing the burdens of others, and living in the shadow of the cross. The world sees the cross as the end of the ministry of Jesus; for the Christian, the cross is the beginning of our communion with Christ.As we obey, and renounce, and share each other’s burdens, so we are picking up our cross. As one writer has put it: ‘when Christ calls, He bids us come and die. It may be a death like that of the first disciples who had to leave their homes; it may be a death like losing someone very dear to us; it may be the death of being rejected or ignored socially or in the workplace’. Remember when Jesus summonsed the rich young man? He was calling him to die, to turn from his attachments and live, because only the person who is dying to his or her own will can follow Christ, and live. As in our gospel of today:
Jesus said to his disciples: “If the world hates you, be aware that it hated me before it hated you. If you belonged to the world, the world would love you as its own. Because you do not belong to the world, but I have chosen you out of the world – therefore the world hates you”.
What is meant by ‘the uniqueness of the Christian faith which is intimacy with Almighty God’? Well, saints are people who really want to know God – more than that, they never lose sight of this want. Why? Saints are folk who know God as Holy, the only source of the divine; there is none but He, and He makes an immeasurable claim upon us all. This difference in God is the starting point of our religion, and what is unique for the Christian is that this Almighty God identifies Himself, intimately, with each of us. Saints sense this intimacy and are overwhelmed by it, and their response is one of the imagination, and lives are changed dramatically as a result.
Saints have a means of expressing this radical intimacy – they feel total failures but remember the grace of the Lord Jesus Christ. God, through Christ, has identified Himself with them, and themselves with God. For Christ is the Son of God, and He is immediately present to the heavenly Father, and the heavenly Father to Him. Saints realise that Christ has identified Himself with them and they with Him. The saints know that their effort to pray is simply a part of Christ’s prayer; their failure and darkness is overcome by the light of Christ. Christ does not reject or disown the saints (or you and I) as long as they believe and welcome Christ’s saving grace.
So – we can all be saints, can’t we? The answer is ‘yes’, but suppose you say, “But I cannot see things that way, I cannot feel things that way?” Well, Jesus Himself has provided a remedy for this; He gives Himself in the blessed sacrament. If our difficulty is one of imagination, a failure to feel and live our identification with Christ, is not the purpose of the sacrament to overcome, and make visible, and make real the presence of Christ?
Those who eat my flesh and drink my blood abide in me, and I in them … the one who eats this bread will live forever
So, it is right to claim St George as one of these saintly people. St Peter Damian, in the 11thcentury, said this of the festival of our patron saint:
Today’s feast, my dear people, doubles our joy in the glory of Eastertide like a precious jewel whose shining beauty adds to the splendour of the gold in which it is set.
So, to our Almighty God, Father, Son and Holy Spirit, be all praise, honour and thanksgiving, now and for all eternity. Amen
The Peace of the Risen Lord – Easter 2, 28 April 2018
Poor Thomas, poor doubting Thomas. Some names in history really get stuck with connotations. Judas has been on the no-use list now for 2000 years. Adolf, or Adolfus, was once a popular name, has not been used now since the Second World War, whereas other names have a spurt in popularity. The last baby I baptised a few weeks ago was Charlotte: virtually unknown a few years ago, it’s now one of the favourites, thanks to the Royal family.
However, with Thomas, we get the name doubting Thomas, from the reading today. But why did he doubt?
Think about it. St John in his Gospel records that Thomas had gone with Our Lord to Judea and seen the raising of Lazarus. If Our Lord could bring Lazarus from the tomb, why could he not rise? After all we are told that Lazarus had been dead three days, and this too was three days. Why did Thomas have these doubts?
Now there are several possibilities. One is that he had seen the power of Our Lord calling someone else from the tomb, but can a dead man call himself back from death? Also, Our Lord had been killed. If he could not stop his own execution, then could he have the power to rise again? Perhaps Thomas could not understand that a person could allow his own death and yet still raise himself. The doubt is not only the rising, but also the power to let oneself die. For that means that he chose to die, and the implications of that are a lot harder. So to believe in his resurrection, is to believe also that a person could willing let himself be taken and tortured to death.
