Tuesday, April 28, 2009

Easter III - Canon Robin Ward

This homily was preached by the Principal, Canon Robin Ward, in Merton College Chapel on Sunday 26th April 2009, Easter III

Beloved, we are God’s children now; it does not yet appear what we shall be, but we know that when he appears we shall be like him, for we shall see him as he is. 1 John 3.2

The Christian hope is the hope of resurrection: we do not hope that we will survive death, we do not hope that there will be some continuity between this life and such consciousness as may remain to us once we have died, we do not hope that something of what we have been will never be lost when we have gone; we hope that we will rise again to glory. Parish clergy who take funerals know that they encounter very little doubt about life after death, and much hope that there will be reunion with loved ones and a continuity of interests and experience, enough to give confidence that death will not be a complete demolition of what it is to be human. Indeed many funerals have an almost Egyptian enthusiasm for memorializing the dead with the most distinctive accoutrements of their earthly existence. My own experience of this has included making a circuit of Romford dog track behind a hearse on top of which, in a triumph of the florist’s art, an enormous tribute in the shape of a half smoked cigarette waved mournfully in the breeze.

But this hope is not the Christian hope, the hope of resurrection. To have this hope we need to set aside the speculation of the philosophers on the immortality of the soul, and the intuitions of shamans and sages that the dead in some oblique way have still some part for good or ill to play in the fortunes of the living. We need to stoop down with the beloved disciple, and look into the sepulchre of Christ and find it empty, and in so doing learn that it is through our incorporation into the rising of the Son of God that our own hope of rising again is grounded.

This asks of us a particular sort of courage in this life, a courage which the theologians call purgatorial fortitude. For the offer and prospect of eternal life is not a glib answer to all the anxieties of the human condition. The acute spiritual writer Baron von Hügel tells us Heaven is not a necessary environment for not cheating in the sale of peas or potatoes, for not smashing street lamps, for not telling calumnies against one’s wife or brother. Athenians and Confucians have thought hard about moral human living without the need to hope that the dead will rise again. The courage which is asked of us is the courage to embrace as our ultimate end a good which is more than natural, a good which is supernatural. This establishes in us a well founded hope for a life which is not simply the continuation of what we have known but without pain and the thwarting of our ambitions, but a resurrection life which is founded in nothing less than participation in the divine life itself.

The Christian religion proposes to us as our hope a belief far grander than mere survival. It proposes resurrection, the reconstitution of the fullness of human living after its destruction by death; and it proposes the glory of heaven, resurrection life which has as its immediate end the vision of God himself. The great monastic theologian Anscar Vonier wrote:

The resurrection of our bodies is the acid test of our orthodoxy; no man is truly Christian in his intellect unless he firmly believes that in the world to come mankind will be, not a multitude of ghosts, however glorious, but a race of distinct personalities, composed of body and soul as here on earth.

My soul is not me: without my body I may possess by God’s good grace the sight of His face which is the reward of the blessed and the Beatific Vision promised the saints, and possess it in that degree of intensity which reflects the measure of grace to which I have attained in this life; but I will not possess it to the fullest extent until I enjoy it having received back my body in the resurrection. Dante expresses this yearning of the blessed thus: The lustre which already swathes us round/Shall be outlustred by the flesh, which long/ Day after day now moulders underground.

But this gift of resurrection does not exhaust the fruits of Christ’s paschal mystery. We remain finite, created human beings, and the promise of heaven is the promise that we shall see God face to face. Both S. Paul and S. John emphasise this in their spiritual teaching: Paul tells us that now we see in a mirror dimly, but then face to face; John tells us when he appears we shall be like him, for we shall see him as he is. And Paul identifies this capacity to see with the gift of glory: he tells the Corinthians And we all with unveiled face, beholding the glory of the Lord, are being changed into his likeness from one degree of glory to another. The New Testament writers are sure that the Christian vocation has as its terminus nothing less than the sight of God face-to-face in the resurrection life; but they are clear too that no created mind can possess such a capacity without receiving it as an outstanding gift from God, the gift of the light of glory. The psalmist describes this gift of God of the ability to comprehend Him when he writes In thy light do we see light.

When the scriptures talk to us about this resurrection life they draw attention in a rather curious way to clothing. Elijah, as he goes up to heaven in his fiery chariot, lets fall his cloak as a commission to Elisha; the Lord’s garments are transfigured with Him and shine white as light upon the mount of Tabor, as are those of Moses and Elijah; the men who announce the resurrection to the women at the tomb in Luke’s gospel wear dazzling apparel; the woman of Revelation appears in heaven clothed with the sun. This manifestation of glory in a tangible way, this association of the life of heaven with the glorious clothing of the human form, calls to mind the Pauline teaching for as many of you as were baptized into Christ have put on Christ.

For S. Paul reminds us that the resurrection life begins within us at our Baptism: We were buried therefore with him by baptism into death, so that as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, we too might walk in newness of life. Just as the Christian hope for heaven is the hope for a supernatural good, the vision of God, so the Christian life now is one which is determined and inspired by a supernatural end. The Book of Common Prayer emphasizes this in the rite of Baptism when it describes the Christian moral life as one characterized by the theological virtues, virtues called theological because they have God as their end: steadfast in faith, joyful through hope, and rooted in charity. With these virtues we are equipped to so pass the waves of this troublesome world, that finally we may come to the land of everlasting life.

The Resurrection of the Son of God is the means by which through faith and Baptism we become children of God, and in becoming children of God we know that even if now we see through a glass dimly, still in the life of the world to come we shall see Him as he is, and in so seeing come to be made like Him. In the words of S. Augustine: We shall rest and we shall see, we shall see and we shall love, we shall love and we shall praise.