Sermon Preached by the Rev’d Jay C. James at the Church of the Advent, March 15, 2020, the Third Sunday in Lent

The woman said to (Jesus), “I know that messiah is coming, he will show us all things.”  Jesus said to her, “I who speak to you am he.”

There is something in us that naturally draws us to water.  Beyond the physical need to have water when we thirst is a pull, an attraction, a deep desire to be near and enjoy water.  Maybe that’s why we treasure living in Boston. Here we have the pleasure of the inner harbor and the banks of the Charles.  This need to be near water has always been in us and is universal. Of course, we need to be near water to survive, but there is something more basic and elemental about being near bodies of water.  One of Massachusetts’ native sons and our thirty-fifth president, John F. Kennedy, knew well of the attraction of the sea. He and his family frequented their home in Hyannis on Cape Cod. He expressed love and desire to be near the sea in his address at a dinner for the America’s Cup crew in 1962:  I really don’t know why it is that all of us are so committed to the sea, except I think it’s because in addition to the fact that the sea changes, and the light changes, and ships change, it’s because we all came from the sea.  And it is an interesting biological fact that all of us have in our veins the exact same percentage of salt in our blood that exists in the ocean, and therefore, we have salt in our blood, in our sweat, in our tears. We are tied to the ocean.  And when we go back to the sea – whether it is to sail or to watch it – we are going back from whence we came. President Kennedy’s pull of the sea he attributes partly to biology but in his description we also easily sense a romance, a mystical quality to the sea and our being drawn to it.

There is a well of water in Sychar, Samaria, in the Gospel passage for today and it is to that well that we are drawn and hear the well-known exchange between Jesus and the Samaritan woman.  The attractions of the water here can be attributed to both material and spiritual phenomena. One could make the case that there is the physical thirst Jesus must have as He is on His hurried trip through Samaria.  It could be that thirst that has brought him to the well. This is similar to last week’s Gospel passage in which Nicodemus is questioning how one can be born again. Can he enter a second time into his mother’s womb and be born?  Beyond and above this literalism, there is also the spiritual desire of the woman at the well for the water of life, who is Jesus.  That attraction to the living water that is Jesus is the more powerful. It’s more authoritative because it feeds the woman with the truth.  

The pull of the supernatural and divine grace of Jesus is present and active in the Samaritan woman and it is that grace that converts her and moves her to bring others to see Jesus as the Savior.  We learn from this that in matters of religion, persons will be drawn by the supernatural. There has to be a sense of mystery in our worship lives just as there was a deep sense of mystery in the woman at the well concerning Jesus.  She declared to the people in the city, Come, see a man who told me all that I ever did.  Can this be the Christ?  She knew this man must be of divine origin because he was telling her things about her past even though this is their first meeting.  She would not have been amazed and awed by Jesus without that evidence of His divinity.  

We know it’s true here at the Advent.  We come here because there is a sense of mystery and awe and wonder in our worship.  That mystery lets us know that there is someone out there, for us it’s God Almighty, whom we need to have shed His supernatural grace on us.  We would not come here if the worship was just a reflection of what we see and experience all week long. We need to be drawn by the open space that makes us move our eyes upward to heaven.  The beauty of the art and architecture, the color, the music, the other-worldliness of the worship moves our hearts and minds to someone other than ourselves. As transcendent as God is shown to be in our worship, still He seems to know us intimately and we ask Him to come and love us personally.  Especially in these times of uncertainty visited on every one of us by the Coronavirus. Don’t we naturally look to the God who sees all, knows all, and will have the power to bring us through the crisis. At the same time, we want and need to know that He knows each of us and holds us in His heart.  In the end, we count on His mysterious and wondrous love to pull us through.  

