Sermon for Choral Evensong & Benediction Sunday 25 May 2014
Sermon preached by Fr Gerald Beauchamp
Readings: Zechariah 8. 1-13;Revelation 21. 22 – 22.5
Tomorrow some of us are off to Walsingham – the National Pilgrimage to the Shrine of Our Lady. It’ll be the usual day out – coach/mass/pub/rosary/benediction/pub/and back on the coach. Part of the horseplay will be the annual shouting match between the Protestant Truth Society and any Catholic who stands still. It is rather like those battlefield re-enactment societies featuring Roundheads and Cavaliers: all good fun for those who like that sort of thing but a bit trying for those who don’t.
Like all such standoffs however there are some important issues at stake. Diarmaid MacCulloch, the church historian reminded me of one these in a recent lecture when he asked the question: What would have happened if the Arians had won?
In talking about the ‘Arians’ we aren’t thinking of Hitler’s master race (that’s Aryan spelt with a ‘y’) but the followers of a 3C teacher called Arius (spelt with an ‘i’). Arius and his followers (the Arians) became involved in the controversy about how we talk about Jesus as both God and man in the early church.
In a nutshell Arius said that Christ the Son was created by God the Father. To use his famous phrase: ‘There was a time when (Christ)/he was not’. Jesus was not the eternal Word. His divinity was derivative. The Son is subordinate to the Father.
Centuries later it is hard to give Arius a fair assessment. None of his writings survive because once the church had decided that his teaching was heretical his books were burned. But we know about Arius because some of the early Fathers quoted him in their writings. As history is written by the winners however, we don’t know whether Arius was quoted out of context or not.
And it wasn’t just a doctrinal war that raged around the Arians there was a political power struggle as well. After his death Arian teachings found favour with the tribes that were gaining ground in the Roman Empire.
Theodoric the Great (Theodoric the Ostrogoth) built a chapel royal at Ravenna in Italy, in the 6C. You can still see it today – now known as the Church of Sant’Appolinaire – with its famous mosaics. The church, decoration and the status of Theodoric himself show that Arius and his teachings had a lot of appeal.
Arius appealed to common sense. If you’re going to use words like ‘Father’ and ‘Son’ then hierarchies are bound to follow. Fathers are higher than their offspring. But that’s the point: Christian faith isn’t just about reason or common sense. It is about revelation: Jesus revealed as fully God and fully human; and God revealed as three Persons (Father, Son and Holy Spirit) all equal. Like any revelation it takes a while for the penny to drop so the church had to worry away at it; hammer out its doctrine. It still does.
Revelation is prompted not by divine whim but by human need. There’s something radically wrong in creation. There’s a fracture between what we are and what we are called to be. And because we have ‘no power of ourselves to help ourselves’ it is God who acts. The revelation of love in the flesh (God in Christ) is the act of salvation. We aren’t left to stew.
For salvation to be effective it is the Father who builds the bridge between the ideal and the reality. Jesus is securely anchored at both ends – fully God and fully man. Traditionally Mary is seen to hold the fort at the human end. She is the one who gives birth on earth. But there’s also the view in the church that Mary is also bound up with the divine endeavour.
Given her intimacy with the Holy Spirit and the masculine language of the Trinity some people think that Mary should be considered as Co-Redemptrix. Carl Gustav Jung even thought that Christians should worship a Quarternity not just a Trinity, a foursome not a threesome.
‘He who is not a Marian is an Arian’. (I’m not sure who said that but whoever it was, was on the right track.) Whatever our doctrine of Mary recognising her pivotal role in salvation is essential. Mary is God’s willing singer and Christ is her song. Without the Marian dimension the incarnation lacks breadth and depth, and that’s crucial.
Last Sunday Fr Julian urged us to come to the scriptures not so much with the mind as with heart. He preached on the Book of Revelation, one of the bible’s problematic books. The imagery is sometimes overwhelming in its violence. Yet as the book draws to an end with its peace and resolution we’re given the vision of the New Jerusalem – where stability and movement go hand in hand.
The heavenly city stands high upon the mountain – solid as a rock. Yet from the throne at its centre flows water – energy/life/movement. From the throne of God and the Lamb (Arius take note) there is both toughness and subtlety – the immovable and the free-flowing.
Mary in her breaking waters, birthing the Son into the world in risky circumstances was incarnating a process that isn’t simply Christian, its universal (‘catholic’, if you like). Mary sums up all those primitive practices of building shrines beside springs and wells, streams and waterfalls – a witness to the human endeavour to probe beyond the created order and discover what there is to worship behind it: to tap into that well-spring that enables life to flourish.
What’s important about John’s imagery is that the rough and tumble that characterises a river in spate – its threat to flood and destroy – (that experience) is seen as within the Godhead. God isn’t only the ‘solid rock’ he is God also of ‘the free-flowing stream’. He is behind the earth and the water, the law and the prophets, the orderly and the challenging, the masculine and the feminine and any other polarities we wish to add.
From what we can see of the writings of Arius he owed a debt to another earlier teacher at which the church looked askance – Mani, the Persian founder of the Manichaeans. For Mani the world was a battleground between good and evil. Only at the end of time would we know which had won. And Theodoric’s church in Ravenna has a mosaic that’s probably the first depiction of the devil in Christian art.
For Mani the solid and the chaotic were totally opposed. Mani took much from the warlike imagery of the Book of Revelation but not its conclusion. For him there was no final unity, no ultimate hope. Like Mani, like Arius: no real salvation.
Salvation comes to us when we find ourselves overwhelmed with chaos; when we’re up to our neck in it and we fear that we are going to drown. Part of salvation is the realisation that even when the waters are overwhelming us they aren’t the surge of some malign devil but flow from the throne of God itself.
The waters carry us beyond our own resources and wash us into the realm of grace. It is not an easy realisation and we can be left bedraggled but it is the hard-fought gospel of the church.
‘He who is not a Marian is an Arian’. I’m not one for heckling and I won’t be doing it in Walsingham tomorrow but I shall be rejoicing in our salvation – yours and mine.