The ceremonies that begin our Easter Vigil remind us very vividly what Christian prayer is like. We stumble around in the dark. A fire of God is lit, but the light that we have received from it is one tiny flame that so easily might get blown out. We follow that light, but fearfully, as we worry whether we might trip over in the darkness. Then gradually, very gradually, we are given our own little light, only to be told to put it out and sit in semi darkness listening to strange passages from the ancient writings of the one we are trying to follow, our friend Jesus Christ. Yes, praying as a follower of Jesus is often like this, a struggle to follow the light and to keep on in the midst of a dark world.
But then comes the magic moment for me. The priest begins the Gloria, the bells ring, the lights come on, and the glory of the risen Jesus, alive and with us, reverberates in our minds and hearts. Yes, there are moments in our lives, in our prayer, when the glory and mystery of God suddenly and wonderfully becomes real for us. It can often be a moment that doesn’t last long – a beautiful sunset or dawn – a first glimpse of the sea or of some natural wonder – a tiny new baby or a toddler’s first steps – or the sudden realisation that we are in love.
But most of you know that for me God’s glory can also be found in the wonder of human invention, or in the magnificence of human care. I had one of those moments this Wednesday when Oxford station was transformed as a Steam engine puffed in as I was waiting to go to Birmingham. Glorious! Equally a great bridge or a magnificent building can speak of God at work in us. Engineers know that such things have a mathematical basis to their construction that underlies their solidity, a mathematics that is a given, that exists separate from us, which speaks of the glory of God.
Yes, it is in moments like these, that the light comes on – and if we are spiritually awake we can see and feel, if only for a moment, the wonder and the glory of God. I urge you to look for those moments in your life. Look back to those moments of joy and thank God for them. Sometimes they only come after, or in the midst, of a long period of darkness when God seems far away. Or they come like an oasis in the desert, where we can only stop for a short while before we press on. Indeed, for many people the reality of God only comes home to them when they have faced or are facing some great sadness or darkness in their lives. It is at times like this when they feel lost and alone, that someone or something speaks to them and brings them light. It is then that they know that God is real
The poet R.S.Thomas expresses this well in one of my favourite poems “The Bright Field”. Let me read it to you.
I have seen the sun break through
to illuminate a small field
for a while, and gone my way
and forgotten it. But that was the pearl
of great price, the one field that had
treasure in it. I realize now
that I must give all that I have
to possess it. Life is not hurrying
on to a receding future, nor hankering after
an imagined past. It is the turning
aside like Moses to the miracle
of the lit bush, to a brightness
that seemed as transitory as your youth
once, but is the eternity that awaits you.
I was watching the funeral of Richard III the other day and was struck by the strange mixture of play-acting and reality that one saw there. Two men on horseback dressed up as medieval knights was a weird thing to see in front of a real coffin with a real body inside it. My Dominican friar friends sent me pictures of their procession through the streets of Leicester from their Church to the Cathedral. They were in their habits of course, and many watching might have thought that they too were like those medieval knights, just a few men play-acting. But of course, they weren’t play-acting. Whatever they looked like, they were for real. What they wore was what they wear every day, as they dedicate their lives to serving Jesus and preaching the message of his Gospel to the world.
We too, we at Mass today, will sometimes be seen by the world outside as play acting, as putting on a performance. There are even, sadly, some who come to Mass and see it like that – who come for the performance! But we know that this is not a performance, that this Mass, especially this Easter Mass, is underpinned by real prayer. Indeed, if Mass were not underpinned by prayer, prayer that can sometimes be a great struggle in the darkness, it would just be a performance. But this is real, real because we Christians make it so, we Christians have even died, and are still dying, because we follow Jesus. This is real because here at Mass we are bringing our real lives into the presence of God, so that we may live more fully for him. That is real.
Men dressed as medieval knights can get out of their armour and go home to their ordinary lives; but for us Christians what we do at Mass, and what we get from Mass, is part of our real life lived out in the service of God. What makes it real is yes, this faith, this real prayer deep from our hearts that we cannot put into words. But most of all what makes it real is the real heart-rending prayer of Jesus suffering at the hands of men, and dying on the cross.
Be careful. When we hear from our 2nd Reading (Colossians 3:1-4) that we “must look for the things that are in heaven, where Christ is, sitting at God’s right hand.” ;we must realise that we are meant to find these things of heaven here on earth in our ordinary lives. Indeed in another passage from the Easter and Ascension stories the friends of Jesus are told off by an angel for looking up into the skies. They are told firmly to find the risen and ascended Lord Jesus here and now in their ordinary lives.
We must look then for the glory of God all around us and within us, and often in unexpected ways. There is much darkness and sadness in the world, and in our lives, but the Christian message is that God is with us in the darkness as well as in the light, and if we wait and watch and pray, however feeble we may feel our faith to be, there will be moments of glory, glimpses of God, that are the reality that will support and strengthen us. Thus, in darkness or in light, whatever the world thinks of us, we will strive to serve God, shown to us in the suffering Jesus and in the risen Jesus, and so bring his love and his light to the world.