It must have been the same for the woman at the well.  Two actions of Jesus let the women know that Jesus is no ordinary man:  He promises her water that will lead to everlasting life. Every one who drinks this water will thirst again, but whoever drinks of the water that I shall give him will never thirst; the water that I shall give him will become in him a spring of water welling up to eternal life.  Then he told her things about her life that could only be possible if someone could know her heart and soul.  In response to Jesus’ bidding the woman to get her husband she responded, I have no husband.  Jesus, having never met her, said, You are right in saying, ‘I have no husband’; for you have had five husbands, and he whom you now have is not your husband; this you said truly.  The woman is not ashamed or offended by this.  She is amazed and awe-struck and even overcome with joy.  She responds, Sir, I perceive that you are a prophet.  Jesus tells her the truth about herself.  She knows that Jesus sees her as she really is.  When she knows that He is the purveyor of the truth, she has a sense of joy and wonder and even freedom.  Jesus converts the woman and the conversion is so strong that she must run and tell others. 

The woman at the well becomes a convert.  She knows that the Messiah, in her words, …will show us all things.  Jesus had just shown her everything about herself and then declared, I who speak to you am he.  Like most excited converts she runs to share this new found truth and belief with those in the city and begins her work as an evangelist.  Many come out from the city to see Jesus when she bids them, Come, see a man who told me all that I ever did.  This shows the universality, the catholicity, the all-encompassing love and grace of Jesus Christ.  Everyone has a soul and Jesus sees down to the heart of it.  

So what do we do?  Where does that leave us?  It leaves us in the middle of Lent, working on our own souls.  Maybe asking ourselves the question, “When Jesus looks at me and sees down to my heart and soul, what will He find?”  He is the Way, the Truth, and the Life. Will He find me as I truly am supposed to be? If He finds things there that are not the way He wants me to be, can I have His grace help me make them right?  Part of the serious and important work of Lent is taking on Lenten disciplines. In setting aside the habits that are not helpful, and denying ourselves the things that are not necessary, we make opportunities to turn more to God.  The simple acts of our Lenten disciplines peel away layers of things that are not needful so we can concentrate on the things that matter to the soul. Praying at more frequent intervals. Not taking in foods that are not essential so we have more control of our bodies.  Opening the Scriptures for longer periods so the revelation of God in Christ comes to us. All these acts and more have the effect, with the correct attitude, of allowing Christ’s forgiving and healing grace to come into our souls and work His will.

What was good for the Samaritan woman is also good for us.  She was offered to drink from a spring of water welling up to eternal life.  When she, by faith, believed that Jesus is who He said He is, new life-giving water was given to her.  In Jesus she found that the endless supply from that well lasts until it brings her to eternal life. More of the Good News is that everyone can have that water.  Everyone is drawn to the water of life much like we’re drawn to the sea. It doesn’t matter who we are, the water from the well of life is necessary and open to all.  At the well a Samaritan woman was converted just like the Jewish disciples of Jesus were converted.  Later the same conversion is open to the Gentiles.  We find that the wellspring of life is for everyone and that’s why the believing Samaritans from the city declare Jesus the Savior of the world.  

In the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost.  Amen.

Sermon Preached by the Rev’d Canon Alistair Macdonald-Radcliff at the Church of the Advent, March 8, 2020, the Second Sunday in Lent

In the name of God the Father, Son and Holy Ghost. Amen.

The third chapter in the Gospel of St John is remarkably dense with reference and theological significance –and one verse –sixteen—almost sums up the entire Gospel:

For God so loved the world, that he gave his only begotten Son, that whosoever believeth in him should not perish, but have everlasting life.

Then, besides that monumentally clear declaration,  setting out that we have only to believe in him to enjoy eternal life, much of the rest of the chapter is taken up with the story of the fascinating if slightly strange encounter with Nicodemus.

