I hope it isn’t controversial of me to say so, but this morning’s readings are, in a word, difficult. If we came to church today looking for encouragements and consolations in the scriptures, we will be hard pressed to find any.
Job’s searching journey of suffering takes him out of an awareness centered purely on the human being—it takes him into the vastness of creation, its complexity, and its awful scale and dimensions. This leaves him with a stark awareness of the sheer immensity of God and the utter smallness of the human creature. My heart breaks for him as he says, “ Though I am innocent, I cannot answer him; I must appeal for mercy to my accuser. If I summoned him and he answered me, I do not believe that he would listen to my voice.”
The gospel doesn’t help much either: three times Jesus presents his listeners with councils that are, to my mind, lacking in a certain pastoral sensitivity. I will follow you! says one. Then prepare for a life with nowhere to lay your head, he replies. He tells another to follow him, who asks if they might first bury their father. Let the dead bury their own dead. Finally, to another, his remarks about the unfitness of any who look back, having put their hand to the apostolic plow.
Commemoration of Edmund James Peck
The portion of Psalm 107 appointed for today – about “going down to the sea in ships… plying trade in deep water… the stormy winds… and then beholding the works of the Lord” – this psalm reads like a biography of Edmund James Peck, whom we commemorate today. Born in the tenements of Manchester, England, in 1850, he entered the Royal Navy while he was still a child, intending to make the Navy his life career. But then a series of near-fatal illnesses and shipboard accidents amazingly led him to experience what he called “the movements of grace,” an experience of Christ “saving him,” quite literally. He became convinced he was to volunteer as a missionary to the Canadian Arctic. And he set off. He would spend most of the next 40 years among the Inuit and Cree people on an immense island in the Arctic – Baffin Island – an area of almost 200,000 square miles. There are two seasons on the Baffin Island: winter and August, when the summertime temperatures sometimes even reach 40 degrees.
It is easy to get lost these days, and in many ways all of us are lost. We are lost in fear, worry, concern, and anxiety. We are lost in sorry, sadness, and anger. We are afraid of the future and worried about the present. We are concerned about those we love, and anxious about ourselves.
All of these are normal and natural feelings, and I do not for a minute want to suggest that there is something wrong with you because you feel one or other, or all, or more of these things. Finding ourselves still in the midst of a pandemic after more than two years, watching the news from Buffalo, and Uvalde, and seeing our leaders incapable of doing anything that looks remotely like gun reform legislation is enough to make anyone’s stomach clench in knots in grief, pain, anger, and sadness. Seeing the images from Ukraine or the effects of the climate emergency overwhelm us with feelings of helplessness and hopelessness.
All of us no doubt, are actually sadder, angrier, and feel more helpless than we often care to admit. I know I do. That is the reality of life at the moment and the disorientation of this season is profound.
How does Jesus show us the nature of God? One resounding answer is: as Light. Reflected light, shimmering into the world we see and know, igniting into conscious awareness. The primordial light shining in the darkness of John’s Prologue; the light that replaces that of sun and moon in the eternal city of the Revelation to John; the light of Christ we kindle at Easter; the “light of the gospel of the glory of Christ.”
Philip says to Jesus, “Lord, show us the Father, and we will be satisfied.” Philip is done with all the poetry; all the elusive and allusive imagery John’s Jesus has woven to evoke, to awaken, to captivate, to bestow the relational knowing of God found in and through himself. Philip wants a clear shaft of light outlining a straightforward vision. Before Jesus leaves them, Philipp wants just a single flash of definitive truth.
But this is not the way John’s Jesus reveals God. Instead, the words and the works of this Jesus are like the sides and angles of a prism. The clarity of a prism enables a beam of invisible, light to pass through. But it also refracts that light into something new: the visible color spectrum. “No one has ever seen God,” we read again in John’s Prologue. “It is God the only Son, who is in the bosom of the Father, who has made God known.” Jesus refracts the Father’s invisible light, scattering constellated colors that draw our eyes toward their source. It is the interplay of the pattern that beckons us – through dots we can connect, the words and works of Jesus that reveal the truth in the measure we can receive it. Receiving the light is the long slow work of conversion, not epiphany.
This icon of the Blessed Virgin Mary, so endearing. On her breast the medallion of the infant Christ. Mary’s arms extended in the orans position, the posture of a priest at the altar. Here Mary pre-figuring how she is carrying and offering the body and blood of Christ who comes from within her.
Mary carries Jesus, who is hidden. God’s taking on our human form, hidden for nine months in his mother’s womb. It will happen again to each of us: Christ’s hiddenness. How Christ who comes to live within us is sometimes so hidden, sometimes working out in the secrecy of our own hearts what cannot be seen. Not yet. Not by us; not by others.
This image of Christ, whom the Gospel of John calls “the Word.” Such a paradox, because the Word pictured in this icon cannot speak even one human word. The Word of God, alive and present in a completely silent way.
And then Mary, whose eyes are not on Jesus. Her eyes are on the world, which she sees and shares with Jesus from her heart. Since the meaning of Christ’s coming is to save the world, the Church’s primary mission must be worldly: the church, not radiating its holiness to a godless world, but giving itself to a world God so loves: people, skies, waterways, plants and trees, birds and creatures big and small. The Church’s primary mission must be worldly, offering God’s love and care to a world dying to be saved.
“Jesus went out to the mountain to pray; and he spent the night in prayer to God.”[i] Why? Why did Jesus pray through the night? It seems that in the morning Jesus had the clarity whom to call to be his 12 apostles. But why didn’t he just know that without praying? Why so many times in the Gospels do we read of Jesus’ setting off to pray to God whom he called “Father”?
In the Gospels, we read Jesus prays:
- at his baptism[ii];
- when he withdraws from the crowds[iii];
- after healing people[iv];
- when he is transfigured with God’s light while on the mountaintop[v];
- before walking on water[vi];
- after he learns of John the Baptist’s death[vii];
- before he brings his dead friend, Lazarus, back to life[viii];
- for his apostle, Peter, in the early days and at the end[ix].
We are told Jesus prays about food:
- at meals[x];
- before the miraculous feedings of the multitudes[xi];
- before and after his “last supper” when he meets with his disciples[xii];
At the end of Jesus’ life, he prays:
- three times in the Garden of Gethsemane before his crucifixion[xiii];
- from the cross his agony and then his surrender[xiv];
- after his resurrection when he breaks bread for his friends at Emmaus[xv].
We often imagine what it must have been like for those disciples to be living with Jesus during those years of ministry together in Galilee. Particularly in the Synoptic Gospels we come to know a Jesus in all his humanity: his kindness, his gentleness, his anger, his sadness, his love. There are times, especially in Jesus’ healing miracles and perhaps above all at the Transfiguration, when the disciples glimpse something of his divinity, but so often Jesus tells them not to tell anyone of this. More often, Jesus is portrayed as a very human, who draws close to us in his humanity.
But when we move to the Gospel of John, we breathe a very different atmosphere. Here, in this gospel, it is as if Jesus can barely conceal his divinity at all. At any moment his glory is likely to ‘flame out like shining from shook foil.’ In our Gospel today, we have such a moment. Jesus comes to his disciples, walking on the water, and they are terrified. On seeing Jesus, the disciples were experiencing what Rudolph Otto in his book ‘The Idea of the Holy’ described as the numinous. The experience of the numinous, he says, underlies all genuine religious experience. Scripture is packed with such experiences, and perhaps the first famous one is in the account of Moses and the burning bush in Exodus 3. The experience of the numinous has three components, which Otto calls ‘mysterium tremendum et fascinans.’ First is ‘mysterium’. The numinous experience is wholly other; entirely different to anything we experience in ordinary life, and it evokes a reaction of wonder. So, the disciples in the boat stare in awe and wonder at a man walking on water. Secondly the numinous is ‘tremendum’. It provokes terror, because it presents itself as an overwhelming power and majesty. And the poor disciples were terrified! But thirdly, the numinous is ‘fascinans’. We are attracted and drawn to it, as something merciful and gracious. The disciples longed for this terrifying figure on the water to come closer to them, and into the boat.
All things have been handed over to me by my Father; and no one knows who the Son is except the Father, or who the Father is except the Son and anyone to whom the Son chooses to reveal him.’
Scripture reminds us that now, as ever, we human beings continually struggle to know and to bear God to the world in the midst of whatever circumstances we may find ourselves. This was clearly the case for Job before his divine inquisition, but I suspect it is true for almost every human being we meet in scripture, from Abraham to Mary and beyond. It is certainly true for me, and I’ll venture a guess that from time to time it might be for you, too.
There is a litany of possible reasons for this trans-human struggle to know and relate to the profundity of the divine nature, but of significance (at least for me) have been the kinds of images and pictures we use for God. Intellectually I understand that these images are all utterly contingent, incomplete, mere shadows of the reality to which I ought to fix my gaze. Yet deep in the hiddenness of my heart I very easily become attached to these images and pictures—many of which often turn out (upon closer inspection) to be reflections of my own private desires and ambitions. Images of a god who will protect me from disaster, from pain, from disappointment, from failure. A god who conforms to my designs.
Celibate life can prompt some big, existential questions about the nature of human intimacy with God. When I look at the ring on my finger and imagine a similar ring on the (invisible) hand of Christ, I wonder: What does it mean to be invited to share an intimate relationship – the most intimate relationship — with someone who is so utterly mysterious?
All things have been handed over to me by my Father; and no one knows the Son except the Father; and no one knows the Father except the Son, and anyone to whom the Son chooses to reveal him. These words from Matthew find a striking parallel in John’s gospel: No one has ever seen God. It is God the only Son, who is close to the Father’s heart, who has made him known.
Today is Candlemas and it’s a feast I’m very fond of – but then I like candles! I remember when I was a young child, we lived in the South of England, deep in the Sussex countryside, and we were often having power outages. It was so exciting to slowly walk upstairs to bed, carrying a candle, and then tuck up in bed, nice and cozy, looking round a once familiar bedroom – now mysteriously alive with flickering shadows.
Later as I came to faith, looking at a candle, holding a candle, staring at the flickering light of the candle helped me to pray. The flickering light spoke to me of the light of Christ: of warmth, comfort, and the mystery of God.
The candles that we light in this church – all over the church and on the high altar today – help us celebrate the event which took place 40 days after Christmas, when Jesus, the Light of the world, was taken to the Temple in Jerusalem by his parents to fulfill the required ceremonies of the law. He had already been circumcised on the eighth day and received his name, “Jesus.” But because he was the first-born, he was regarded as holy. In other words, belonging to the Lord, and his parents had to, as it were, buy him back by paying a shekel to the sanctuary, and he was then presented to the Lord. At the same time, his mother Mary had, according to the law, to be purified after childbirth. This was achieved by offering two burnt offerings either of turtle doves and two pigeons.