Saturday, December 11th, 2021, beginning at 9am
Sarum for the Soul
The Rev’d Rita Powell, Episcopal Chaplain at Harvard, will offer a series of meditations on themes in our Anglican liturgical inheritance and how they can expand our spiritual lives. We will spend a morning contemplating how the liturgy of the medieval church can reshape and inform our relationship to our bodies and to the world around us. In the spirit of the Advent season, we will pray to prepare our souls and bodies to receive the Incarnation, always new, and yet always through the layers of tradition, again this year.
So that we can get a count for lunch, please RSVP to email@example.com.
From the Gospel of St. Matthew: “Rejoice and be glad, for your reward is great in heaven…”
In the name of God the Father, Son and Holy Ghost.
In modern-day Turkey there is a town called Bodrum in Southwest Anatolia which looks across the Aegean Sea to Greece, and over 2000 years ago the region was indeed Greek and known as Caria, with the capital city known by the rather more romantic name of Halicarnassus, where there once lived in the 3rd Century BC the poet Callimachus of Cyrene, who mourned the loss of another poet by the name Heraclitus (not it should be stressed the 5th Century BC Pre-Socratic) and wrote for him an epigraph.
All of this is useful to know when one reads the famous lines of the translation by the former Eton Schoolmaster William (Johnson) Cory,1823–1892, which renders that Epitaph in the following words:
THEY told me, Heraclitus, they told me you were dead,
They brought me bitter news to hear and bitter tears to shed.
I wept as I remember’d how often you and I
Had tired the sun with talking and sent him down the sky.
And now that thou art lying, my dear old Carian guest,
A handful of grey ashes, long, long ago at rest,
Still are thy pleasant voices, thy nightingales, awake;
For Death, he taketh all away, but them he cannot take.
The translation has long been admired and is very brilliant in the way that it captures the unique poignancy of the original Greek and – even more important – the sense of wistful, deep and irretrievable loss that is occasioned by death.
Yet what about that last line? Is this really what in the end what we must all face : For death he taketh all away?
Is it only memories he cannot take?
There surely is the huge question that is posed by every death and it is merely a question amplified when we think of all the lives lost in war as we do today.
It was President Woodrow Wilson who made famous a phrase first forged by H.G. Wells when he declared that the First World War “Is a war to end all wars” while adding brightly (in justification of his declaration of war on Germany), that it would also “make the world safe for democracy”.
In point of fact it was followed by what David Fromkin has aptly called (and used as the title of his book) A Peace to End All Peace, or to put that another way since it ended, “Only the dead have seen the end of war” as George Santayana observed in 1922 (in a riposte to Wilson).
Indeed, it could well be argued that much of world history ever since has been but a series of footnotes to the First World War. A war which of itself was an appalling calamity. While exact figures can be debated, estimates suggest that around 10 million military personnel died, and 7 million civilians, with 21 million wounded, and around 7.7 million missing and/or imprisoned.
The Second World War, which was in so many ways a legacy of the First, left something over 60 million people dead with somewhere between 38 to 55 million civilians killed, including 13 to 20 million from war-related disease and famine.
At the risk of blurring the hideousness of all this in a blizzard of statistics, it is also worth recalling that the worldwide spread of the Communist movement (which we may note was and remains avowedly secular), has claimed around 100 million lives, so far.
So much then for World War I’s legacy of peace….But quite apart from the horrifying scale of the loss of life in the century that followed, there is, too, another epochal aspect, which we are still seeing unfold, and this is the impact on the place of Western Civilization in the world.
Strangely, I have never seen an analysis of the subsequent societal impact on Britain, Germany France and other European nations of losing so many of an entire generation of future leaders among those killed in the trenches of the Somme, but it has to have been of world historical import.
Yet on top of all that we can but be mindful this year with especial force of recent events in Afghanistan and all the lives lost there.
So it is that we commemorate today in particular the 2,401 United States military deaths in the War in Afghanistan. Of which 1,921 deaths were the result of hostile action. Then in addition there were the 20,752 American servicemembers who were wounded in action during the war. As well as the 18 Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) operatives also died and the further 1,822 civilian contractors who were killed.
