Sunday, January 25, 2009

Third Sunday of Epiphany - Fr Andrew Davison

Today we come to the third part of the three revelations of Christ we celebrate at Epiphanytide. First the coming of the Magi and the revelation to the Gentiles, then the baptism in the Jordan and the revelation as the beloved Son of the Father, and now the wedding in Cana of Galilee, the first of his signs, by which he ‘manifests his glory’.

I am sure that you are familiar with this so let us, this morning; consider just one aspect of this miracle, this manifestation of Christ’s glory. I want to dwell upon the fact that it takes place, this changing of water into wine, at a wedding feast.

The fathers make a great deal of the fact that the setting is a wedding. A first thing they think it underlines, it reveals, is that marriage is a good thing: that God approves marriage, of love and of family. As Augustine puts it, the Son of the Virgin, who comes to the marriage, is the one who had instituted marriage in the beginning when he was with the Father. [In Verb. Dom. Serm. xli, in Aquinas, Cat. Aur.] This, he says, refutes those who speak ill of the marriage bed.

More than this, it shows that the incarnation is more than simply taking human flesh. God also took on human culture and religion. (We saw this at the circumcision on New Year’s Day.) When he came to his own he was not only coming to the human race but also to the institutions and to the religion he had revealed over the centuries before. And part of this is marriage. As the Prayer Book says of marriage ‘which holy estate Christ adorned and beautified with his presence, and first miracle that he wrought, in Cana of Galilee’. He enters our world, not only into a human life but also into human culture. This revelation of God refutes those who would denigrate religion and human culture.

Even more remarkable, the one who is revealed, the guest at the marriage, is the true, divine bridegroom. This is because, as Augustine, again, reminds us, the incarnation is itself a marriage: ‘the Word is the bridegroom, and human flesh the bride, and both together are the one Son of God and Son of Man’. [Tr. Viii. C. 4, in Cat. Aur.] In the person of Jesus are married heaven and earth, divinity and humanity. Humanity is his bride ‘whom he united to himself in the womb of the Virgin’, that royal pavilion from which he proceeds, as the Psalm has it, as a bridegroom rejoicing to run his course.

Christ is revealed as the maker and lover of marriage, and as himself the bridegroom. What more can we say? That here at the beginning of his ministry he also reveals the end. This ‘first of miracles’ is the revelation of the final end of all things. At the end of the books of St John, as here at their beginning, is a wedding banquet: the marriage of the lamb. Right from the start we see the purpose or goal that Christ has in mind: the restoration of joy and of unity between God and human beings. It is for this, the joy that was set before him, that he would scorn comfort and even life itself.

It seems to me important that all is for the heavenly wedding feast because it shows that joy and celebration lies at the heart of things, at the beginning and the end of God’s work with us. And consequently, sacrifices, when they have to be made are for the sake of joy, and not joy for the sake of sacrifice. In Rupert Shortt’s new biography of Rowan Williams he describes another theological college as being fixated with what gets called ‘woundedness’. This was the badge of honour and the mark of achievement. But if Christ reveals the joy of the banquet to be his purpose, even from the beginning of his ministry, then this is the wrong way round. Sacrifice is for the sake of joy and not joy for the sake of sacrifice.

By the way, the nature of the life of the world to come is also revealed in this miracle. As CS Lewis perceptively put it, the yokel who thinks of the life of the world to come as a feast, a cheerful barbecue we might say, is closer to the truth, for all its lack of sophistication, than the philosopher who describes the world to come without putting a metaphysical foot wrong.

I’ve two more things to say. For St John Chrysostom, this miracle reveals Christ as the creator. In fact, for Chrysostom this is a general feature of his miracles. Jesus works with the material of the world, the material which he himself had created: ‘we see’ says Chrysostom, that ‘he performs most of his miracles upon subject-matter already existing’. He is not so much setting out to demonstrate his power so much as to show that he is the original creator of all things.

And finally, and this seems particularly important to me, this miracle, and most of his miracles, reveals the wonder of creation and sends us back to the world with renewed eyes.

