Tuesday, February 2, 2010

Purification - Christopher Johnson

First-year ordinand, Christopher Johnson, gave this homily at Evening Prayer on Monday:

Here’s a question to ponder: what’s your favourite Christmas carol? Are you a fan of dear old Mrs Alexander and her beautiful Once in Royal? Do you perhaps enjoy the stillness of Silent Night? Maybe you’re completely the opposite, and love the blast of the organ to O Come all Ye Faithful and Hark the Herald. Maybe, and I say this with some reservation, you’re a fan of Graham Kendrick’s Look to the Skies, or something even more rocky or pop-like – the likes of which, I have to say, my own iTunes has never encountered.

Well let me draw your attention to one theme in particular, found in many of these pieces of music – a theme which has caused some controversy over this past Christmas season – and that is the theme of the purity of the Christ-child and the peacefulness of the world on that night on which he was born among us. In Away in a Manger, we sing about Jesus ‘laying down His sweet head’ and we hear how he does not cry. Compare Mrs Alexander’s depiction of Jesus as a child mild, obedient and good. Cast your minds too to the little town of Bethlehem, which, with its Lord, lies still, and notice how the silent stars go by.

This said, we do not forget the purity of the Christ-child when the Twelve Days are over. Indeed, the Epiphany season is full of reminders of the purity of the babe born in Bethlehem. Matthew reminds us on the feast itself of the contrast between the Holy Family and the wicked Herod, the pure and innocent child and His righteous parents, and the devious cunning of the earthly king who tries to deceive the magi. Purity remains a theme at the Baptism of Our Lord, especially in Mark, whose description of John’s ministry is one of repentance, of turning round and beginning afresh. John contributes to this theme in his narration of the wedding at Cana, placing it all in context by his reference to the six stone jars set aside ‘for the Jewish rite of purification’. And now, we come to Luke. What does Luke contribute? Well tomorrow, of course, is the feast of the Presentation of Christ in the Temple – but the festival has not always been known as that. Before the Council, as you may be aware, less emphasis was placed on the Presentation of Our Lord, and much more was placed on the Purification of Our Lady; the occasion when, in a great act of charity and humility, she sought to honour God by fulfilling her obligations under the Levitical law.

Looking at these passages together reminds us of many things. Together they enforce the belief in the divinity of Christ, who is marked for His unpollutedness and His incorruptibility. Together they also remind us of our frail human condition. Mary the woman willingly submitting to the law for purification. Jesus the man willingly submitting to John for baptism, thereby placing Himself in the position of us sinners.

The Church has inherited from its Greek roots the theological understanding that God and man are radically different; the former pure and above creation, the latter always tending to fall, always rejecting that to which he is called – the greater glorification of God and the submission to His Divine Will. Yet our God, unlike the God of the Greeks, is a God who transcends boundaries. John is clear: He came as man and dwelt among us. And in this incarnation He gathers into one all things earthly and heavenly.

The question for us is how we can be drawn into God. Yet we need look no further for the answer than the Bible readings we have already seen: the Baptism of Our Lord; the Wedding at Cana; the Purification of Mary. These to me speak ever so clearly of the Sacraments and the liturgy; an idea we Christians have inherited and developed from our ancestors the Jews, whose Psalms take their participants on a physical journey in a tangible reality in order to purify both body and soul.

The Christian tradition has understood and articulated this connection between liturgy and the state of the soul well in the past – but this has somewhat fallen out of fashion, especially, but not exclusively due to scepticism of the Enlightenment, the Evangelical Revival’s emphasis on the experience of Christ in personal encounter, and even the liturgical reforms of the 1960s. Yet reason, Scripture and tradition help us to answer the question of purity by calling us back – back to our liturgy, and back to our God. For in our worship and our rubric, we are committing ourselves to Almighty God; we say the words, we do the actions, we sing the songs, we receive His Word and Sacrament. And in so doing, we are, however imperfectly, however consciously or unconsciously, encountering God who came among us in Jesus Christ. And in this encounter with God, the Almighty once again crosses that boundary between earth and heaven, thereby making us clean; for by partaking in Him, we become like Him.

Let us therefore seek to encounter God as we come together to worship, to read or sing our office, and to receive the sacraments. And let us remember that

“only from some particular place, in some particular configuration, shaped by particular experience and memory, can such comprehensive possibility be glimpsed, and born. Incarnation is particular; Bethlehem’s world-birth took place then, and there. Without such reference, such rootedness, all large talk, all grand designs, are not merely abstract but destructive, hegemonic, riding roughshod over other stories, other places, other people”(N. Lash, The Beginning and the End of ‘Religion’ (Cambridge, 1996), p. 197).

May we be immersed in God whose presence is a purifying presence and whose love draws us ever closer to Him and to one another.