Few of the subsidiary figures in the Gospels have occasioned as much scholarly interest,  however, as Nicodemus in the Gospel of St john (which speaks of him uniquely as he is absent from the Synoptic tradition) and he is manifestly a puzzling, enigmatic figure, for he only appears three times and in a manner that seems to leave much unresolved

He appears early in the Gospel, as we hear today, with a rather tentative profession of faith of a sort in Christ  (3:1-21) “we know that thou art a teacher come from God’. Then there is the second appearance by Nicodemus in chapter 7 (45-52) where he, again somewhat tentatively he defends Jesus before his fellow Pharisees and gets another rebuff,  albeit much more forceful.  Finally, in chapter 19 he appears at Jesus’ tomb with that other curious and ambivalent figure,  namely Joseph of Arimathea, this time saying nothing at all —but disconcertingly– bearing a truly vast quantity of burial spices  (v 38 onwards) such as might be used for embalming,  though that was not a Jewish practice.              

All of this means that, as one commentator put it, Nicodemus “appears in the narrative often enough to evoke curiosity, but not…often enough to satisfy it”.            

And on top of that enigma,  there is the further question of just where to place him in the great divide between who have true faith and those who do not which so defines the other figures in the Gospel.   And here it is of interest to note that through the course of history some readings of him yield a positive assessment and others do not.  The Eastern Orthodox and Oriental churches hold him to be a Saint as does the Roman Catholic church which venerates him together with Joseph of Arimathea on August 31st. [1]And the overall picture we have of him in all his tentativeness invites reflection on what it took to convince him, what kind of evidence did he need?

_____________

One of the great temptations – to which our culture ever more readily invites us at such times as those when our faith may falter —is  to suppose that if only we had more empirical evidence about the person and reality of Christ, faith would all be so much easier – much perhaps as we think of the Apostle Thomas desiring empirical proof after the crucifixion and resurrection.

Indeed, to the modern mind, the gold standard would presumably be to have access to a live video of the Resurrection, either from CNN or Fox news –for then all would be well, many might suppose and the truth would be clear.

But just pause for a moment and think about that whole line of thought. What could such a video actually show – be it of the Resurrection or even some other miracle that Christ performed? As soon as one asks that question, it becomes evident that the key problem would in fact remain–no matter how good the hi-definition images might be, and however impressive the number of pixels at work on your wall-to-wall television screen–and that question is about the meaning of what happened and certainly not the image of it                                                                                                                         

Thus do we see that the issue of the meaning and what it was that actually happened are shown to be inextricably entwined.[2]

But looking at the matter more theologically,  one can see much of this thinking as lying behind the periodically recurring quests to discover ‘the historical Jesus”.[3]

Moreover,  theologically, one can even say that the motivating thought behind the quest for the historical Jesus is fundamentally Nestorian.   (And that is not a compliment)

This is because such a project assumes that there was ultimately a human person, Jesus, in or through whom,  the Son of God became present to this world and that it was this human person who could be and was known like any other man which carries the implication that it is upon the encounter with the merely human Christ that we should, and indeed must, actually rely

But this is very much not the Gospel view, for the Gospels are deeply, Chalcedonian in this regard. (And that saying this is a compliment, for it references the Council of Chalcedon which emphasised the complete and perfect unity of the two natures in one hypostasis of Christ.

And just for the record, Nestorianism was an early church heresy that stands in contrast to the orthodox teachings of Chalcedon[4]  and — if I may indulge in a few brief technicalities for a moment: 

Nestorius (who lived from 386–450), was no less a figure than a Patriarch of Constantinople from 428 to 431, and was influenced in his thought about how best to understand Christ by the Christological teachings of that old friend of John Chrysostom, the wonderfully named Theodore of Mopsuestia of the (Middle) School of Antioch. But Nestorius reached the point that he and his followers opposed the concept of hypostatic union (i.e. of individual existence/substance, of person) and emphasized instead that the two natures (human and divine) of Jesus Christ were joined by will rather than personhood.   A perspective which yields a Christological position that can be defined as one of radical dyophysitism –for those who like grand historic names for their heresies.   This line of thought –as so often— stood  as one end of a heretical polarity with, at the opposite end, the error known as Monophysitism which held that Christ  had but a single nature, his human nature being absorbed into his divinity.)[5] 

But with all that said, in saying then that the Gospels are Chalcedonian I mean that they affirm that Jesus Christ,   the person who taught, suffered and ultimately died was actually,  in the fullness of his reality (which is to say as both perfectly human and fully divine) ultimately such as to transcend all human categories. In fact he would have to do so in order to be adequate,  not merely to the claims made of him,  but in order for him to participate fully in the triune Godhead, in which lies the ultimate cause of all of creation outside of itself.