In the case of Britain we commemorate the 453 British Service men and women who died in the (thirteen year) period of Britain’s military involvement (that formally ended with the lowering of the Union flag at Camp Bastion in Helmand Province in October 2014, although the UK retained a presence until the recent withdrawal).
Given the many parallels that were discerned by some in looking at the final scenes of the withdrawal this summer from Afghanistan with those from the withdrawal from Vietnam it is worth recalling too that in that conflict 58,220 U.S. military lives were lost.
But whatever the statistics, it is always the thought of each individual life lost that brings home to us just what such deaths entail.
As indeed all those millennia it did to Callimichus when he mourned Heraclitus.
No matter how many millions die in conflicts, each life ended is a deeply moving loss, leaving those who mourn with an irreplaceable void – blessed though they may be – in the words of the Beatitudes we just heard in the Gospel.
All of which brings out that the task before us in the face of such calamity is to search and to dwell upon the meaning to be found beyond the brutal fact of death and to do so here as Christians, whom we are assured do not mourn in vain. But in the case of what may seem to us to be early death as is so often the case in war, we have still large questions such as why now?
There must be many contemplating lives lost in Afghanistan and our abrupt withdrawal who ask: What was the point? What meaning can we give that can somehow mitigate the loss now – even if we do still hold on to the ultimate Christian hope?
If we turn back to the First World War – a war perhaps uniquely celebrated for its poets – we have to recall that Wilfred Owen died in 1918 mere days before the Armistice; did that make his loss seem somehow less meaningful or more pointless?
In war it is in fact all too often tempting to ask – after men died securing this or that single trench, or fortification, or were left stranded as in the case of the Dardanelles (the ancient Hellespont), or the Guardsmen aboard the Sir Galahad in the Falklands: what was the point?
Yet, if anything, such bitter realities only sharpen the particular meaning and particular value that the example of such sacrifice presents.
And there all at once is the key word here – one that I suspect our culture in general finds ever less easy to understand – by which I mean the word “sacrifice”.
We shall shortly sing a hymn whose lines in the opening verse build up relentlessly to this concept and do so by framing sacrifice as consequent upon love – which it references no less than six times in six lines:
I vow to thee, my country, all earthly things above
Entire and whole and perfect, the service of my love;
The love that asks no question, the love that stands the test
That lays upon the altar the dearest and the best;
The love that never falters, the love that pays the price
The love that makes undaunted the final sacrifice.
Clearly we are in deep territory, but thinking of the particular once again, may help. Thus we might think of one of the films made about the terrible Rwandan massacre of 1994, entitled Shooting Dogs (2005), where John Hurt plays the part of a Roman Catholic priest (Fr. Christopher), who finds himself entrapped in a school compound with several thousand Tutsi villagers. 
They arrive and encamp under the protection of United Nations troops, only to find that the troops are expecting an order to withdraw. Outside the compound gates, their erstwhile neighbours, armed with machetes and clubs, simply await the departure of the UN monitors.
The terrible inevitability of their fate becomes apparent, to the point that some of the trapped villagers ask the troops if they would at least shoot their children, so as to spare them being butchered more slowly later….
The priest eventually has a chance to leave himself, on the trucks with the troops, but in fact remains – staying with the people and he is killed (shot) as the massacre duly unfolds.
Earlier in the film a volunteer teacher questions the appropriateness of his continuing to celebrate the Eucharist in such terrible circumstances, only to be informed simply: “I am a priest. This is what I do.”
The immediacy of the juxtaposition of the Eucharist, with its Christian understanding of the sacrifice of Jesus Christ made for all of us in his death on the Cross, being celebrated in the Mass, ultimately at the cost of his life by the priest, in the midst of an act of genocide, provides a wider context. One that brings into intense focus the action of love that ultimately informs sacrifice in each case, as something offered to the point of offering up even life itself for another. – However dry that sounds when spelled out beside the immediacy of the death and butchery in that moment in Rwanda, it still has huge force.
And yet it is true too that sacrifice is an idea charged with paradox – which is to say an idea but partly grasped in this life.
The most extreme form of sacrifice is that in which a person gives up his or her life or its meaning for the sake of another. Our instinct is surely to see this as perhaps the most praiseworthy of all the acts of which we are capable.
When we honour those fallen in war it is because they gave their all in the terms of this world.
But what of the suicide bomber – where there may certainly be courage and even at some level an intension of self-sacrifice for some wider good?
