What is there to see in the darkness of this night? What does this rising look like, of which we have sung? Well the Gospel writers don’t give us much of a clue. They knew better than to try to describe what happens in a deep but dazzling darkness like the darkness of this most luminous night. There is no spectacle to see, no big reveal, no pyrotechnics. It’s almost as if to say that this resurrection, of which we have heard the first rumours, is something that takes place deep in the ground, shielded by a darkly bright cloud of unknowing. It’s as if the triumphant Lamb of God stands astride a chasm as deep as death, reaching down into that gloom to pull out those imprisoned there. It’s as if he stands upon shattered prison doors, doing the mighty, hidden work of liberation with his own bare hands, his own pierced hands, his own outstretched, searching hands with a grip as firm as love demands and as gentle as mercy’s soothing caress.
It’s as if he stands above the detritus of ruined captivity: burst bolts, shattered manacles, redundant locks, snapped chains, useless keys, deconstructed mechanisms. All the apparatus of our imprisonment lies futile, powerless against the might of one whose love does not rest until every constraint is unbound. Look carefully through the inky dark and see, amidst that pile of broken pieces, the dismantled shackles of our many imprisonments: destructive greed overcome by grateful generosity, discrimination undone by humble fraternity, resentment displaced by gracious forgiveness, fear neutralised by inner peace, pride replaced by joyful self-abandon, violence and abuse dispelled by the power of tenderness, falsehood withered in the face of truth’s steady light.
The Lamb of God, who on Friday was stripped naked in the face of death, is now dressed in white, as if for a banquet. That’s the whole purpose of this hard-won victory, to bring us to a feast, to share in the wedding banquet of a world united in love with its creator. So, in the words of St John Chrysostom, ‘Enter the joy of your Lord; and receive your reward, both the first and likewise the second. You rich and poor together, hold high festival. The table is full-laden; feast ye all sumptuously. Enjoy ye all the feast of faith: receive ye the riches of loving-kindness. For Christ is risen and life reigns!’
This wooden Ethiopian hand cross is my most precious devotional object. It has many associations for me from my time in that beautiful land, with a Christian story that is both ancient and vibrant. And Ethiopians have a very deep intuition about the mystical connections between trees and the life of faith. Churches are often surrounded by sacred forestry and, in more recent years, these little forests have been rediscovered as having a key role in fostering biodiversity and topsoil protection. Of course they do: God’s creation is a wonderful and complex unity that exists in startlingly diverse forms. And this little cross speaks to me of that unity with a beautiful interlacing pattern with floral motifs formed of the wood of a tree. It speaks also of a unity in faith with its resemblances to the early Christian crosses of these islands, similarly organic and looping in form.
But on this day of all days, its greatest eloquence for me is in its resonances with the fertile paradoxes that come from the Christian language about the Cross as the Tree of Life, a thing of beauty and of ugliness, of glory and of shame, fashioned from the material of creation for the most cruel ends and yet also a tree whose leaves are for the healing of all. This language is abundant in the hymn, Vexilla Regis, which we will hear later, and in that other ancient song of praise to the wood of the Cross, Pange Lingua.
Even more striking is the language we hear in St John Chrysostom’s sermon for this most holy day: ‘This Tree is my eternal salvation. It is my nourishment and my banquet. Amidst its roots I cast my own roots deep; beneath its boughs I grow and expand; as it sighs around me in the breeze I am nourished with delight.’ For St John it is food, clothing, shelter, ladder, and ‘the foundation of the universe … the binding force of all creation.’ Extraordinary language with which to refer to one particular instrument of execution, one among very many thousands, whose footprint on the written histories of the empire under whose crushing boot this poor body was broken was barely visible. What can we make of this paradox? How do we claim as an event of cosmic importance this single instance of casual brutality of the powerful against the poor that has been repeated too many millions of times through history?
St John Chrysostom goes on to describe how, in St Matthew’s account, all things shuddered and were shaken when Jesus breathed forth His divine spirit on the Cross. The breaking of this fragile body is accompanied by the breaking of the very rock on which creation stands, the very rock in which the tree of the Cross is planted. All creation is ruptured. But as the Spirit of Jesus is commended to the Father, filling all things with life, the Creation stands firm once more.
We see this very same rupture all around us in polluted seas, melting ice, parched land, disappearing species. It is the same rupture we see in emaciated bodies, bomb-devastated apartment blocks, polarised communities. How does this singular tree offer healing to such deep wounds?
The reason St John could speak so warmly of this blood-stained wood is that the one whose life-creating death took place there opened a new way to life for all creation. Life is no longer a question of my survival which is sustained by what I can take for myself, but of genuine freedom gained through giving ourselves fully and joyfully in generous love. We look upon the crucified one and see on that tree one who is victor over death. Chrysostom sees him as stripped, not in humiliation, but in readiness for battle. He has defeated all the powers of destruction and greed by the one thing that is stronger than death: love – unbounded, unflinching, freely and lavishly given love.
