Glory in the darkest moments of life

The Easter Vigil

Being a softie I only select three Old Testament readings at the Easter Vigil whereas some priests would impose on you the full rigour of seven! Even so, I know that many people find these readings difficult to fit into the Easter celebration, for they are words and stories from a quite different world view. This time, I chose the ancient story of the Creation, then the escape from the Egyptians by crossing the Sea, and finally one from Isaiah. All with words and phrases that most people find strange and puzzling.

The first thing to remember about these readings, and the psalms that go with them, is that they are not meant to be understood easily. They are an essential part of this strange beginning to these Easter Vigil ceremonies, where we are encouraged to walk into a dark building where we cannot see very well, even when the candles are lit. All of this is a reminder of our endless human struggle to understand what life and death is all about, and how God fits into it. For the way through death to eternal life is not an easy process.

Remember too that the disciples, although they knew these readings a lot better than we do, also did not properly understand them. That’s why two of them on the road to Emmaus had to meet the risen Jesus who then explains how all these readings actually point to him – to the amazing truth that his death is not the end but points onwards to Resurrection.

We have to remember that the whole of the Old Testament is a journey of discovery. It might even be described as a pilgrimage. The writings were not written all in one go, but are the product of hundreds of years of thought and prayer. They are about the slow and difficult way in which the Israelite people came to believe in one invisible God, quite different from the mix of gods other peoples believed in. On this journey, recorded in these writings, they said and did some things that they later learned were at best a misunderstanding of what God wants, or at worse things were simply wrong. But in the midst of all these struggles gradually, very gradually, like the dawn slowly lightening the morning sky, deep truths about God would be revealed. It was these that Jesus fulfilled in his life, in his death and finally in his Resurrection, and which he then had to explain to his puzzled disciples.

The first reading we had tonight was one of the stories of the Creation of the world. (Genesis 1) Here we have our first hint at the Resurrection. Before the Universe existed we are told there was nothing, and that nothing is described asa formless void, there was darkness over the deep” Out of total darkness, nothingness, God creates light, and from this comes all life including us humans. Only God then can defeat the darkness, and bring life from what is dead. “God blessed them, saying to them, ‘Be fruitful, multiply, fill the earth ….  And so it was. God saw all he had made, and indeed it was very good.” That is why we sometimes describe the Resurrection as “the new creation”.

The second reading (Exodus 14:14-15:1) was the story of the escape from the Egyptians. Again it appeared as if all was lost, that death at the hand of the Egyptians was all they could expect. Even as they cross where the sea has gone back, the Egyptians follow them. They reach the other bank and look back … to see the Egyptians struggling. The sea sweeps in, just as it does in Morecambe Bay in England, and those who would bring death are destroyed. And so they sang as we did, and almost certainly as Jesus and his disciples did in the Upper Room, although they sang in Hebrew : “I will sing to the Lord, glorious his triumph… The Lord is my strength, my song, my salvation. This is my God and I extol him, my father’s God, and I give him praise”                                                       

Finally we had a great passage from Isaiah (55:1-11) This was written during another time of great trouble more than 500 years later. The Jews had been sent into exile, and feared that they would not just lose their land, but their God too. They could see around them, people worshipping the Babylonian gods whose power seemed to have built an empire of power and wealth, whilst they struggled in poverty. But amazingly, Isaiah tells them “I (that is God) have made of you a witness to the peoples, a leader and master of nations.” You can imagine their scorn when he first told them that!  And so he goes on to remind them that God is not like them, not like the peoples around them. “For my thoughts are not your thoughts, my ways are not your ways”. And then, just in case they have missed the point “It is the Lord who speaks” 

Most Jews, when they got back eventually to their own land interpreted this promise wrongly, either as an eventual military victory over all their enemies, or as a promise that one day God would act in a magic way to give them the glory they so desired. That’s why he crowds shouted Hosanna as Jesus entered Jerusalem, and then Crucify him when they didn’t get the glory they wanted. But the new life that Jesus offered was, and is, quite different for God is not like us. There are no magic solutions. There is only a God who even in the darkest moments walks with us and alongside us, leading us by a path of love and service and sacrifice to eternal life beyond the grave.  It is this God that we choose to follow on this Holy Night.       