But that fulness of reality in Christ, (i.e. as divine) could not be grasped or comprehended in a human way ultimately at all, though his life and person was such—the Gospels show–  as to ground the beliefs of his followers a body of affirmations which we capture in the Creeds and statements of faith, and thus affirm as true  – even though the full meaning of what is entailed in those affirmations and in order for those propositions to be true, is more than we can possibly know in this life, short of the beatific vision of the world to come.

All of this entails, that there was a sense in which the person of Jesus was recognized by those who were closest to him,  as somehow always transcending their reach when considered  in its fullness.

Thus it can be said that the more they got to know of him the more they realised that their knowledge was incommensurate (which is to say inadequate) to its object.

Knowing him thus was not something that comprised merely an enriching of one’s own life by sharing perceptions of another; it was ultimately to begin to approach seeing Him and the whole (of his) creation sub specie aeternitatis – from the perspective of eternity—And to embark on that level of understanding is to embark in a sense upon the threshold of eternal life; for it was an adumbration made possible by the Holy Spirit of seeing him, whom no one has ever seen,  namely God the Father[6].

But getting back to that point about the ultimate impossibility of (or perhaps it would be better to say an ultimately misguided) the quest for the historical Jesus, this can be held to have a rather surprising corollary. This is that from the Gospel perspective we are invited and enabled to capture the specific, and unrepeatable historical events of his life by means of  identifying ourselves with those individuals presented to us in the Gospels and who thus witness to us the deeds of Christ.  In other words, it is not so much a quest for the historical Jesus that should engage us but rather a quest for the historical followers of Christ that we are instead more truly called.

The Resurrection indeed stands as a cardinal, or hinge concept, as well as utterly fundamental reality in all this, for it stands in a three-way relationship both to them and to us, and through them, to Christ.   The Resurrection would be nothing but a day dream, even for his closest followers,  if not for the encounter they had with the risen Christ.

Thus it could be nothing but a day dream for us,  if not for the encounter with the words and deeds of Christ, that they make possible for us,  through them,  as we identify ourselves with them.

This is something that goes beyond mere empathy, for we are enabled thereby to experience (as re-presented to us in an instance of anamnesis) something of the impact of what they experienced –as we apprehend what the Gospels set forth.

For this reason,  it has been well said that

“If we take the Gospels on their own terms, try to enter into the intentions of the Evangelists, and let their story work on us in the way that its authors meant it to, Gospel-reading (and a fortiori Gospel Commentary) will be a quest not for the historical Jesus, but for the historical Peter, James and John,”[7] and all the apostles as well as his other New Testament disciples and followers. 

Deposition of Christ or The lamentation over the Dead Christ (the Bandini Pieta), 1547-55, by Michelangelo
(who is generally understood to have offered likeness of himself in the guise of Nicodemus)

But what then of Nicodemus?

The characters in the Gospels are sometimes understood as symbols or even mere allegorical representations. And in such a perspective Nicodemus can stand for the Pharisaism and the established Judaism of his day, just as the Samaritan woman for Samaritanism and the paralytic could stand for mankind, unable to save itself. But such an approach must be untrue to the historic immediacy of the Gospels themselves,  while Christ at no point is interested in movements, schools of thought or “isms” of any kind,  but rather only and always with individual people. 

Nonetheless, there is a sense in which the Samaritan woman is still with us and so is Nicodemus for he has been present as was once said from ‘….the Academies of the ancient world, and the salons of seventeenth century France, in College common-rooms and TV discussion programmes today”.  And in fact it is quite easy for many of us actually to identify with Nicodemus.