Yet we surely have to say that the good imagined as justifying the act is simply not there, to think otherwise is an objective error. Indeed our instinctive perceptions of the heinous character of such acts arguably makes them pointers to the objectivity of good and evil.
That in a sense is the meaning behind the second verse of I vow to thee my country, for it points to the Christian view that conflict is not the way of the redeemed world to come that is the true home of all Christians in the world to come whose “ways are ways of gentleness, and all her paths are peace.” .
We surely do want to say that the meaning and value of sacrifice stands, regardless of the immediate context in which any serviceman or woman’s life is taken – by which I mean that there is virtue in the willingness to offer the ultimate sacrifice of one’s life in service of the Nation (and thereby the good).
The fact of that remarkable resolve is implicit in all service in the armed forces – and it challenges uniquely the shallow banalities which so much in contemporary culture offers us, by way of distraction from the vital question of what meaning our lives really have. (Just as the lives of the martyrs and saints of the Church do also and those committed to the fulness of religious life.) Commitment at such a level is a life defining act that only makes sense within a particular world view and deeply held beliefs.
All of this also calls us to recognise the deep fact that ultimate meaning in our lives is always to be found in the other. It is always outside the self – not in that ever more demanding ego which urges us always to put the self first -– in a state of radically anarchic self-absorption – which our culture seems ever more strongly to commend . To give in and do that is of course to lose oneself – this illustrates the radically paradoxical nature of ultimate meaning in this life.
Indeed this is the insight of George Steiner’s argument (in the End of Tragedy) that true tragedy seems to require a universe of real —which is to say transcendent— meaning, which is why it is so plausible to argue that in a post-modern universe —where the possibility of such truly deep meaning is effectively denied— we arrive ultimately not merely with Fukuyama at the end of history but at the end of tragedy as well.
To make the point another way, “tragedy is that form of art which requires the intolerable burden of God’s presence” which is why George Steiner argued that true tragedy is now dead because “His shadow no longer falls upon us as it fell on Agamemnon, or Macbeth or Athalie”.
The metaphysical universe of Christianity thus (in yet another aspect of paradox) makes real the possibility of tragedy (in contrast to the utter meaninglessness and ultimate chaos of nihilism) even as it also points to the possibility, and further, the actuality, of a redeemed world that therefore escapes tragedy in the end.
(That is why for the Christian, life can never in the end be tragic in the classical sense and why I have carefully not said that every life ended in war is a tragedy – for that is a cliché we as Christians must reject.)
But is there not also disclosed here, a vital epistemic presupposition – which is made evident by asking, “What must be the case in order to ground the possibility of ultimate meaning?” Does not coherence itself, depend upon a common apprehension of objective value to which we may communally appeal? Without such a state of affairs language itself will not work.
As the philosopher Bernard Williams observed, “Children learn language in many ways and in many different kinds of situation, but one essential way is that they hear sentences being used in situations in which those situations are plainly true.”
Grant this, and it becomes clear that one consequence of the loss of any authority sufficiently transcendent to command a common allegiance is ultimately the loss of the possibility of sustaining a common discourse too – something we see all around us, in our cultural fragmentation despite the supposedly ever wider bounds of globalization.
The fallen whom we commemorate then today, through the magnitude of their act of sacrifice stand thus with timeless importance for the possibility of transcendent meaning and the claim upon us of true good, over and above the passing fancies that can only ever be the stuff of mere human constructs.
As Bernard Williams further observed, in the context of literature, “Authority accrues to possession of, or capacity for, truth of the high order that readers from Aristotle to Friedrich Nietzsche have associated with the books most worth reading” and it was Nietzsche who observed (in The Birth of Tragedy to which Steiner was responding) that more specifically, “Poetry desires to be [. . .] the unvarnished expression of the truth.”
“Poetry thus makes immortal all that is best and most beautiful in the world; … Poetry redeems from decay the visitations of the divinity in man” (as Shelley put it in A Defence of Poetry 1051/2).
Indeed a key part of Shelley’s argument in the Defence is concerned with his conviction that prophecy (by which is meant a call back to truth) is an essential “attribute of poetry.” For him the poet “not only beholds intensely the present as it is, and discovers those laws according to which present things ought to be ordered, but beholds the future in the present,” which enables poets to “foreknow the true spirit of events” (Shelley 1026- 27). 