But there is also another point to consider. Every time Our Lord meets with his disciples here he starts with the greeting of “Peace be with you.” He also links this with the showing of his hands and his side, the place of his wounds and the power to his disciples to forgive. As an aside, there seems to be some interesting themes running between Luke and John here – John emphasises the hands and side, while Luke emphasises the hands and feet. Yet John has the unique record of the washing of the feet, so why does he omit the signs of the feet here? Maybe John is teasing us with the missing feet to tie it back to that last night he had with his disciples, the time he was with them all together, and he washed their feet. The message from that night was that discipleship is about service, not power.
Let’s consider again that greeting of peace. This is linked with the idea of forgiveness. “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.” On an aside this passage was used at Anglican ordinations of priests, unlike Roman Catholic or Orthodox clergy. Now, we may be tempted to think that this is a gift of power – we can control the forgiveness of sins. But we should also remember from the washing of the feet, that primary duty as Christian and disciples is to serve. So it cannot be a giving of power, but a message of service. We are to serve people by learning to forgive or retain sins.
The forgiveness of sins then becomes a message to us believers, the modern disciples; that we serve the world by learning to forgive. By that we bring a peace into the world. Our Lord comes into our midst telling us that his peace is with us. You see, the change in the world starts with how we show forgiveness. If we want peace, we have to learn that it is only possible through the gift of forgiveness in life. If we don’t forgive, the sins are retained, and the world does not change: if we forgive the sin is forgiven and the peace of Our Lord comes instead.
The heart of this message is that we, as disciples, have to learn to forgive. It’s the only way to change the world and give peace. The bearing of grudges and the holding back of forgiveness is the Easter message for us. It’s not easy. We are often hurt by the damage that has been done to us, often it is malicious. It is the evil in our midst that we struggle with. Sometimes it may be our own besetting sin, as the quaint old phrase puts it, our own inability to seek forgiveness for our own sins. Sometimes it may the damage done to us by family or workplaces. Whatever it is, wherever it happened, peace will not come from anything else but learning to forgive.
I should also point out that when we have committed sin, the first stage is seeking forgiveness, then the second stage is what we call reparation, and the last stage is absolution. By reparation we have to try and make good the evil we have done. If we have stolen, we must restore; if we have told lies, we must expose them. Forgiveness is not possible without reparation. We do not obtain forgiveness easily, but then the peace of Christ itself is not bought cheaply, but is the price of his own blood.
Which brings us back to Thomas. The signs that Thomas see are the signs of Our Lord’s suffering. He shows to Thomas the cost of his peace. We too, who remember how Our Lord washed our feet to teach us service, should also remember that the cost of peace is living with wounds, wounds that no longer are painful though, but resurrected in the new life of the Risen Lord.
The Most Important (and Ignored) Day of the Year – Easter Vigil 20 April, 2019
We have been celebrating Holy Week. We have had some strange adjectives: Holy, Maundy and Good to distinguish the names. Sometimes you even hear the rarer Spy Wednesday as another adjective. But let’s just consider today, which is called Holy Saturday or Easter Even.
Our Lord rose on the third day – he was buried on Good Friday before sunset, lay in the tomb all day on Holy Saturday, and rose on Easter Sunday morning. Holy Saturday, then, was the only full day that he lay in the tomb. That, by itself, makes it holy. But is that all?
Holy Saturday is usually one of the most ignored days in Holy Week, and we may tend to view it as merely an unwelcome waiting period – a delay, even – between Good Friday and Easter Sunday. Or maybe we view it as a day to forget about the pain of Good Friday so we can get into the proper, happy mood for Easter Sunday.
What does it have to do with us, anyway? Well, if on Easter Sunday nothing has changed but the calendar, then we have nothing to celebrate and Easter is just like any other day, except for the eggs and chocolate.
Back to the tomb. What, exactly, was going on in the tomb on Holy Saturday? If we had been there in the tomb, with Jesus, what would we have seen? Did he simply lie there, dead and unmoving, all day and all night on Saturday, and then spring to life instantaneously on Easter Sunday? Or was his resurrection a gradual process, perhaps indiscernible at first, followed by a mild and gentle stirring, as if awakening from a usual night of slumber?
If we had been there with him in the tomb, what would we have observed on Sunday morning? Would he have slowly begun to move, then gradually sit up? Did He rub his eyes and hold his head in his hands, aching at first with the pain of his crucifixion, his hands and feet and side in agonizing, holy pain?