When it comes to the four corrosive spirits identified in St Ephraim’s prayer, surely the fourth – idle talk – is the one that resonates most in our context. If you read the texts of the desert monastics – remember that this prayer comes from that tradition – you will be struck by the number of times the elders have nothing to say when approached for a word by their disciples. This comes from a place of humility: who is to say that the words we are formulating here and now are the right ones for this moment? Should we open our mouths if we are uncertain about what we are about to say? Indeed, there is much to be said for a little more uncertainty in our public utterances. And, although some of the few words they did use found their way into the collections we now treasure, they were not intended for broadcast, but were spoken into a very specific situation that was discerned for the edification of the disciple. You could say that the ‘word’ spoken by the spiritual mother or father was the polar opposite of a social media post, which is more likely to be designed to say something about the author than to edify the seeker.
The warning to pay heed to our speech comes, of course, from the conviction that it is a powerful medium. It has the capacity to heal and encourage as well as to wound or belittle. In the context of spiritual discernment, a well-placed word can open our eyes to the divine or reveal us to ourselves. So the concern about idle talk is partly the need to avoid a careless word that may inadvertently cause harm but it may also be expressing a more general sense that speech per se may be devalued by trivialising it. This is most notably the case when it comes to a disregard for truthfulness in our speech but we might also ask if the sheer volume of unimportant chatter might have a devaluing effect on this precious gift of speech.
More positively, truthful, moderate and edifying speech might be nurtured within us by a more careful attention to silence and to a certain relishing of the life-giving words of scripture that form the basis of our meditations.
In reflecting on this wonderfully compact and challenging Lent prayer, it’s tempting to skip over this phrase and see it as referring only to those who are actually in a position to wield power. This would, of course, be to ignore the fundamental truth that power is always relative and there are far too many instances of those with little formal power in the bigger scheme of things who have used the power they do have negligently or abusively: men over women, adults over children, clerics over laypeople, majorities over minorities. To pray that the Master of our life take from us all lust for power is to pray that our eyes are opened to the way our power or influence is experienced by others so that we use whatever power we do have constructively and compassionately, for the wellbeing of all and in the pattern of the One who emptied himself. Jesus used his power to heal and forgive, and to teach in a way that invited response from his disciples rather than handing down fully-formed teachings. Parables are an example of teaching that empowers the student in the search for the mysteries of the Kingdom of God.
Even if we do not feel ourselves to be people with any significant power to exercise, it may be that we subconsciously strive for a different kind of power – the power of knowledge. We might imagine that the world is what we think it to be, that it conforms to our theories or concepts about it. In this way, we control the world by our preconceptions, potentially closing our mind off to different views. This is also a temptation in the world of faith, where we might conflate our thoughts about God with the reality of God, who is beyond all conceptuality. There is a lovely story in the Apophthegmata Patrum that addresses this problem:
One day some old men came to see Abba Anthony. In the midst of them was Abba Joseph. Wanting to test them, the old man suggested a text from the Scriptures, and, beginning with the youngest, he asked them what it meant. Each gave his opinion as he was able. But to each one the old man said,. ‘You have not understood it.’ Las of all he said to Abba Joseph, ‘How will you explain this saying?’ and he replied, ‘I do no know.’ Then Abba Anthony said, ‘Indeed, Abba Joseph has found the way, for he said “I do not know.”‘
p.4 The Sayings of the Desert Fathers, tr Benedicta Ward, Kalamazoo 1975
One of the ways in which we learn to allow the Master of our life to wean us off our lust for power is to find ourselves more ready to say ‘I do not know’.
The Prayer of St Ephraim(see previous post) is a reliable and concise companion for Lent, an embodied act of penitence and faith and a simple guide to the ascetical life. It puts its finger on some of our most stubborn problems and offers for their healing some of the most life-giving virtues. So I’m going to offer some reflections on these problems and remedies over the next few weeks.
Today, we visit the first two problems identified in the prayer – sloth and despondency. They are the noon-day demon of akidia – listlessness or torpor – and my guess is that, if you’re anything like me, it’s a demon that’s been hanging around rather a lot recently. I think that the combination of constant, low-level anxiety, much reduced social interaction, disrupted routines and lack of access to so many of the things that nourish us that are the result of a pandemic and its necessary mitigating measures can be the breeding-ground for the sluggishness and inertia that characterise akidia. As well as inertia, akidia can manifest itself in restlessness, a desire to be anywhere but here, an inability to sit still, as Evagrius points out in his Praktikos (ch 12). St John of Sinai, in The Ladder of Divine Ascent, described it as one the the deadliest of all vices and that it seems to set in whenever we begin the work of prayer, which is particularly tricky as prayer is one of the chief remedies he recommends against it! Alongside prayer, he recommends the singing of psalms, manual labour and, above all, ‘a firm hope in the blessings of the future’. I suppose that one of the causes of this despondency is a narrowing of our horizons, a turning in on oneself, so the ability to see beyond the current circumstances begins the process of lifting us out of our listlessness.