Hence for him too is the central importance of “the sole law” of “Love” which “should govern the moral world” which takes straight back to the words of I vow to thee my country. Such a perspective does much perhaps to explain why it is poetry that has become so powerful in shaping how we have grappled with both the horrors and the meaning of the Great War in particular, as it brings out with unique force the weight of meaning that attaches to the lives that were lost.
And that brings us back, I suggest, to the problem posed – however implicitly – in the pathos of Callimachus’ epitaph for Heraclitus.
Remember those last lines:
Still are thy pleasant voices, thy nightingales, awake;
For Death, he taketh all away, but them he cannot take.
The forlorn aspect is that it ONLY memories that remain in the end – everything else falls away.
Such a perspective sets the stage well for contemporary nihilism and the sense of melancholy it must surely invite for life itself can seem somehow ultimately absurd….
Hence in a famous, or rather infamous, paper, “The Absurd”, Thomas Nagel in 1970 set out a certain conception of the absurd and then argued that there are good grounds for thinking that such absurdity applies to our lives, thereby rendering them devoid of meaning.
Substantially the problem is essentially a problem of value.
That is to say, what we seek is a concrete underpinning of the most fundamental values that make up our lives. If these values are indeed just arbitrary, and hence not really valuable at all, then one’s life is rendered devoid of the meaning that we implicitly ascribe to it in virtue of our finding it to exhibit such (apparently genuine) values – and hence absurdity arises.
Now, one way to define a fundamental goal of one’s life is as being a goal the value of which does not depend on the value of any of one’s other goals. This is but to say that one will not need to appeal to any further considerations in order to defend their value, since they will be valuable for their own sake.
And it is worth registering in saying that – the large point that Nagel never offered an argument for supposing that such value is actually impossible.
Thus in the end, Nagel’s argument merely re-established that the problem of the meaning of life: rests on whether one’s fundamental goals have (or even could have) final value, which turns on arguments that are necessarily outside the debate about the meaning of life itself. Indeed they surely collapse into ultimately ontological questions about the nature of God.
Looked at from that perspective, if we find compelling the view that God is that than which nothing greater can be conceived – since only such would be adequate to ground the world as we find it – there is not a great deal of work required to suggest that such a God must necessarily be perfect and that we are part of his creation. (Since he is the cause of all that is outside himself.)
As such, our telos and authentic goals could only ever be ultimately grounded in God, which thereby entails that they are objective and maximally underpinned for grounding the fundamental values that should inform our lives and deeds if we are to be authentic to ourselves and the calling that is ours.
Thus is firmly set both the substantive meaningfulness of life and the grounding for the entire Christian narrative of redemption – and the hope that is in us whereby, in Christ we should indeed “Rejoice and be glad, for your reward is great in heaven.”
In this universe great deeds have great meaning transcendent of the person making them – as does with the ultimate self-sacrifice of those whose lives were shed for others.
This gives authentic and unequalled the weight to those famous words often said after two minute’s silence and the Last Post, written by Lawrence Binyon in For the Fallen, after World War I and its terrible price, for yet
Solemn the drums thrill; Death august and royal
Sings sorrow up into immortal spheres,
There is music in the midst of desolation
And a glory that shines upon our tears.
And we can truly say of the fallen
They shall grow not old, as we that are left grow old:
Age shall not weary them, nor the years condemn
At the going down of the sun and in the morning
We will remember them …
 In an article entitled “The War That Will End War,” published in The Daily News on Aug. 14, 1914 and used three years later by Wilson.
 In his book Soliloquies in England and Later Soliloquies
 It is worth noting, as Dan Snow has recently pointed out, that an earlier conflict was possibly even more bloody, namely that in southern China of the mid-nineteenth century. Conservative estimates put the number dead in the 14-year Taiping rebellion between 20 million and 30 million. In terms of percentage of the population killed, the figure was 2% for Britain in WW1, and this actually was half that suffered by the population during the Civil War when 4% of the population of England and Wales died, while an even higher proportion died in Scotland and Ireland. See https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/magazine-25776836. Again, re. WW1, of the 6 million men mobilized in Britain 700,000 died which, as a proportion of those under arms, was in fact lower than that of the Crimean War of 1853-56.