 Easter Morning

How easily we silly humans seek the kind of glory that is only on the surface. Yes, we all like to escape from the real world with all its pain and suffering, and there is no harm in that, provided we realise that it is escapism, and that we must still return to the real world, and not just run away from it. We use all sorts of different ways of escape don’t we, ways to make us feel a bit happier? I swim and garden, and look at trees and birds, and I love a good film or book, with a happy ending of course. Some of you use football or another sport, either to do or to watch, or both, where you can lose yourself in the thrill of the moment. Some of you immerse yourself in computer games, or in shopping either online or on the High Street, and many of you, especially at Easter will also enjoy your chocolate!

 

Yes, all these things can give us moments of bliss, pure glory, when the harder things of life can be forgotten, at least for a little while.  Some people even use religion like this, who want it to be Easter and Christmas all year, and prefer to avoid the more difficult challenges that Jesus expects of those who really want to follow him.

 

Deep down, most of us realise the difference between surface glory, the kind I have just been talking about, and true glory, the glory that is the glory of God, the glory that comes from the much harder things of life – from loving someone when things get difficult, from caring for someone in sickness or pain or grief – you all know what I mean. Last night we heard words from the prophet Isaiah (55:1-11) that are so important here,“For my thoughts are not your thoughts, my ways are not your ways”. And then, just in case we have missed the point “It is the Lord who speaks”

 

In our 2nd Reading today (Col 3:1-4) St Paul tells us where to find this kind of glory, in a phrase that we can easily miss. He says “When Christ is revealed, you too will be revealed in all your glory with him.” This is a strange saying, for we tend to look for glory, even true glory, outside ourselves, as something that comes from God to us. So for example, people come to Mass expecting to receive something, to get a bit of glory, a nice religious feeling ; and if they don’t get what they want, they actually then say “I didn’t anything out of it!” But Paul says that true glory is within us, even if we cannot see it at the moment. It is a way of thinking that sees glory growing in us in the tougher things of life, even in the duller and much more boring things of life, where we least expect to find anything glorious. Most of all, he says that we will find that this glory that is in us will only be fully revealed beyond death.

 

The friends, the disciples, of Jesus had pinned their hopes on being given glory in some way from God if they followed him. Instead, all they seem to have been given is his terrible death on the cross. Most of them have run away in fear, and watch on at a distance whilst all their hopes are shattered. Early on the Sunday morning, they are just sad and bewildered. Only gradually do they realise that God is at work, but in a different way from the one they imagined. Finally at Pentecost some weeks away from now, they discover that it is only as they offer themselves to God that true glory will be found ; and for many of them that will eventually mean being killed for following Jesus

 

The glory that Jesus offers us was, and is, quite different from surface glory. For God is not like us. There are no magic solutions. There is only a God who even in the darkest moments walks with us and alongside us, leading us by a path of love and service and sacrifice to eternal life beyond the grave.  It is this God that we come here at Easter to follow. and we then go back to our very ordinary lives and get on with it, for that is where true glory will be found.      

 

 

 

 

     

  

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The Glory of the Universe

When I first moved to Eynsham I went out into my back garden soon after I arrived – it’s behind the Church – and was astonished at the number of stars I could see. Maybe some of you have been somewhere that is even darker and where, I am told, you can see thousands if not millions of stars, and …. wonder at their glory!  That is surely the experience of the person who wrote  Psalm 19. “The heavens declare the glory of God, the skies proclaim the work of his hands”. Yes, I think it was a night sky that writer was thinking of, although, of course looking up into the sky on a beautiful day or at sunset or dawn are other examples of times when anyone who has any sensitivity at all is filled with wonder. But the stars and the planets with the moon in the night sky are surely what is meant by “the heavens” for they were so significant for humans some 2600 years ago when this Psalm was written.

