Tuesday, February 16, 2010

Next before Lent - Daniel Lloyd

Homily given by Daniel Lloyd, a final year ordinand, at Pusey House, Oxford, on Sunday 14th February 2010 - the Sixth Sunday of the Year.

It is, I think, among the greatest crimes of the homilist to be too self-referential. You do not want to know of a funny thing which happened to me on the way to the pulpit, and trust me, you wouldn’t like me when I’m being trendy. I would like, however, to put to you two questions: what day is it, and where are we? No, this is not the effect of temporary release from S. Stephen’s House. I have not emerged blinking into the sunlight like a prisoner in Fidelio, unsure of time or place. I wish, simply, to put to you these two questions because they are, I think, of colossal importance, and I hope to suggest why that is the case.

For Christ has been raised from the dead.

We can go some way towards answering the first question. It’s the fourteenth of February, 2010. It’s the 30th of Sh’vat, 5770. It’s the 30th of Safar, 1431. It’s also the first of February, if you’re on the straight, undiluted Julian calendar. And, let us not forget, it is also the beginning of Fifth Week. Ah, how the wheel of time grinds on and on, and are we not but grains of wheat caught under it, to be worn away as the years roll by? This is sequential time: it is what the Greeks knew as chronos. It is, “tomorrow, and tomorrow, and tomorrow”, creeping “in this petty pace from day to day, to the last syllable of recorded time”. It is “the violet past prime,/And sable curls all silvered o'er with white”.

But Christ has been raised from the dead.

And because of this, secular time is not the only measure there is. It is the Sixth Sunday of Ordinary Time, or the Sunday Next Before Lent. It is the Commemoration of S. Valentine, in both the Old Rite and the High Street. And, if that were not the very apogee of romance: the Book of Common Prayer and the Extraordinary Form of the Roman Rite both agree that it is Quinquagesima. Perhaps, in the new and living way, we ought to be in what used to be called pre-Lent, that period of middling fasting before the more exacting strictures of Lent kick in. In Austria, this week was called Butterwoche, butter-week, since it was the last opportunity to eat dairy products before Easter. It is said that the great tower of Rouen cathedral was built by the dairy farmers of Normandy as a penance for not abiding by these strictures, and hence preserving their livelihoods. Would that all such disobedience could result in beautiful architecture – and Camembert.

We can go further still in pinning down our temporal location: we are in the two thousand and tenth year of the Incarnation of our most blessed Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ. The Martyrology, that compendium of useful information and horrible deaths, articulates this in perhaps the most developed way. So, the Nativity of Our Lord Jesus Christ according to the flesh took place not only on “the twenty-fifth day of December”, but in:

the two thousand nine hundred and fifty-seventh year after the flood;
the two thousand and fifteenth year from the birth of Abraham;
the one thousand five hundred and tenth year from Moses and the going forth of the people of Israel from Egypt;
the one thousand and thirty-second year from David's being anointed king;
in the one hundred and ninety-fourth Olympiad;
the seven hundred and fifty-second year from the foundation of the city of Rome;
the forty-second year of the reign of Octavian Augustus;

Archbishop Ussher of Armagh trumped even this precision when he wrote that the Creation of the world took place “in that night preceding the XXIII day of October... in the year 4004 before the first of our Era, commonly called Christian.”

So, on to the secular world’s routine counting of Olympiads, of foundations and of reigns, of dates, of tax deadlines, examination entries, births, marriages, divorces, deaths, there uncoils another time: Kairos, as the Greeks called it. Kairos is “God’s good time”. It is the appointed time, the “time for the Lord to act”. Yet it is not in some way separate from, or other than, our ‘real’ time. So Paul writes that Christ is the “first-fruits” of those who have been raised from the dead. The Son of God is eternal, begotten of his Father before all worlds, as we confess in the Creed. And yet He was born in time, in a stable, to a mother; he walked and talked with His disciples; He suffered on a real cross and died a real death. And He rose again, on the first Easter morning.

And Christ has been raised from the dead.

