Tuesday, April 27, 2010

Wednesday of Holy Week - Ian Boxall

This homily was given by the Senior Tutor, Ian Boxall, on Wednesday in Holy Week:

Readings: Isa. 63:1-; Rev. 14:18-15:4

There is a phrase which has been working on us like a recurring theme over the past few days. We have been singing it, meditatively and rhythmically, as our canticle at Morning Prayer, so that by now it has entered almost surreptitiously into our subconscious. And this evening it erupts to the surface with full-blown intensity in our second reading: ‘Who is this that comes from Edom, coming from Bozrah, his garments stained crimson?’ This obscure and in some ways mysterious passage from the Prophet Isaiah has kept commentators intrigued for centuries. Who is this mysterious figure who comes from Edom? What is he doing, and why are his garments stained crimson?

But the more perceptive of you may have realised that our Morning Prayer canticle has only given us the sanitised version, as if the compilers of the Office felt it was too much for our delicate dispositions first thing in the morning. We hear of the mysterious warrior figure coming back from Edom, with garments stained crimson. We hear him declare that he has trodden the winepress, grape juice thus accounting for the red stains on his clothing. But then we jump three-and-a-half verses from the obscure to the upbeat: ‘I will recount the gracious deeds of the Lord, the praises of the Most High.’ Well, this evening, we have heard the uncensored 18 Certificate version. We learn that the warrior has trodden the grapes in his anger, with a day of vengeance in his heart. In other words, the crimson-stained garments are not simply the result of grape-juice; they are stained with the blood of the Edomites. And the warrior is almost certainly the Lord himself, the divine Warrior returning to Jerusalem fresh from the battle-field.

It is as though we need to have come to this point in Holy Week before we are ready to meet the blood-stained divine Warrior face to face. And with this Holy Week context in mind, I want to explore with you two points from Isaiah’s vision.

The first is that vengeance and love are not two different divine attributes, but one and the same reality, albeit viewed from two different perspectives. The ‘day of vengeance’ in the warrior’s heart is also ‘the year of my redeeming work’. Edom is one of the nations who have oppressed God’s people, and the Lord comes as a response to the cries of his people, to deal with oppression and set his people free. And so the prophet sees the Lord himself returning from battle, having accomplished his loving redeeming work of avenging his own, and breaks into a song of the gracious deeds of the Lord.

In a few days time, we will do something very similar, when we sing the Song of Moses and Miriam at the Easter Vigil. If we think too long about the words we are singing, we might not be so quick to open our mouths: ‘I will sing to the Lord who has triumphed gloriously! Horse and rider he has thrown into the sea.’ Yet when we sing this Song, we are not doing so in order to celebrate the bloody slaughter of fellow human beings. As the Fathers recognized, that kind of interpretation is not a moral reading of Scripture. Rather Christians, like the people of Israel, sing this song from the perspective of the underdog, as former slaves who have escape the former slave-master and now celebrate their freedom. We can sing it this week, because we are celebrating the Christian Passover, and embarking on the Christian Exodus journey in Christ our Redeemer leads us from slavery to freedom.

The second point I want to make requires us to read our first reading in the light of our second reading, from the Book of Revelation (and you will have to indulge me a little here). In John’s vision, the Divine Warrior who treads the winepress alone is revealed as none other than Christ himself, who tread the winepress outside the city. Now this identification does not lessen the violent character of the battle in which Jesus is engaged. The events we are celebrating this week were sufficient to shake the very foundations of our world, so as even to tear apart the curtain of God’s holy Temple and cause Hell to tremble with terror.

But – and this is where John differs from Isaiah – the battle tactics of John’s divine Warrior are not learned in the battlefields of Edom, or the valley of Jezreel, or the training-ground of Sandhurst. The battle which John describes in his vision is the victory of a slaughtered Lamb. The only weapon this Divine Warrior possesses is the double-edged sword coming out of his mouth. The blood that John sees on the robe of this fighter is not the blood of his enemies, but his own blood. For all its unfamiliar imagery, John’s divine Warrior is the dying and risen Christ whom we are accompanying this week. It is as if John is saying: when heaven looks down upon Christ on the cross, it sees not a defeated man crucified, but a glorious victor treading the winepress. When heaven looks down to Calvary, it sees nothing less than the judgement of the world.

There is one final point I want to make about John’s vision, another reminder that we are the people of a new Exodus. After describing a series of complicated liturgical manoeuvrings involving angels in the heavenly temple, John directs our attention to something else: a group of people standing on a sea of glass, singing the Song of Moses and the Song of the Lamb. These are Christ’s people, who have crossed the sea with him and been rescued from their enemies. But the song they sing is very different from the original song of Moses. There is no mention of Pharaoh’s chariots and his army being cast into the sea. Instead, all is focused on the ‘gracious deeds of the Lord’, accomplished in and through the Lamb:

‘Great and amazing are your deeds,
Lord God the Almighty!
Just and true are your ways,
King of the nations!
Lord, who will not fear
and glorify your name?
For you alone are holy.
All nations will come
and worship before you,
For you judgments have been revealed’ (Rev. 15:3-4).