Sermon for Choral Evensong & Benediction Sunday 3 August 2014
Sermon preached by Father Michael Bowie
The Queen of Sheba visits Solomon, and, overwhelmed by his wisdom, is moved to remark ‘happy are your wives’: biblicist opponents of equal marriage, take note.
Paul sets out on his first missionary journey; smites a magician and converts the Roman pro-consul.
In each journey, the might and wisdom of God overcomes human frailty. As the child of moderately disillusioned missionary parents I am acutely conscious that these pictures of the inexorable triumph of the truth are a little rosy. And yet the missionary endeavour, compromised variously by imperialisms both commercial and cultural, is an inescapable outworking of our faith.
Recently, I watched again that very powerful film The Mission, written by Robert Bolt (of A Man for All Seasons fame). It is, you may remember, about the period in which Spain and Portugal were colonial competitors in South America. The Jesuits have established a very successful Mission station in what has become disputed territory, high in the mountains above a majestic waterfall, led by Fr Gabriel (played by Jeremy Irons). The Guarani Indians have left the jungle and built a mission church and villages, becoming devout Christians in the process (learning skilfully to sing their faith and even to make western musical instruments). This has all been possible because the Mission is, presently, in Spanish territory, where slavery is illegal; in neighbouring Portuguese territory slavery is legal and slave traders regularly trap and sell Guarani people as slaves. One of these traders, Mendoza (played by Robert de Niro), has been converted from the trade and become a Jesuit.
The Portuguese are now laying claim to the territory, and the Pope, although technically the arbitrator (in the person of a Cardinal sent for the purpose) is in fact at the mercy of the two monarchs, the kings of Spain and Portugal, who wish to stitch up the change of boundaries and render the Guarani liable for slavery. The Jesuit Mission is a threat to this project because it insists and demonstrates that the Guarani are Christians – i.e. people – and so not liable to be enslaved. As a result, under pressure from the two kings and very much against his inclination, the Papal legate is forced to command the closure of the Mission and the dispersal of the Guarani, effectively condemning them to slavery. They have taken their new faith so seriously that they will not go back to the jungle; naturally they see this move as betrayal by the church; so, to their credit, do the Jesuits.
The Guarani refuse to leave. Mendoza reverts to his former soldiering skills and does battle alongside them; Fr Gabriel refuses to fight, but will not abandon his people, so they gather in prayer at a makeshift altar outside their mission church, with the Blessed Sacrament in a monstrance (such as we shall use this evening) to make clear to the attackers that they are attacking fellow Catholic Christians. Fr Gabriel is a musician (his theme, Enrico Morricone’s ‘Gabriel’s oboe’, will be known to many of you even if you haven’t seen the film); he has taught the Guarani to sing achingly beautiful liturgical music, which they do amid the carnage, the arrows and bullets and the torching of their homes and church. Mendoza, the former slaver turned priest, is killed, failing to sabotage the bridge which allows the attackers into their midst because he saves a child. Fr Gabriel, a huge crucifix behind him, picks up the monstrance containing the bread of the Eucharist and carries it before the people in peaceful procession as a standard.
Some of the Portuguese soldiers are horrified by what they are being forced to do, killing not pagans as they had supposed, but fellow Christians, but the officers stand firm. As this Christian community is murdered by soldiers of a Christian country, first the crucifix falls, and then Fr Gabriel is shot, falling in death over the monstrance, protecting the Blessed Sacrament to the last. And then fleetingly we see a young Guarani man carefully pick up the Monstrance and again carry it before them. We do not see him fall, but all is lost; later we see a Guarani child picking up a broken violin from the debris and leaving for the jungle with her fellow survivors.
The message is very clear: here Christ is again crucified with his people, not for the last time. But the final titles add a gloss to the images. First a reminder that indigenous South Americans still struggle to retain their land and culture and priests still die with them in the endeavour. Second, the text of John 1.5: ‘The light shines in the darkness and the darkness has not overcome it.’ Those closing images, especially of the murdered priest and the handing on of the monstrance may possibly be more moving to me as a priest in daily and intimate contact with the sacrament than they are to you. In any case they are a powerful reminder that what we do here recalls and acts out, ‘makes remembrance of’ the risk and the beauty of the Christian life, a light shining in the darkness which the darkness cannot overcome. At Corpus Christi we carried the Sacrament in the traditional procession through the streets of the parish as our ensign, as if to battle for the truth of the faith, a joyful addition to the chaos of Oxford Street in which this year we were joined by a Buddhist nun. This evening, we place the sacrament on the altar more quietly, to aid contemplation and prayer and then receive the Lord’s sacramental blessing. Whether we carry the sacrament in procession or simply contemplate it on the altar, this remains a unique intersection of God with his world, with us; a unique blessing of the simplest material thing, bread, with God’s presence, which in turn blesses us.
The most important thing to understand about it, though, is what that film portrays so powerfully. The life of God with us does not stop here: this is not a comfortable retreat from the world. Our communion in the sacrament of the Eucharist, a sign of our faith and the presence of the Lord with us, is to make every one of us ready to pick up that light in a relay of blessing and carry it before us whenever others falter or fall. That, from our baptism, is our mission and the Lord recalls us to it as he sends us out with his sacramental blessing tonight.