Popular images of Easter morning show Our Lord, radiant, outside the tomb – and sometimes standing with his feet off the ground, as if he had floated out of the tomb, as though the Ascension into heaven had already begun. What were the mechanics of the Resurrection? Did the stone roll, of its own, from the tomb’s opening? And did Our Lord then simply walk out of the tomb, where he remained until the women who visited the tomb found the tomb empty, and mistook him for the gardener? Or was the Resurrection something akin to a bomb going off, with the stone cast aside like a piece of rubbish, and Our Lord rocketing from the tomb? Or did Our Lord simply push back the stone, himself, and just walk away, quietly and assured?
What would we have seen if we were there? Perhaps it is foolish to think about seeing anything. With Our Lord dead and in the tomb, the world was in darkness. The forces of evil seemed to have conquered the forces of goodness and light. It appeared that we were meant to spend the rest of our lives in fear. But then Our Lord is raised from the dead – and our world is no longer broken, and our lives are no longer to be filled with despair.
Our lives are spent in anticipation of resurrection, both in the present life and in the one that is to come. In a way, our entire lives are a kind of a theological purgatory, as we await our own resurrection in Christ. We are stuck in Holy Saturday until we can find our way to the other side.
It’s similar to our faith journeys. Some of us have had great conversion moments, they know exactly when they became a believer. It’s likes having the tomb door blown open. Others have had a slow escape form the tomb, and don’t know when exactly they did believe, when they left the tomb of doubt. Then there are many who will never leave that tomb, and it is our duty as Christians to pray for them anyway; perhaps extra hard.
Does Our Lord stir in the grave? Is his resurrection gradual or instantaneous? Like Our Lord, our own Holy Saturday may not follow a gradual, continuous path from slumber to life. There may be movement, both small and large, as well as long periods where it appears that nothing is stirring.
But we can make a choice to work toward emerging from our slumber. The key is love. Love is the animating force that propels us on our journey from Holy Saturday to our own Easter experience – our resurrection in Jesus Christ.
Whether you believe that we are all fallen angels in need of awakening, or whether you simply accept that we need to awaken to our own life’s true calling – our true mission or purpose in life – Holy Saturday can serve as a reminder that we are in need of our own Easter experience. We need to stir from our mortal slumber and find a way to roll back the stone that has blocked us from living our true life and experiencing that which we are meant to be, and that which we are meant to live.
And what is the stone that blocks us from living our true life and experiencing what that which we are meant to be? It’s our lack of awareness – an awareness that we are all interconnected with everyone else. It’s our inability to see, or accept, that we are all members of the Body of Christ. It’s our unwillingness or inability to accept everyone else, especially those people who aren’t like us, people we don’t like, and people who may even mean to hurt us. It’s our eagerness to exclude these people, and to treat them differently. It’s our limited sense of responsibility toward everyone and everything that God created. To put a point on it – it’s our inability to recognize and accept that everyone is a part of God’s creation, no less important than whatever importance we place on our own position in God’s creation. And along with that recognition and acceptance is the realization that we are all responsible for one another, and for building up God’s creation – and that we are to do more than simply not actively work against it. This is the time to recognize that we need to do more than simply avoid sin. We need to seek out goodness. The absence of evil in our lives does not equate to the presence of goodness. That’s not the way it works, and we know it in our heart of hearts. We cannot consider ourselves to be good merely because we believe that we are not as bad as other people. We need actually to be good, and to seek and to do good things. This is the work that God has given us to do. To love one another. Not in the abstract, writing-a-check kind of way, but in the real, day-to-day encounters we have with all people, and with the people whom we never meet. No exceptions.
Maybe that is the real reason we call it Holy Saturday. It’s holy because we, too, have a sacred obligation to sanctify our lives for a greater need, something beyond ourselves. Maybe Holy Saturday isn’t about inactivity. Maybe it’s the inner activity that we have to undergo before we, too, can find new life after the crushing defeat of our own crucifixion.
When we love, or even when we open ourselves to the possibility of loving another person, we allow a small opening to appear in the hardened shell of our isolated existence, and we get a glimpse of heaven on earth. Of God’s Kingdom on Earth.
The only force that could have raised Our Lord from the dead was love; love was the force that allowed Jesus to raise Lazarus from the grave; so much more love was required for Jesus to rise on Easter Sunday. And love is the only force that can raise us from our own Holy Saturday slumber. Our love of others is required, but it is not enough – we need Our Lord to raise us from our own graves of lassitude.
We are born in Christ. We die in Christ. We are with Our Lord in the tomb, and it is Holy Saturday, every day.
Based on a reflection by Carlo Uchello.