The people then may not have been able to understand the stars as our astro-physicists do today – more of them in a moment – but they knew an awful lot and their experts were able to plot the yearly movements of the stars plus the planets apparently erratic courses across the sky and interpret these patterns in all sorts of ways.  Yes they were great astrologers, and we even hear of them in the wise men who come from the east following the star to find the baby Jesus. But that is an unusual thing to find in the Bible because the people of Israel were taught not to take any notice of these pagan ideas and to simply wonder at all that beauty and intricacy their God had made.

Nonetheless they knew that peoples everywhere looked up at the same stars they did and they did believe that in some way not fully understood God was speaking through them. So “There is no speech or language where their voice is not heard. Their voice goes out … to the ends of the world” For them,  and for us too, this is an affirmation that whatever gods people worship in different parts of the world, the one true God is always there revealing himself to them. It reminds me of an atheist Staff nurse who said to me as I came to visit her Ward every week. “So where is your God then in all this suffering?”  And I replied “God is in you, whether you believe or not. God is present in you as you care for them.”  So in the same way, the heavens proclaim the glory of the one True God whether people believe or not.

But I want to take this one step further by taking you into the world of astro-physics. Don’t be alarmed. I don’t understand all the maths either, but the fascinating thing to me is to remember it is there. Now in order to explain this I need to take you back to the 1920’s. The scientists in those days had come to the conclusion that the Universe never had a beginning, and they were pleased to be sure about this because it showed how stupid Christians were. But there was one physicist who was Belgian called Georges Le Maitre and after studying all the Maths in great detail laid out a proof that the Universe did have a beginning, that there was a moment when there was nothing and another moment a nano second later when there was something from which at an immense speed the Universe began to expand. He was immediately ridiculed by the atheist scientists and one called Fred Hoyle made fun of this theory by nicknaming it the Big Bang.

What happened next was that more and more physicists looked at Le Maitre’s Maths and found it made sense, and with more study of the stars and more Maths the Big Bang Theory gradually became accepted as the true scientific theory of what The Universe is like. I don’t know if any of you have watched any Programmes where Professor Brian Cox explains what The Universe is like? I find it all fascinating even though I do not understand it. One of his programmes is called The Wonder of the Universe – here is the book based in the programme. I only wish he had called it The Glory of the Universe because, as the Psalm says “The heavens declare the glory of God”. Sadly, although Brian Cox is not anti-Christian, he cannot see, as you and I can, that the fact that all this maths makes sense, that you can calculate distances and the movement of the stars, that it has an order, a pattern that can be predicted and studied, all of this science “proclaims the glory of God”.  Ah yes, and now I will tell you, the man in Belgian who was ridiculed by the atheists then, but now has been shown to be right, was not just a physicist, he just happened also to be a devout Christian, indeed he was a Catholic priest. Mathematics and Physics you see both show the intricacy and order of the Universe. So here too God’s glory is present.

But now, after a description of the glory of the sun rising and setting regularly day after day, another sign of God’s glory, the Psalm appears to change direction completely. The law of the Lord is perfect, refreshing the soul.  The statutes of the Lord are trustworthy, making wise the simple”

But actually I want to show that the Psalmist was making the same point as before, but in another way and this is something I have just realised after reading Pope Francis’ latest Encyclical Laudato Si. First of all, the heavens do not proclaim the glory of God unless we humans recognise that they do. We are the only part of creation that has the ability to not only be self-conscious but also to be conscious of God. So if the heavens are to proclaim the glory of God, then it is through us that it happens. Now I don’t mean by this a rather romantic idea that we look at the heavens and say “Ah, isn’t it beautiful”. No, in order for the heavens to proclaim God we have to actually pause and make it happen. So we look up to the sky and actually praise God for what we are seeing and experiencing. It is, of course, the same for everything. God is in all things but unless we stop and recognise this, then the proclamation of his glory has not taken place.