Augustine says that this miracle, turning water into wine, ‘is no miracle to those who know that God worked it.’ That is because; the one who turned water into wine in the water pots turns water, year by year, into wine in the vine. As Augustine puts it ‘only the latter is no longer wonderful, because it happens uniformly.’ But by miracles such as this God seeks ‘to rouse us out of our lethargy and make us worship him.’ [Tr. ix]

Augustine says that it is no miracle that God should turn water into wine because every year he makes the vines produce grapes, and the grapes produce wine. For myself, I’d rather not bring this miracle down to the level of the vineyard but exalt the vineyard to the level of the miracle at the wedding.

The miracles are signs that open our eyes not only to see who Jesus us, but also to see the wonder of God’s provision for us in the world. The nets fill with one-hundred-and-fifty-three fish, but God of his bounty always fills the sea with fish. Jesus multiplies the loaves, and fish too, but God makes the grain to grow upon the hills.

Alison Milbank has written that Christian novelists often seek to make the world strange, so that we can return to it, and wonder, and by our wonder be led to God. The miracles too help to make the world strange again. This is the absolute opposite of all that demythologising of miracles that went on last century. That tried to make the miracles un-strange by giving them natural explanations. Really – they might typically say – Jesus just knew where to cast the net to find the fish sleeping in one bid shoal. What really happened was that Jesus poured some strong tawny port into the water jars and the resulting liquid tasted a bit like wine. Let us not make the miracles un-strange. Rather, the miracles should make all of life the more strange, more wonderful, more miraculous.

So then, in summary, God the Word, who is the creator of marriage, and the divine bridegroom, come into perfect union with our own humanity. Christ reveals at the beginning of his ministry that the goal is a final marriage feast, the wedding banquet of the Lamb. His miracle is an image of the joy which is for God the beginning and the end of creation. Christ is revealed as the creator, any by his miracles he reveals the wonder of creation. Most especially, the miracles reveal God’s wonderful provision, which is no less wonderful for the fact that it is accomplished through nature.

This is something that we could celebrate with a glass of wine over lunch. And then let us be amazed, let us be thankful to God, who has turned water to grape and grape to wine, so that our eating may be a symbol of the final feast and that there may be wine for this feast which we celebrate now – the Eucharist. The fathers made a great deal of the fact that there were six water pots, thinking that they represented the six ages of the world, with the final, sixth, age stretching from the time of John the Baptist until the end of the world. The Eucharist is the feast of the final age and of the age to come. And, truly, Christ has saved the best wine until last, until now: for the wine he gives us to drink is the wine of his own blood.

Friday, January 23, 2009

Shami Chakrabarti to give House Lecture

Shami Chakrabarti will give a House Lecture on Thursday 29th January 2009 at 4.30 p.m.

Shami Chakrabarti has been Director of Liberty (The National Council for Civil Liberties) since September 2003. Shami first joined Liberty as In-House Counsel on 10 September 2001. She became heavily involved in its engagement with the “War on Terror” and with the defence and promotion of human rights values in Parliament, the Courts and wider society.

A Barrister by background, she was called to the Bar in 1994 and worked as a lawyer in the Home Office from 1996 until 2001 for Governments of both persuasions.

Since becoming Liberty’s Director she has written, spoken and broadcast widely on the importance of the post-WW2 human rights framework as an essential component of democratic society. She is Chancellor of Oxford Brookes University, a Governor of the London School of Economics and the British Film Institute, and a Visiting Fellow of Nuffield College, Oxford and a Master of the Bench of Middle Temple.

She is thirty nine years old and lives with her husband and five year old son in London.

For more information, contact St Stephen's House on 01865 613500

Thursday, January 22, 2009

Archive Photographs IX

Following on from the wonderful colour photographs published last term, we now have these black and white photos. If anyone can help date them or give names of the students in them, it would appreciated.

Monday, January 19, 2009

Second Sunday of Epiphany - Ian Boxall

Most visitors to the holy island of Patmos today make their way to two unmissable sights: the Cave of the Apocalypse, and the Monastery of St John. But, for those of us in the know, Patmos has another closely-guarded secret. To find it, you need to head down a little side-street near the port, until you find a tiny electrical shop opposite the moped rental office. This is Patmos’ hidden secret. It’s one of the few places in the world where you can buy a CD entitled To dákry tou Yánni, by the chart-topping Greek musician Stamátis Spanouthákis. To dákry tou Yánni translates into English as ‘The Tears of John.’ It’s an album which may not feature much in the charts this side of the Aegean. But it is a beautifully evocative musical interpretation of the Book of Revelation, which is as good an entry into the Apocalypse as sitting in John’s Cave on Patmos.

