Sermon for Choral Evensong & Benediction Sunday 2 March 2014
A Sermon Preached by Fr Gerald Beauchamp at Evensong & Benediction on the Sunday next before Lent, 2 March 2014
Readings: II Kings 2. 1-12; Matthew 19. 1-23
What is the tone of the Sunday next before Lent? What should our spiritual disposition be on Quinquagesima as we used to call it in ‘old money’? If our souls were to don Greek thespian masks would they be the sorrowful face with the mouth turned down or would they be the smiling face pregnant with laughter? What are we looking forward to: Ash Wednesday or Shrove Tuesday?
This evening’s verses from Matthew’s Gospel (the first part of which we heard at mass this morning) points us in both directions.
On the gloomier side as Lent casts its long shadow there is much to lament: There is the inadequacy of the disciples. The vision on the mount draws out a strange response to the modern ear. The suggestion that Peter might erect ‘dwelling’s (or booths) sounds almost gauche.
Jesus wasn’t a fortuneteller but he was prescient. Yet his warnings about what will take place as he heads towards Jerusalem – his suffering and his death – are treated with shock and horror by the disciples.
The epileptic boy (the Greek word for epileptic literally means ‘moon-struck’) presents someone who’s life is chaotic. He falls into fire and water – a ‘lunar-tic’ if ever there was one. His condition is more than pitiable.
In the face of dire human need the disciples are not only inadequate but faithless. They are castigated by the Lord. His followers are perverse. ‘How long must I put with you?’ he asks. His irritation is palpable. And our reading this evening ends with us being told that the disciples were ‘greatly distressed’.
It feels like Lent already.
But there is another side to Matthew this evening.
We began with the Transfiguration – Our Lord’s face lit like the shining sun. All is transparent. A veil is drawn back. Who he really is, is revealed. He is the ‘Beloved Son’. There is divine pleasure. Here is one who comes not to abolish the Law but to fulfill it; not hidebound by the letter but fully alive in the spirit. Moses and Elijah testify that the roles they had carried out (liberator and law-giver in the case of Moses, and radical and reformer in the case of Elijah) find their fulfillment – their apotheosis – in the person of Jesus. ‘It is good’ for the disciples to be there to see it and they are not to be afraid.
Jesus clears the way forward by solving the puzzle of the role of John the Baptist. Jews of his day yearned for a Messiah – their ‘get-out-of-jail-free card‘. The belief had grown up that such a figure would not come out of the blue but like any Lord or monarch would be preceded by others – lesser than the Messiah but great within the tradition; another Elijah or another prophet. Their presence would legitimize the one who came. John the Baptist fits into this mould. So if the forerunner has come then who is it that is addressing the disciples now? There’s only one answer.
And to confirm that the Anointed One has come with healing in his wings there’s a miracle. The moon meets its match with the sun. Chaos is overcome by cosmos. A child is reborn. The boy is no longer to be engulfed in flame or nearly drowned but he is now fired up with new life as a reasoning human being – a source not of worry or anxiety but of joy.
And the miracle came about because the boy had a father, a father who hadn’t abandoned his child, his creation – finding him too much trouble, his disease an embarrassment, his condition alienating the family from the neighbours – but a father who loves his son whatever his state. He desires the best for him – his healing and well-being. The father has observed the son at close quarters – rescued him from fire and water and now wants him liberated from the devil himself. In the presence of God in Christ, nothing is impossible. Surely, this is miracle as parable: telling the story of God and his people.
So what is today about? Getting in the mood for Ash Wednesday? Are we going to hold the tragic mask in front of our face? Or are we going to stop a day short? Tuesday. Shrove Tuesday. ‘Fat Tuesday‘ as they call it in France. Are we in sync with the Venetian carnival or South American Mardi Gras? There’s a lot of people having a load of fun right now.
As Anglicans I’d like to suggest that we do both. Its never ‘either/or’ but always ‘both/and’. We shouldn’t play tragedy and comedy off against each other as if there’s a zero-sum game. The astringency of Lent cannot be avoided and as Passiontide looms the darkness can’t be denied but its the joy and the light that finally saves us.
As the sun rises in the sky shadows shorten and at noon finally disappear. The objects that cause the shadow don’t vanish but are seen completely for what they are. The purpose of Lent is not to aim for Good Friday and come to a screeching halt but to be drawn to the full and lustrous light of Easter morning.
The frivolity of Shrove Tuesday will be short-lived but Carnival and Mardi Gras (or the more muted English ‘pancake party’) can’t be written off as some sort of wayward blip, an embarrassing sideshow. They are a testimony to the God-given human spirit that has the capacity for enjoyment – letting our hair down – without which life would be dull and we’d probably go mad. This light and joy, subdued through Lent finds its fulfillment not its annihilation on Easter Day as meals flow on lake shores and Damascus Roads.
So where does that leave Lent? We may be making plans to go to mass more often, come to the Stations of the Cross, make our confession, engage in study on our own or with others, giving something up or taking something up. No Christian in London can say that they aren’t spoilt for choice but the spirit of whatever we do needs to be one of redemptive joy.
If the Great Forty Days is to do us some good this year then the process needs to be like the rising sun showing us who we are in all our God-given glory. Those angular parts of ourselves that can shed such awkward shadows, that can leave us worried and perplexed and perhaps may worry and perplex others are seen to have their place in our being.
As the gospel unfolds in us there are highs and lows just as there were for Christ and his disciples but the Son of Man/Son of God unlike the sun in the sky is destined never to set. Christ rises forever. Easter is mankind’s high noon and our masks can be thrown away.