The law of the Lord for us is therefore not principally avoiding doing wrong, but learning to be fully human, to be what God wants us to be, what God has made us to be; and central to this is that we are made by God to recognise his presence in all things and to respond by affirming that he is there and thus being drawn into a closer and closer union with him. As the poem goes “What is the life so full of care, we have no time to stop and stare” So “the law of the Lord” is that we are to continually praise him. And that law as the Psalm says…. “is perfect” And note what it does –“ it refreshes the soul.” It makes that part of our being that is most able to sense God’s presence more alive. And what is more, this “gives joy to the heart” that is it gives joy to every part of my being.

What we are surely being reminded of here is that we are not outside the rest of creation looking on at it as if from afar. WE are part of creation and we have the ability given to us by God to do two things. First, as I have just said, simply to recognise its beauty and to recognise God as its source and sustainer. But secondly, we are able to mould and use creation. We make things, so all that we make and do should also proclaim God’s glory. It is no accident surely that although Jesus does use natural things to proclaim his message, as in “Consider the lilies of the field.  They neither toil nor spin: yet I tell you, even Solomon in all his glory was not clothed like one of these  (Luke 12:27) He also uses things we have made. So at the Last Supper, not sheaves of wheat but bread, not bunches of grapes but wine.

Some might wonder why this is so important, so let me explain. If we do not recognise God’s presence in the beauty of creation then we will most likely see the world as something simply there for us to use… just as we want.. and in the process spoil it. One simple example…If we simply cut down the rainforests because we have a use for them we end up destroying the planet God has given us. So failing to give glory to God for the world in the long run is a very serious sin indeed and the Psalm warns against it saying, “By them (by the laws of the Lord he means) your servant is warned; in keeping them there is great reward.”

This means that we are not only meant to look at the heavens and praise God for them, but we are also meant to study and understand the heavens, and the earth of course.. not to exploit it, but to be able to use it wisely in ways that God would want us to. So the Psalms says “The statutes of the Lord are trustworthy,
making wise the simple.”
  So we are meant to use  maths and physics wisely, that is those who can understand them, because using them to study God’s creation is part of the way we humans do the will of God. So an important part of God’s law for us is that we should strive to understand and use aright the natural world in all its complex splendour. That is why it is so sad that some Physicists are atheists, and so wonderful that many are Christians and do see their work as part of their faith.

Note now the end of the Psalm. It is easy to fail to respond to the natural world with the praise to God that is our calling. It is easy to take it all for granted and so the Psalmist says “Forgive my hidden faults.” Things I do wrong are fairly obvious to me, but failure to fully recognise the glory of God, now that is a fault that I easily do not notice, that is a hidden fault. Of course I must also avoid “wilful sins” but I need God’s mercy and forgiveness for all this if I am to be “innocent of great transgression”
That is amazing isn’t it? That when we fail to recognise God and praise him for his presence in the beauty and glory of the world, the sun and the stars we are guilty of a great transgression!   Think of that great Hymn

Teach me My God and King in all things thee to see. And what I do in anything to do it as for thee.

The Mass : a circle of eternal love

We may look around on a sunny day – when we have one – and think how wonderful creation is, and as believers praise God ; but it is worth remembering sometimes that life, as we know it in all its forms, need not have happened at all. Indeed the scientists tell us that the chances of life evolving the way it has are very slim. And we Christians would go one step further, and say that God did not need to create life at all, and certainly has no need to create us weird wilful human beings. Yet he did. We believe further that God created us to be aware of his existence, to be able to respond to his love with love.