 Estimates range from 50-80 million
 “100 Years of Communism—and 100 Million Dead. The Bolshevik plague that began in Russia was the greatest catastrophe in human history”, David Satter, The Wall Street Journal, Nov. 6, 2017
 About 12% of the British army’s enlisted soldiers were killed during the war, but 17% of its officers. Eton alone lost more than 1,000 former pupils – amounting to 20% of those who served from that one school. The wartime Prime Minister Herbert Asquith lost a son, and the future Prime Minister Andrew Bonar Law lost two. Anthony Eden lost two brothers and another very severely wounded, and an uncle was captured. During the course of the was over 200 Generals were killed which reflects their close engagement in the conflict.
 Michael Kirwan, Eucharist and Sacrifice, New Blackfriars , March 2007, Vol. 88, No. 1014, pp. 213-227.
 But is this true of anyone who gives up their life? Is death in war indistinguishable from suicide? The answer has to be no. Suicide if it is rationally undertaken – which very often it is not (as that if is a very large one), is likely to be the expression of weakness and surrender rather strength. Hence the sense in which it can indeed be selfish, where death in war is not. Suicide can sometimes be excused perhaps in the face of mental anguish and suffering, but it can never praised and as a means for avoiding something else it is an act of retreat.
 And there’s another country, I’ve heard of long ago
Most dear to them that love her, most great to them that know;
We may not count her armies, we may not see her King;
Her fortress is a faithful heart, her pride is suffering;
And soul by soul and silently her shining bounds increase
And her ways are ways of gentleness, and all her paths are peace.
 To borrow a phrase of David Lyle Jeffrey in discussing Terry Eagleton, Can Faustus be Saved?
 See his Truth and Truthfulness, p.45. In the words of Alexander Prescott-Couch: Bernard Williams, in this work, “…seeks to defend the value of truth from so-called “deniers,” those who deny that truth plays an important role in our lives. For Williams, defending the value of truth involves defending the “virtues of truth,” that is, dispositions that lead one to acquire and espouse true beliefs. In Williams’s account, these dispositions are two: Sincerity and Accuracy. The former is the disposition to express what one believes when appropriate, while the latter is directed toward acquiring reliable information through carefully weighing evidence and avoiding self-deception and wishful thinking. Williams is concerned to define and defend these dispositions as well as show how agents can be motivated to manifest them.
 Another informing principle is Shelley’s conception of empathy, the capacity for imaginative sympathy, as the human faculty out of which true poetry springs, and the one to which it is addressed, for ultimately here,
The great secret of morals is love; or a going out of our own nature, and an identification of ourselves with the beautiful which exists in thought, action, or person, not our own. A man, to be greatly good, must imagine intensely and comprehensively; he must put himself in the place of another and of many others; the pains and pleasures of his species must become his own.
The great instrument of moral good is the imagination; and poetry administers to the effect by acting upon the cause. . . .
Poetry strengthens the faculty which is the organ of the moral nature of man, in the same manner as exercise strengthens a limb. (Shelley, op cit. 1032-33)
This day we commemorate all the saints who have gone before us, the blessed company of all faithful people. It is natural then to ask the questions, Who are the saints? And where do they come from?
To approach an answer I would like to tell a story that comes down to us from the earliest generations of monasticism in ancient Egypt. One of the abbas, the spiritual fathers of the desert monastic communities went to Abba Joseph of Panephysis, an old and saintly man. He said to him, “Abba, as far as I can I say my little office, I fast a little, I pray and meditate, I live in peace and as far as I can, I purify my thoughts. What else can I do?” In reply the old and saintly Abba Joseph, stood up and stretched his hands up toward heaven. His fingers shone like ten lamps of fire and he said to him, ‘If you wish, you can become all flame.’”
A saint is someone who has become all flame. We see this in today’s reading from the book of the revelation of Saint John. In his vision Saint John sees the assembly of the saints.
The elder addresses Saint John with the same questions I posed just now: Who are these? And where did they come from?
Notice what he does not say. The elder does not say, “These are they who achieved success.” He does not even say, “These are they who did more good deeds than bad deeds.”
He says: “They have washed their robes and made them white in the blood of the Lamb.” The Greek word “leukas” here translated as “white,” really means something else. It does not in the first instance mean white, like the color; it means bright.
Shining. Like flame. And the word “wash” doesn’t occur here at all. The word is literally “they brightened.” “These are they who have brightened their robes in the blood of the Lamb.”
In many ancient languages, Greek included, there are strong associations between brightness and liquid. To be bright is to shimmer, like fire, like light playing off the surface of water. In Hebrew the same verb “neher” means to shine, like fire, and to flow, like blood. The saints are those who shine like flame because they have been immersed in the blood of Christ.
Where have they come from? Saint John tells us they are a great multitude, innumerably many. They come from every nation, every tribe and people and tongue. And not just that: “They have come out of great tribulation.”
The Greek word here for “tribulation” means constriction or compression. The saints have been constricted. It’s the same word our Lord Jesus uses when in the Gospel of Matthew he asserts that the gate that leads to life is narrow and hard to enter. The word “hard” is formed from the same word here that Saint John uses, tribulation, which again just means constricting. The gate that leads to life is narrow, and it is hard to pass through because by passing through the narrow gate that leads to life you will have to be constricted.
The saints come from every nation and tribe and people and tongue, but they have one thing in common: They have been constricted. This is how saints are made. This is where they come from. Constriction is necessary for making saints, who are people who have been squeezed through the gate that leads to new life. When we are born into our natural lives we are constricted by our mother’s birth canal; we are squeezed so that we can be pushed into life. The same thing must happen for us to be born into new and eternal life; we have to pass through the narrow gate, we have to be constricted so that we can born anew as saints.
Just like our natural birth, that process of new birth is a painful and difficult one. We must be constricted though so that everything that does not truly belong to us can be stripped away. To become all flame is to have the dross of our lives, everything impure, everything unworthy, burned away. In our ignorance and rebelliousness we resist this constriction; we recoil at its painful difficulty.
A friend in Australia gave me a book when we found out that Tristan had special needs. This book was written with such brutal honesty, and it applied to my situation so precisely, that I literally could not stand to read more than a few pages a day. It’s a memoir, written by the father of an adopted son who suffered permanent brain injury as a result of a series of seizures in infancy; the son, a boy named Jake, was later diagnosed with autism and with mental disability and a host of other problems that made even the simplest daily activities a torment for him. Bath time was particularly upsetting for Jake and for his father. Jake would have to be stripped naked and dunked in the tub; he would thrash violently, lashing out in incomprehension and pain. Frustrated and exhausted by this daily ordeal, Jake’s father finally realized that dealing with his son was a perfect metaphor for how our Father in heaven must be put to the test by our rebellious outbursts.
Our Father in heaven just wants us to be clean, to be washed in the blood of his Son, to be baptized into water, into the Holy Spirit; he wants us to be holy like him, to become all flame. But we lash out against this, thrashing and flailing against what hurts us, what we don’t understand, like little broken Jake. One time though, Jake’s father tells us in his book, one time, Jake is ready to go into the tub on his own. He undresses and sinks into the tub of warm water calmly. He lies back and actually relaxes. He relaxes and is at peace. And his father looks at him, and he says specifically that it is in the play of the light on the surface of the water, in that shimmering, Jake’s father says it’s as if his son has no disabilities at all. He has been brightened.
All the saints are made this way. This is where they come from. They come from great constriction. They are squeezed under pressure. The saints are persecuted, tormented, harassed, fired from their jobs, kicked out of polite society. They are an embarrassment, a freak show, clowns and rejects and fools and martyrs.
When I was in high school I met a man at church who had been repeatedly arrested by the Romanian secret police for his relentless work as a Christian minister. In the interrogation room they had a row of bricks embedded in one corner at an oblique angle. That sharp ridge that stuck out from the corner of the room is where the police would try to split your skull open by driving you head first into the bricks with your hands cuffed behind your back so you couldn’t do anything to stop the force of the blow. The Romanian pastor had a bright red scar running down the center of his bald forehead. A permanent injury, there for all to see. But the look on his face was one of perfect peace. They arrested him because he would not stop preaching Jesus; and now his scarred body itself preached Jesus all the time.