St John also describes the root causes of this affliction as lying in our disobedience, or lack of commitment to the path we have chosen. As a spiritual affliction, the remedy then lies in the regular remembrance of our fundamental choice to follow in the way of prayer. We can do this by offering short but regular moments of prayer in the course of a day, perhaps requiring only the recitation of a line from the Psalms at frequent intervals. This may then pave the way for longer times of prayer as the despondency begins to leave us. We will know when it passes because we will feel energised, not exhausted, by being just where we are, drawn once more to the stillness in prayer that we know to be life-giving.
The painter Stanley Spencer served in the ambulance brigade in the Balkans in the Great War and he depicted a scene from his experience in a painting with the less-than-memorable name; ‘Travoys Arriving with Wounded at a Dressing Station at Smol, Macedonia, September 1916’. Spencer was deeply religious, as you will probably be aware, and there can be no mistaking the references in his painting to a nativity scene, with animals looking in on a lit central focal point. But in this case, the animals are stretcher-pulling horses rather than the ox and ass, and the central scene is not a birth, but a kind of re-birth being worked by surgeons attending to a wounded soldier. Other wounded soldiers wait their turn on the travoys lined up in the foreground.
This image came to mind when I first heard Pope Francis use one his favourite metaphors for the church, which is that of a field hospital. It’s a vivid and compelling image, especially when combined with Spencer’s painting, because it is not merely a place of healing, but a place of healing situated in the most extreme context – the battlefield. This accentuates the urgency of the need for healing and the gravity of the injuries that are presented there, injuries sustained in the fray of human violence and human failure, in the place where our longed-for peace has been forsaken. It feels like an extreme image, but I think its intensity is needed to wake us up to the wounds that cry out for attention in our day. What are these wounds? I would suggest, on a corporate level, they are the wounds of our separations and disconnections from one another, the wounds that result from insular or self-serving thinking, wounds that manifest themselves in the refusal to see our actions as having any impact on the lives of those who do not appear to be like us. They are the wounds of inequality, chauvinistic nationalism, persistent misogyny, structural racism and, perhaps above all, the failure to recognise the image of God in the other.
In many respects, these wounds are the ones suffered by the leper who came to Jesus in today’s Gospel. On top of the undoubted physical dimensions of his condition are the communal ones. He is shunned, distanced, separated, excluded, reviled, and, in the religious context, regarded as unclean – perpetually incapable of participating in the life-giving and restorative rites of the temple. That’s why Jesus, moved with urgent, gutsy and angry compassion, sends him to the priests to shame them for their shrivelled, petty sense of purity.
There are other kinds of wounds, and many of them are the result of internalising the stigmas the come from sources we feel to have authority over us. For the leper, his experience of having been excluded from normal human interaction may well have taken root deep within his own sense of self, leading to a sense of unworthiness and shame. He may even have blamed himself for his abased position in society. Jesus overcomes this with two powerful movements that flow from his infinite mercy: he reaches out and he touches. He transgresses the isolated position he is given by religious social norms and declares the leper to be a brother, an equal, a beloved child of God – and all of that with a simple touch.
For us, these internalised wounds are legion: low self-esteem, lack of confidence, self-loathing, resentment, self-righteousness, deep insecurity. They eat away at us from the inside and inhibit our free interaction with others. These wounds, no less than the ones that manifest themselves in our bodies, are crying out for a field hospital where they may be tended and soothed, put into remission so that our lives may not be dominated by their constant presence.
I think it is this category of injury that Lent addresses most powerfully. If the church is a field hospital, then Lent is the time of that hospital’s greatest therapeutic activity. We are reminded at this forthcoming time of blessed restoration that the word for salvation might just as appropriately be translated as healing. And if the church is more of a field hospital than a courtroom, then we need not fear the pain that might come from allowing our wounds to be exposed to the healing light and the fresh, invigorating wind of the Spirit. Think less of the hot breath of an accusing judge and more of the cool breeze of an alpine sanitorium. We know that some cures may sting a little, but their pain is fleeting and gives way to relief. In the same way, the church offers some simple practices that bring us inner healing: confession, self-awareness, humility, fasting, resolute silence in prayer that chooses to stay put rather than give way to the myriad distractions that lay claim to our attention.
Lent will be upon us in a couple of days. I invite you to check in to the field hospital for some restoring therapy. The prescription is for slow reading, moderated consumption, much silence, constant prayer, steady resolve, and the willingness to be touched by the one who reaches out to us in love, the one who says to us, ‘I do choose. Be made clean!’