The title of the album, ‘The Tears of John’, of course, comes from today’s New Testament reading from Revelation. John is on Patmos, where he is caught up ‘in the Spirit’ on the Lord’s Day. Or as Fr Couratin famously put it to a former student of this House, ‘St John fell asleep at Mass, dear boy.’ John is caught up into the heavenly throne-room, where he sees the One seated on the throne, holding a sealed scroll in his right hand. The scroll contains God’s secret plan for the future, his plan to frustrate evil and injustice and bring about a new heaven and a new earth. All that needs to be done is for someone to open the scroll, so that the plan can be put into effect. At this point, an angel comes onto centre stage. Not just any old angel, but a mighty angel, a powerful angel, looking for a candidate worthy enough to open the scroll. But no suitable candidate can be found, no-one in heaven or on earth or under the earth. And John bursts into uncontrollable tears.

I want to explore two questions raised by this reading, whose answers might not be as obvious as they first appear: Why does John weep? And are John’s tears the right kind of tears?

On one level, the reason for John’s tears seems obvious: he is weeping because no-one worthy can be found, so that the scroll must remain resolutely sealed. It is perhaps not surprising that no-one under the earth is found worthy to open the scroll: the underworld isn’t very promising material for the salvation of the world. It’s where evil lurks; from where the beasts emerge, and an army of rather terrifying locusts, and it is where the dead are consigned. That no-one on earth is worthy is perhaps not too surprising either, given human sinfulness and weakness. But what is most extraordinary is the claim that no-one in heaven was found worthy. Surely one of the thousands upon thousands of angels could do it. Or if not a mere angel, then this ‘mighty angel’; or one of the seven archangels; or one of the cherubim or seraphim; or one of those super-angels like Metatron, who are so closely identified with God’s throne that they are said to bear God’s name. But no; not even one of these will do, so unsurprisingly, having had hopes raised that the scroll was about to be opened, only to have them bitterly dashed, John weeps.

But this bitter disappointment may not be the only reason for John’s tears. Because the twenty-four elders around the throne are holding golden bowls full of incense, which John tells us are the ‘prayers of the saints’, being presented and heard right at the heart of heaven. Later on, we will hear one of those prayers, the prayer of the martyrs, crying to heaven with the prayer ‘How long, O Lord…?’ So John may be weeping because God’s people weep. His tears may be representative of the tears of the faithful throughout history. And these tears are the tears of real human tragedies, apparently overwhelmed by the reality of persecution and injustice and struggling to maintain faith when it has been stretched to its limits.

Which brings me to the second question: how can we be sure that John’s tears are the right kind of tears? To answer this question, we need to realise that there are two kinds of tears described in the Book of Revelation. There are John’s tears. And then there are the tears shed over Babylon by the kings of the earth, the merchants and the seafarers. These are people whom have found meaning in Babylon (and by Babylon John is probably thinking of the empire of Rome); they have invested all their energy and resources into Babylon, and now stand weeping as they watch the whole political and economic system collapsing before them. So these tears over Babylon aren’t straightforwardly bad tears: there are real human tragedies reflected here too, tears over dashed hopes, destroyed lives, and betrayed promises.

The difference between John’s tears and the tears of Babylon’s admirers seems rather to be that they represent two opposing visions of where ultimate value is to be found. The tears of the kings and the merchants are the tears of those who have invested everything in the shallow and transitory promises of Babylon, whose prosperity has been built on bloodshed and slavery and exploitation. The alternative vision, which John sees in heaven, is the vision of the Lamb. This is also a vision built on bloodshed, but of a very different kind, that of self-sacrificial offering. And the paradox is that it is precisely through this sacrifice that the Lamb proves himself worthy to do what not even an angel could do: to open the scroll, and in doing so to enable God’s promises to be fulfilled. And among them, one particular promise stands out: the promise that ‘God will wipe away every tear from their eyes’ (Rev. 7:17).