Sermon: June 21st 2015

If any one is in Christ, he is a new creation;

the old has passed away, behold, the new has come.

Words from the second epistle of St. Paul to the Corinthians.

+In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit.

It was a dark and stormy night. The scene, like the much parodied cliché, is hardly an unfamiliar one. The Bible is full of dark and stormy weather, and it is doubtless the evangelist’s intention for us to call to mind such highlights as Jonah walking the plank; and Moses trapped between an angry army and a salty sea; and maybe even those echoes, scattered throughout the Hebrew Scriptures—in Job, and elsewhere—of still older myths from the ancient Near East, of God wrestling with the watery forces of chaos and darkness and death, the subjugation of which is the very condition of peace and light and life. Water is, in the symbolic universe of the Bible, that most ambivalent of elements.

The waves beat into the boat, so that the boat was already filling. There are really only two possible endings for stories like this: either the protagonists survive the turbulence, or they are overwhelmed by it. Good stories try to have both, of course, and the biblical narratives aren’t half bad on that front. I mean, they—Jonah, Moses, Jesus and the disciples in the boat—all survive in the end, and maybe even in a rhetorically cheap way, literally with a deus ex machina to save them. But this is not to say that their lives were not really ever in danger. Jonah is forced to jump into the darkness, and is engulfed, first by the waves, and then by the monster, and in it, Jonah descends into the depths. Moses and the Israelites are forced to flee, having thought that they would just walk free; and there they were, trapped, seemingly doomed to perish, whether by spear or sea. The boat was already filling, and Jesus was asleep, as terror and despair fell upon his disciples.

But none of these stories go far enough, as we well know, on this side of Good Friday and Easter. They are, at best, pale premonitions of a much better story: one in which the protagonist not only faces the prospect of death, but death itself. The voice that once commanded winds and waves—and they stopped—it would be silenced. The hands that calmed the storm, they would be nailed to a tree; and then they would hang limp; and then they would go cold in rigor mortis. The dead Christ would be as dead as they come. As dead as we will all go.

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A week from today, I shall—God-willing—be ordained to the priesthood. On the ensuing Tuesday, I will offer the Mass for the first time, and I hope that many of you will be here for that. On this occasion, it is customary—at least in our circles—for the newly ordained priest to present Our Lady with thirty-three roses: that is, our Lord’s age when he offered up his life for our sake. At the same time, the new priest is to present his mother with a bouquet of roses too: the same number as the age at which he was ordained. Whether intentional or not, the symbolism is striking, if also rather blunt: just as Jesus gives up his life, the priest does so also. Put more starkly: just as Jesus is dead to his mother—recall his words on the cross, entrusting her to the care of the beloved disciple—the new priest is dead to his mother. Frankly, I’m not sure that my mother would approve.

In any case, this connexion made between discipleship and death is not, of course, limited to how we talk about priesthood. Or, better yet, it is how we talk about the priesthood of all believers. For all we say at baptisms about water as an element of life and vitality, or freshness and purity, it is—as we have seen already—also the agent of chaos and death. After all, in baptism, the new disciple is drowned: she is plunged into the depths with Jonah, who foreshadows Christ, to die the death that Jesus died, so as to rise in his resurrection. Appearances notwithstanding, that font is a dangerous place.

All have died, St Paul tells us, and therefore we live no longer for ourselves, but for him who for our sake died and was raised. The old has passed away; behold, the new has come. If our deaths are not faked, not mere symbols, on a thin and toothless understanding of symbolism, then surely something must be different now. We are, after all, all of us people of the resurrection, dead men and women, walking.

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But what does this mean?

We might go straight to The Dead Poets’ Society (or, more likely if you are a regular at Mary Mags, Horace’s Odes), and adopt a sort of carpe diem attitude of living each day as if it were our last, by which people typically mean a sort of indulgent form of self-actualisation or, at best, the warm-and-fuzzy sentiment of telling our friends and family how much we love them. This is fine as far as it goes, but it hardly goes anywhere at all.

More characteristic of Christian circles is the injunction to be dead to our base desires, by which religious leaders typically mean our sexual or otherwise carnal desires. This too is fine as far as it goes: there is certainly room for expanding our theologies of asceticism and abstinence. But it is also so easily and so often perverted, not just into a hatred of the body, but also an instrument of oppression and control. To be dead in this way is to be inert, passive and lifeless: that is, the opposite of participating in the abundance of resurrection life.

The clue is—I think, and you will not be surprised to hear from this pulpit—in the Eucharist. In this, our central act of worship, we encounter the dead Christ who is forever alive. The death, resurrection, and ascension of Christ has always raised a perfectly sensible theological question: where is he now? The correct answer is, of course, “at the right hand of the Father, interceding on our behalf” or, if we are trying to be just very slightly less anthropomorphic, we might say that Jesus is “in Heaven”. But this is not a terribly helpful answer, seeing as we clearly don’t mean that Jesus is located spatially to one side of God the Father in a place far, far away from here, and it is not clear at all that these spatial metaphors really help us to say what we do mean. And what we do mean is that having died, been raised, and ascended, Christ makes himself available to us all, and not just to his disciples in a Jewish backwater of the Roman Empire in the first century, but across all time and space. The Eucharist then, is the manifestation of this access: in the bread and wine, Christ gives himself to us, and there we encounter the whole Christ, dead and risen. And if our participation in his death is also a participation in his risen life, then it must also be a participation in this, his giving of himself for all. In consuming the flesh of God who is by nature the one who gives himself in love, we enact our willingness to be consumed for the sake of others. All of which is to say that to be dead—for the old to have passed away, and the new to have come—is to be alive for others.

As I was was writing this sermon (and struggling with the ending, as usual), the web-enabled twittering classes began beeping and buzzing about something Pope Francis had said during a Tuesday morning Mass in the chapel of Casa Santa Marta. I don’t know why people are shocked when the Pope talks about our moral responsibility to the poor or to the natural environment—things at the heart of Catholic Social Teaching—but that might be the topic for another occasion. Anyway, what he said, among other things, was this:

Being poor in spirit means going on this path of the Lord: the poverty of the Lord, who lowers Himself even so far as to become bread for us, in this sacrifice. He continues to lower Himself into the history of the Church, into the memorial of His passion, and by the memorial of His humiliation, the memorial of His poverty, by this bread He enriches us.

What seemed to scandalise people, was his description of this “poverty of the Lord”, this “Christian poverty”, which Pope Francis says is:

that I give of my own, and not of that which is left over – I give even that, which I need for myself, to the poor.

Hearing this, it occurred to me that this was probably what I’ve clumsily been trying to say, not just about the poor, but really about everyone. To be a new creation is to live for others, to give of ourselves, and not just what is left over. And so, as we eat and drink his Body and Blood, let us consider how we might be the fruits of redemption, also to be consumed for the sake of others. 

+In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit.