Sermon for A Sequence of Readings and Music for Passiontide followed by Benediction Sunday 13 April 2014
Sermon preached by Bishop John Flack
LAMENTATIONS AND BENEDICTION
On 9th March 1947 an RAF pilot was trying to fly – in dense fog – round the island of Ischia in the Bay of Naples. On board were 10 airmen, some wives and small children, including a baby of nine months old. They were on their way home to England for a holiday. The pilot flew twice round the island and then, realising he was making no progress, set off on a route directly above the island. A few seconds later the plane crashed headlong into Mount Epomeo, the volcano which dominates Ischia. Everyone on board was killed – there were no survivors.
Later that morning, when the fog cleared and the Mediterranean sun came out, a 33-year old shepherd named Luigi Solazzo turned a corner near the summit of Mount Epomeo and came upon the most horrific sight he had ever seen – human flesh, carnage, twisted metal, death and destruction everywhere. Looking up, the shepherd saw that the plane had crashed just six feet below the summit, six feet from safety.
Where was God, 67 years ago on that foggy morning in the Bay of Naples? Where was that God who loved the world so much? Could not that loving God have nudged the pilot to move his joystick just a fraction, so clearing the summit and saving the lives of 20 people? What satisfaction did it give that loving God to preside over the death of a small baby?
On 9th March 2007, 60 years after that terrible tragedy, I stood on the crash site at the summit of Mount Epomeo with the remaining relatives of the 20 dead and most of the population of Ischia. The parish priest, Don Peppino, celebrated a Requiem Mass on a makeshift altar, his vestments blowing in the wind, and I preached the sermon. The choir from Ischia’s Junior School, average age 8, sang parts of the Mass. Representatives from Bramhall in Cheshire and Peterborough in East Anglia, the two towns from which most of the victims came, stood with the Mayor of Ischia beside the Altar, holding each other tight against the strong wind. As the priest said the Mass in Italian, I translated for the English people present. At the Peace, elderly Ischian men embraced RAF squadron leaders, even though they had fought against each other in World War II. And the most moving moment of all was when the shepherd Luigi Solazzo, now aged 93, his wizened Mediterranean face a living testimony to the power of olive oil, tomatoes and good red wine, stepped forward to the front of the gathering. With tears in his eyes he described to us all what he had found on this spot on that terrible morning 60 years before.
That morning, on the top of Mount Epomeo on the Island of Ischia, I experienced a mutual, overarching love among everyone present. And I learned from that experience a most important truth about God. I learned that God does not prevent tragedy, but when it happens he redeems it. The tangible mutual love at that Requiem Mass could not have happened without the tragedy sixty years before. Bramhall and Peterborough English people would have remained unaware of Ischian folk. Italian and British airmen, opponents in the war, would never have participated in that loving act of reconciliation. Luigi Solazzo would not have had that life-changing experience which altered the rest of his life.
I’m not saying that God actually arranged the tragedy so that He could teach people about loving. I cannot believe in such a God. But what God does is to use suffering and death to show us the extent of his love, a love which is wider and vaster than we can ever imagine. And this gives us the clue to the meaning of the Cross. The death of Jesus Christ on the Cross is God’s supreme act of love. He used the suffering on the Cross to show us how great, how vast is his mercy and love. He used the power of the Cross to give us an example to follow, that just as he loves us with a love beyond all telling, so we ought to love others. As a child I was taught, as many of us were, that Jesus was crucified to take away our sins. That remains true, but it is not the only meaning of the Cross. Nowadays I would want to say that on the Cross through the suffering of Jesus, God showed us his infinite love and mercy.
The extent of God’s love is encompassed in that text from St John’s Gospel chapter 3 verse 16 “God so loved the world that he gave his only Son…..” When you read the Latin version of that text, it says: “sic Deus dilexit mundum” – God so delighted in his world. It was joy for God to send His only Son.
We began with the tragedy of Ischia in 1947, and the shock and sadness of Luigi Solazzo and those who heard the news at that time. Luigi might then have echoed the words of the prophet Jeremiah, whose Lamentations the choir have just sung. Jeremiah lived 6 centuries before Christ, just as the Jewish people were being taken into exile in Babylon. In his Lamentations Jeremiah asks those difficult questions “Where is God in all this?” “Has prophecy failed?” “Why do we receive evil rather than good?” Those cries were answered, but not in Jeremiah’s lifetime.
Had Jeremiah lived another 60 years, as Luigi Solazzo did, he would have seen the glorious return of the Jews from exile, the rebuilding of the Temple under Ezra and Nehemiah and the restoration of Jewish life and worship. He would have seen that we have a God who does not prevent tragedy, but is able to bring triumphant resurrection from the jaws of death itself. We shall be hearing more of this theme “from Tragedy to Triumph” during the course of this Great Week.