Or what about the monk at the Grand Chartreuse monastery in Grenoble, France. After decades of daily prayer and worship, almost all of it in profound silence, he slowly went blind. When asked about his handicap he said, “I often thank God that he let me be blinded.” Not, “I have learned to cope with being blind;” not, “I guess I am OK with being blind;” no, “I thank God that he let me be blind.” And his sightless eyes shone with an unnatural light. Now all he could see was God.
Or consider one of the great martyrs, the bishop Polycarp, a disciple of the disciples of Christ himself. When threatened with death for his refusal to acclaim Caesar as a god and curse Christ, he said, “Eighty-six years have I served him, and he never did me any injury, how then can I blaspheme my King and Savior?” For this refusal he was burned alive at the stake before a screaming, infuriated, bloodthirsty mob; but witnesses to his execution attested that his body did not appear like burned flesh at all but rather like gold or silver, shining in a furnace. Liquid. Bright.
The saints go into the flames of martyrdom singing hymns and glorifying God because they already are on fire.
They shed their blood, but they were already shining, bathed with the blood of Christ.
At the dawn of human history blood was shed in anger and envy. And the blood of Abel called out to God from the ground.
God answered that cry by shedding his own blood. The blood of Christ was shed on the cross, and it soaked the ground outside Jerusalem, and from there it flooded the entire world.
The blood of Christ still cries out to this day, but it cries out not for vengeance, but for forgiveness, for peace, for meekness. The blood of Christ cries out with the same voice he raised on the cross itself, as he was dying, “Father, forgive them.” They hated that voice, they killed him for saying those words; the world hates that voice, the world lays violent hands on the saints who speak with the same voice, and it puts them to death for it.
“Blessed are the poor in spirit, blessed are those who mourn, blessed are the meek, blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, blessed are the merciful, blessed are the pure in heart, blessed are the peacemakers.” These words do not belong on a greeting card. They are not to be embroidered on a throw pillow. Because these words are written in blood.
Those who live by them do so because they have been brightened by the blood of the slaughtered lamb, whose death and resurrection opened a narrow gate to new life. The saints have been constricted through this narrow gate and have passed through to the other side, where everything foolish and maimed and broken shines with an unearthly brightness.
“Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness’s sake, blessed are you…”
Blessed are you. Blessed are you…when men revile you and persecute you and utter all kinds of evil against you falsely on my account. The saints are those who have been blessed for these reasons. And so it can be for us too. Jesus is speaking to his disciples on the mountain, but at the very end of this passage he is speaking to you too.
Because there are no special qualifications needed to be a saint. Anyone can do it. You know what words in this Gospel passage stun me every time? “Rejoice and be glad.” We don’t face much real persecution; it’s probably why there aren’t many saints around to inspire us. Beaten, blinded, burned alive: They rejoiced. They were glad. But we all suffer, and in whatever we are suffering, we can rejoice and be glad. And when we do we will look ridiculous and contemptible to the world, serene in our scars, at peace in our disfigured bodies, singing as all our filth is burned away.
You will notice that the Abba who came to Abba John for advice was doing all the right things already. He said his daily office and fasted and purified his thoughts. And Abba John didn’t tell him to stop doing those things. I would tell you to do the same. We should be saying our daily office and fasting and purifying our thoughts and if you want to know how to get in the game then come talk to me. But the goal is not to learn how to do more spiritual stuff or even do more good deeds. The goal is to turn into fire. Then we will be all rejoicing, all gladness, and like the saints before us, bathed in the blood of Christ, we will shine with his light.
Dear Family in Christ,
As we near Thanksgiving, the clergy and people of the Advent will be taking stock of the many blessings that God has given us both as individual Christians and as a parish family. And so I write to you—as the rectors of the Advent have written for 177 years—to ask you to make a declaration of your financial stewardship for the coming year.
With this letter, the parish Administrator will have enclosed a pledge card, which you are asked to return by Advent Sunday, our Feast of Title. Alternatively, you may pledge online at our website, www.theadventboston.org (click on the “Give” tab).
The Vestry and I are thankful for your financial giving this past year. We work very hard to be good stewards of your gifts.
This year has been filled with good news, despite very challenging circumstances. I know you to be a people who take our common life seriously. I know you to be committed to the mission and ministry of this parish church. The best news of all is that I know you want to be generous with God for the extension of his Kingdom at this time, and in this place.
Yours with every blessing,
Fr Douglas Anderson