So let us look again to the context and today’s Gospel.

This was a conversation that took place fairly early in the public ministry of Christ  before the Sanhedrin had begun to take any official action (John 7: 50), but even so Nicodemus finds it more expedient to meet by night –which conveys a suggestion of something private, or even furtive about it.

Is it not all too easy to recognize in Nicodemus here the stereotypical cautious public figure wanting to do the right thing but nonetheless unwilling to commit himself or get himself involved. 

Then again there is more than a hint here that night enables Nicodemus to avoid committing himself and to deceive himself into thinking that he can have some of the advantages of faith without paying the full price. Thus does the night both hide Nicodemus’ contact with Christ from others but also it hides him from himself.

Yet the somewhat jarring dialogue with Jesus disrupts any such delusions, far from having his learning acknowledged and tastefully advanced in a dialogue enriched with Socratic method,  Nicodemus is told bluntly that no matter what learning he has laboriously acquired before,  he must start again now and go back to the very beginning.

Far from being invited into an elegant debate about ideas,  he is presented with a challenge that is almost offensively personal and particular,  and one that is set out in an almost shocking imagery of his needing to be reborn in the manner of a baby.  What he needs is a child-like heart unprotected by the elaborate and ultimately self-defeating defences and sophistical subtleties of Rabbinic wisdom.

Yet for all the implied insult, Nicodemus responds graciously, albeit with a degree of subtle irony,  by asking simply “How can a man be born when he is old?”

He would have known well that the prophets had declared that God could and would raise even dry bones to life (as set out in Ezek. 37: 1-4) And that God could give a new heart and a new spirit to his people (Ezek. 36: 26). But it was still not unreasonable to ask how these wonders were to come about – which is the point made by his question.    Can Jesus Christ seriously be saying that all the discipline,  good habits, right impulses and judgements are to be scrapped, and that an educated, decent and pious man in mid-career has to start from scratch all over again?

But Christ’s answer is uncompromising: if rebirth is to mean anything it must involve a kind of death.  Nicodemus may retain the mature wisdom of the tradition of the learned rabbis of the people of Israel but he must place no reliance on all that in the end,  for it cannot leave him aright with God or “save” him. Form in terms the Kingdom of God all this is utterly irrelevant.

For such is not just a matter of incremental behavioral improvement, or even a change of heart, but instead something far more radical,  namely total transformation and complete commitment in short,  a whole new creation. This is something far beyond well laid plans and piously implemented intentions. Moreover it is, as birth is to a baby, a gift conferred, something that happens to us, not something we do.

And if you see here at once an echo of baptism you are right.

Nicodemus is thus implicitly but bluntly presented with his need for the sacraments: water and the Holy Spirit.

Why not water alone, he might have wondered? After all,  would it not be enough that a man turn from his past life and, say, by some symbolic act (like the baptism of John) declare simply a firm resolve to lead a new life? But the answer is no, because man cannot forgive any sins –least of all his own. In the deepest sense he cannot create new life for himself. None of us can restore a right relation to God on his own.

But why not then Spirit alone?

For surely God does not require water in order to confer new life? No again, but we do –by virtue of what it is to be human– in order to receive it.

Pure spirits cut off from the rest of Creation, might experience death or rebirth as some kind of purely internal private event. But for incarnate creatures that are of flesh and blood, rebirth is appropriately enacted through a physical act that speaks to our incarnate nature.

The physicality of Christianity –with its sacraments–  reminds us that it is not just a philosophy,  or a collection of more or less interesting religious views, but instead a life that is always of, and lived out within,  the community that is the people of God, which is his Church.