But love is something we have to choose to do freely, or it is not love; and that is the point of this the last of my Homilies on the Mass. Just as a marriage is not a true marriage if either person is forced into it, so our relationship to God, our response to God’s love, must be something we freely choose to do. That’s why we have Joshua in our 1st Reading (Joshua 24:1-18) telling the people “choose who you wish to serve” And this is what coming to Mass is. It is us choosing to serve and love God. We may try to thank God for all that we have been given – in our own private prayers of thanksgiving wherever we happen to be – in loving and caring for others in all sorts of different ways – and in simply enjoying life to the full. But all this, however hard we try to do it, is inevitably mixed in with a lot of human failures and mess-ups, and is therefore a pretty tiny response to the immensity of love and creative power, that is God.

That is why God comes to us as Jesus, to offer us love in human form, a love that is more accessible for us to understand and to respond to. What is more, we are allowed, indeed even invited, to be drawn into union with that perfect love, and are told that, as we do so, all our imperfections are washed away in the immensity of his love. And the way Jesus draws us into his love is by giving us the Mass. He says, just before the words in today’s Gospel (See John 6:51-69)“He who eats my flesh and drinks my blood lives in me and I live in him. As I, who am sent by the living Father draw life from the Father, so whoever eats me will draw life from me.”

This is why the great Eucharistic Prayer that consecrates the bread and wine always includes first, praise to God for his Creation, “You are indeed holy O Lord and all you have created rightly gives you praise”, and then links that creative work to Jesus, “for through your Son Jesus Christ…. you give life to all things..”  Once then Jesus becomes present with us at Mass in this wonderful way, we can choose to be drawn into union with him, or we can just watch without really appreciating what is being offered to us. We heard in the Gospel that “many of his disciples left him”, so we should expect that to happen today, and it still does; but we also heard Jesus asking his disciples to choose what they wanted to do. He challenges them, and so challenges us “What about you, do you want to go away too?” And Peter responds on our behalf “Lord who shall we go to? You have the message of eternal life.”

It is only as we choose to follow Jesus at Mass, not just coming to Mass but choosing to be one with Jesus at Mass, that we are then drawn into union with Jesus and his love, and can make his offering of love the centre of our offering of our lives to him. As I said earlier, our offering by itself can never get anywhere near a full response to God’s creative love, but once our offering is united with the perfect offering of Christ on the cross, then even though what we offer is so little, it is enough. So the priest can say on our behalf “as we celebrate the memorial of the saving Passion of your Son…. We offer you in thanksgiving this holy and living sacrifice” and later “May he (that is Jesus) make of us an eternal offering to you.”

That is the glory of the Holy Mass, that in and through Jesus we can be drawn into that eternal circle of love that is God. Everything we are, everything that we love and enjoy, is part of God’s offering to us, and all week every week that love is pouring into us and through us. Then, once a week, just for an hour or less, we are invited to be part of that process by which all that glory, all that love, is offered back to him in and through Jesus.

This offering of love is so immense that sometimes the Church uses the word “oblation” to express it – “Look upon the oblation of your Church”. The word actually simply means offering, but it is meant to remind us that this offering is completely different from the ordinary offerings of our daily life. It is, as the priest says or sings, “through him (that is through Jesus) and with him, and in him…. in the unity of the Holy Spirit”, and only in this way, that we can fully offer back to God all that he has given us.

 As George Herbert put it in his great poem

 

LOVE bade me welcome; yet my soul drew back,

            Guilty of dust and sin.
But quick-eyed Love, observing me grow slack
      From my first entrance in,
Drew nearer to me, sweetly questioning
      If I lack’d anything.
‘A guest,’ I answer’d, ‘worthy to be here:’
     Love said, ‘You shall be he.’
‘I, the unkind, ungrateful? Ah, my dear,
      I cannot look on Thee.’
Love took my hand and smiling did reply,
      ‘Who made the eyes but I?’
‘Truth, Lord; but I have marr’d them: let my shame
      Go where it doth deserve.’
‘And know you not,’ says Love, ‘Who bore the blame?’
      ‘My dear, then I will serve.’
‘You must sit down,’ says Love, ‘and taste my meat.’
      So I did sit and eat.