Sermon for Evensong & Benediction Sunday 10 July 2016
Sermon preached by Fr Michael Bowie
Trinity 7 E&B
Our second lesson addresses ritual taboos head-on. We have heard some of this recently in High Mass gospels about Jesus’ healing miracles and today in the parable of the Good Samaritan. I don’t need to rehearse the argument for you: the gist, as you know, is that the Pharisees (bad) are shown to elevate man-made traditions at the expense of the true commandments of God (good, obviously). The killer phrase in what we hear this evening [Mark 7.1-23] is ‘thus he declared all foods clean’. Mark is writing after the arguments which Paul and others won at the Council of Jerusalem, arguments which determined that kosher food and circumcision were not required of Christians: Mark links that position to a saying from Jesus himself.
This was a radical and cutting edge element in the breakaway religion which we have somewhat buried in our post-Constantine establishment Church history. But the radical behaviour did not end there. We often forget that our faith was built on the rejection of such taboos as those condemned by Jesus, condemned as man-made devices of religious control by a cultic elite. This new direction is true of Christian theology but also of Christian devotional practice.
And one challenge to established Jewish taboos was especially significant to the development of Catholic Christianity. Following the Lord’s example, Christians did not avoid associating themseves with the dead. The catacombs, where Mass was celebrated on tombs, the veneration of the martyrs and indeed the whole developed cult of the saints were a cutting-edge rejection of taboo. To put that more positively, Christianity promoted an understanding that faith in the resurrection demanded reverence for the dead, as much as did an understanding of God as creator of all life.
I am thinking of something very particular here. Tomorrow is St Benedict’s day. He is the Patron of Europe, but perhaps I won’t pursue that thought just now. He is of course most significant in the formation of Christian monasticism. But I am remembering that it was a relic of St Benedict that was the first relic I was ever invited to venerate, 27 years ago tomorrow.
Just recently I met some of you at a simple gospel service in S. Magnus the Martyr, where we venerated a fragment of S. Thomas A’Becket’s elbow. Not so long ago there was a highly successful UK tour of the relics of S. Therese of Liseux (including a very popular overnight stay in York Minster) and next year it will be the turn of S. Anthony of Padua. The most popular annual pilgrimage in England is now that to St Albans Abbey, where a relic of S. Alban is venerated. A lot of people, it seems, are instinctively drawn to relics. I suppose that may have something to do with modern celebrity cults – for we now use even that word ‘cult’ of celebrity – but I think there’s more to it.
Without context, for a modern person, venerating the relic of a saint is a slightly odd thing to do. It might even be thought to be precisely the sort of man-made tradition that Jesus is lambasting in our second lesson. But when you recall that it is part of the same complex of Catholic truths as prayer for the dead and requiem Masses, which we fought so hard to restore to the Church of England, it is not so strange.
The cult of relics was an early casualty of the Reformation because it had been abused; there was a good case, then, for claiming that it promoted superstition rather than faith. It was being used as magic rather than sacramental devotion. Yet there is a direct line between the Lord’s rejection of traditional taboos and this practice which, for me, makes it deeply significant and moving. We don’t need to venerate the relics of saints to be good Christians, but there is something earthed and human about it, like praying for the dead, asking the prayers of the saints and indeed, the other evening, honouring the body of our friend Yvonne Harland with incense and holy water. Our cautious Anglican collects wordily pray that we may be inspired by the example of dead Christians, but we would all much rather know their presence and their prayers as saints of God. The central act of Christian worship, the Mass, has presence at its heart; we celebrate that again most particularly in Benediction in a few moments’ time. The Catholic doctrine of the Church is essentially one of relationship – across time and space – of real people. And to me there is something even more deeply moving about seeing the mummified body of S. Lucy (martyred in 304) over the altar of that church by the railway station in Venice than there is about visiting her even more ancient church in Syracuse, which is a Greek temple with the space between pillars filled in to make the walls.
The relics of the saints say something very important to us as embodied persons. If the single greatest thing God could do for us was to be incarnate, to inhabit our flesh and blood, and if, more than that, he could take that human incarnation through death and raise it to life at Easter, then bodies matter. The resurrection requires our commitment to the significance of our embodiment. If that is so, and if we honour the bodies of our dead, it follows that relics of those we know to be saints are vital points of connection for us, not to a theoretical, slightly bloodless, idea of holiness but to the truth that we are all capable of sanctity in the human bodies we inhabit.
The contribution S Benedict’s monastic revolution made to Christianity cannot be overstated. But it is the fact that he was a human person like you and me that makes his sanctity relevant to you and me. It brings us just a little closer to the resurrection of the incarnate word of God. This may be about the heart rather than the head, but in that case, long live the heart!