‘Come and see’ is the invitation issued by Philip to a sceptical Nathanael who doubts the likelihood of a promised saviour coming from a nowhere town like Nazareth. Philip doesn’t offer exegesis or philosophical arguments, but a simple invitation to have a look, to pay attention to what’s there. In issuing this invitation, he is not doing something novel but repeating what Jesus had already said to the first two disciples he called. In their case, they were curious about where he was staying (actually a subtle hint at the theology of abiding that would follow later, but that’s for another time) so Jesus just said, ‘come and see’.
It’s a pretty good principle for anyone who has wants to respond to the interest shown by others in questions of faith. ‘Come and see’ implies that faith is a matter of learning from watching, a kind of apprenticeship, rather than an abstract or theoretical thing. ‘Come and see’ also implies that the one issuing the invitation has something to show rather than something to explain and that ‘something’ is the practice of faith in our real lives. Explanations are important, but they can only ever be secondary to that primary concern of a real life lived faithfully.
But the reason I want to dwell on this phrase for a while this morning is that it also could be heard in the context of the form of communal worship that we are currently experiencing. In the absence of our physical presence together, we each come and see from our own homes and we are also aware of many who have done just that without previously having been in the space from which this Mass is being offered. I am sure that most of us have spent some time asking what this means for one of the fundamental aspects of practicing our faith, the gathered community offering the sacrifice of the Mass in person and receiving, in the tangible form of bread and wine, the Body and Blood of Christ.
I’m not going to attempt a full-blown theology of the Eucharist in its online manifestations – it’s beyond my competence and our collective patience – but I would like to offer some reflections about how this online experience resembles and differs from our usual experience of the Mass. Let me say one obvious thing first of all, which is that the online experience can never replace the physical gathering of God’s people, the full bodily experience of worship and the actual reception of the holy gifts, which we take into ourselves in the form of real food. Faith engages us as whole persons, not only as brains on sticks. We pray for the conditions that will allow us to gather safely once more, conditions that will mean that we are no longer under such serious threat from a terrible disease.
So what remains intact, or largely so, when we worship in this way? We are still praying together, still giving thanks together, still hearing God’s Word and responding to it, still connecting with one another through a shared experience, still offering ourselves as a living sacrifice, still looking upon the one who comes to us as the Lamb of God. We are still marking together the seasons of the Christian Year as they take us once again through the great mysteries of faith. And although we cannot do so together, we may still pray with our bodies, making the sign of the cross, bowing, standing, or adopting whatever prayerful posture allows us to attend well to the liturgical drama in which we are no mere spectators, even if our primary mode seems to be one of looking. Seeing a familiar space and familiar actions, hearing familiar words and chants, we are enabled to access the deep habits of praying together that have formed us over years. And if this way of praying together is newer for us, we may still acquire such habits through the gift of our prayerful attention. We may not be able to attend physically, but our practised attention is still called for as we participate from our own homes.
What is missing, of course, is our bodily proximity to one another and our full awareness of the common action we offer as our liturgy. We miss also the physical reception of the holy gifts, and here, I want to say a word or two about the practice of spiritual communion. You may be aware of this idea, which is quite ancient, and allows us, whatever our circumstances, to pray that may receive Christ in a spiritual manner even if we cannot do so physically. One well-known prayer for spiritual communion goes like this:
My Jesus, I believe that You are present in the Most Holy Sacrament. I love You above all things, and I desire to receive You into my soul. Since I cannot at this moment receive You sacramentally, come at least spiritually into my heart. I embrace You as if You were already there and unite myself wholly to You. Never permit me to be separated from You. Amen.
And pleased be assured that, when I receive the Eucharist here at this Mass and every day in the week to follow, I am praying that I do so in communion with all of you. I am conscious that, even if I am alone in this place, I am not offering this Eucharist alone, but in union with the whole Body of Christ. It is, after all, Christ who is the One who is offered here and it is Christ who is making the offering. He is the priest of this one, holy, living sacrifice and he is not confined by walls or distance. The whole creation is offered and the whole creation transformed every time we join our voices in humble and joyful thanksgiving. The Holy Spirit is not locked down.
The Holy Eucharist remains, in the words of the Second Vatican Council, the source and summit of our faith, even in these difficult times. But it also compels us to see our whole lives as eucharistic, every action and every interaction as the practice of a Christ-like faith, every contact we have with one another as an expression of the living Christ who is present in the gathering of two or three, however they do that. So when we hear again the words ‘do this in remembrance of me’, we are not only repeating the prayerful actions of Jesus at the mystical supper, but, perhaps above all, we are committing ourselves to Christ-like lives, giving ourselves thankfully in the daily work of healing a divided world, forgiving as we have been forgiven, embodying the presence of Christ each moment of each day.