And so we know when we are, but where are we? Why, in Pusey House, of course. And what is Pusey House? A glance at the Termcard will begin to tell you that, but a glance at one another is, perhaps, somewhat more revealing. And what, then, of we who do frequent these buildings? As Sydney Smith wrote, “Pray tell me what’s a Puseyite? ’Tis puzzling to describe/This ecclesiastic genus of a pious, hybrid tribe...” No lover of the Oxford Movement he, Smith wrote in a letter of 1842:

'I am just come from London, where I have been doing duty at St Paul’s, and preaching against the Puseyites – I. Because they lessen the aversion to the Catholic faith, and the admiration of Protestantism, which I think one of the greatest improvements the world ever made. II. They inculcate the preposterous surrender of the understanding to bishops. III. They make religion an affair of trifles, of postures, and of garments.'

On point the first, we might ask how much headway has been made in the intervening century and a half. On point the second, would that it had not only been the surrender of the understanding to bishops which we had attempted to inculcate, but also the very nature and theology of the episcopate! On the third charge, we have always had to guard against what is often a natural tendency... That is precisely why the present difficulties of our ecclesiastical polity are not extras for the train-spotters among us; they are not distractions from the round of prayer and praise, of charity and Christian hospitality. They are the foundations, they are the buttresses, the roof-bosses and the door-handles. They define our ability to go out and “compel them to come in”, because they are part of the very thing into which we are compelling them to come.

We are in a building, in an institution, the very stones of which cry out its purpose, and that is the worship of Almighty God through sacrament and study. My predecessors in this term’s series of sermons have already alluded to aspects of the House which have brought them to where they are to-day. Something which I think it is important to understand is the whole business of the liturgical sensibility of this place. The offer of grace to us in a particular place at a particular time, particularly in the sacraments, is only one aspect of the House’s ministry. Another aspect is the importance attached here to music, and I wonder whether the mass settings chosen for the term bear any relation to the character of the individual preachers: but no, I will not speculate... Still another is the reverence for those sacraments which, as I have said, the entire conception of the building is intended to present. And, of all the many fine sights, sounds and smells of the House’s witness, I think the sight of the staircases, common rooms and gardens of Ascot Priory littered with undergraduates tentatively preparing to make their first confession is one of the greatest spectacles of Christendom in this country.

Because Christ has been raised from the dead.

The when and where flow from, and points to, that truth. The first-fruits of which Paul speaks are our key to understanding this. Christ is the first fruits of those who have fallen asleep. That the first-fruits have been harvested implies that more is to come. And, whilst it is in this agricultural sense that Paul is deploying the term, if we look back, the books of Moses are replete with instructions on what to do with the first fruits. They are that which is to be offered to the Lord in accordance with the cultic prescriptions. Indeed, the custom of offering the first-fruits remained within the Church – as the tithe-offering of the people which allowed the priest to continue with his task, on their behalf, of prayer and sacrament, freed from the constraints of tilling his own soil. Not for nothing is the first mass of a priest known in German as a Primiz – from primitiae, first-fruits. We are – we should be – always offering to God through His Church our first-fruits; the ever-new harvest of our souls and bodies.

Why? Christ has been raised from the dead.

Where we are matters. It matters where we are, and it matters why we are there. The First Fruits have been gathered in already – one day it will be time for the rest of the harvest. We have a great responsibility for the care and cultivation of that which God offers to us. It requires attentiveness, and it requires sacrifice. And that is not simply a sacrifice of sweat and labour. For the things we need to tell the world are things the world finds hard to hear. When we take Christ out from this place, we can expect the world to spit just as much as we can hope that it will fall to its knees, for that is how it is. We can – and we should – expect to be hated, excluded and reviled. But, in the end, the best way of taking care of what we are offered is to trust in the Lord, to hear His voice and to do His will. For then, if God wills it, we may be like a tree planted by water, that sends out its roots by the stream; and does not fear when heat comes, for its leaves remain green; and is not anxious in the year of drought, for it does not cease to bear fruit.

For Christ has been raised from the dead, to Whom be all honour and glory, world without end. Amen.