Discipleship is not some mere frame of mind, or intermittent disposition or “lifestyle choice” like some kind of tasteful “exterior décor” of the person. Rather it involves belonging to the church militant.   As Augustin put it tartly,  to one who had expressed himself piously as favourably disposed to Christianity —philosophically speaking—  “I shall not count you as a Christian until I see you in the Church of Christ’ (Confessions 8, 2)

And still we have that wondering sentiment of Nicodemus who muses about all this: “how can this be?” 

And if Jesus seems almost harsh in his response it is important to remember how much of what he was saying should have resonated to a man as learned in scripture as Nicodemus.

He should readily have recalled that the prophet Ezekiel, once again,  had prophesied that in some unspecified future time God would sprinkle clean water upon his people and give them and new heart and new spirit. (Ezek. 36: 22-32).

So this should have been a conceptualization that might have been expected to receive immediate recognition, understanding and acceptance from this “this famous teacher of Israel”. But instead he raises difficulties.

Moreover such difficulty in accepting the basic imagery of rebirth would have to auger ill for the capacity of Nicodemus to accept that the agent of this needed new birth was none other than the Son of God taking human flesh and then being lifted up so that “whoever believes in him may have eternal life”. 

But then great mysteries of the incarnation and redemption carry their own conviction among those who will allow themselves to be reached and saved. In the words Simeon had prophesied to Mary, Behold this child is set for the fall and rising of many in Israel….that thoughts out of many hearts may be revealed (Luke 2:34-5).

It is then at a quite late stage that  St John introduces for the first time in his Gospel the term the potentially terrifying word ‘judgement’. But this is understood in a characteristic and unique way.  For here, it is not primarily a sentence passed on us by Christ at some future occasion, or at the end of time, but rather something that the sinner brings on himself by rejection and a falling back into his darkness and a pulling away from the kindly light of Christ and his Cross – and it that reality of the Cross that judges us.

Yet for ultimately, all the hesitancy and ambiguity present in the Nicodemus presented to us in today’s Gospel,  it is not the end of that story.

For much later in the Gospel we see,  however quietly,  that in the end the cautious, sensible, self-reliant Nicodemus emerges again and slips back into the narrative after the crucifixion when he comes to the tomb.

This time he has no need to speak at all, for his actions are perhaps far more eloquent than his words ever were, for now we see him as one who has found the Cross and understood its meaning for the reality of who Christ was and is, after all.

In between that last appearance and the Gospel today when the Sanhedrin first sets in motion Christ’s judicial murder, it was Nicodemus alone who spoke,  however cautiously,  in the name of decency and justice (7: 50-I), and it is after the Crucifixion, when darkness appears to have been triumphant, that St John’s Gospel presents him as one no longer ashamed to be numbered openly among the disciples.

This means that for him in the end when it really counted it was it was at last no longer night.

So too must we pray —  in this season of personal reflection and preparation—that it will be at the last for each of us. Amen.


[1] But not everyone has taken such a view, see the work of Dorothy L  Sayers (1943), The Man Born to Be King: A Play-Cycle on the Life of Our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ, Written for Broadcasting , discussed in an unpublished paper by Margaret

[2] Lurking in the background there is of course a philosophical issue about the very possibility of uninterpreted experience —which I shall leave to one side– beyond saying that in my view the answer to a doubt about that possibility would be “yes”.

[3] A line of thought which actually goes back further than the time of Albert Schweitzer even if he most famously launched an explicit search framed thus in relatively recent times.

[4] A background that comes readily mind, given that I recently had occasion to address the subject of heresies and how to choose your own,  in a Theology on Tap event recently here in Boston for which I had a handy little list of 50 or so we could explore – another time!

[5] A brief definition of Nestorian Christology has been given as holding: “Jesus Christ, who is not identical with the Son but personally united with the Son, who lives in him, is one hypostasis and one nature: human.”[ Martin Lembke, Centre for Theology and Religious Studies, Lund University, 2010.] This contrasts with Nestorius’ own teaching that the Word, which is eternal, and the Flesh, which is not, came together in a hypostatic union, ‘Jesus Christ’, Jesus thus being both fully man and God, of two ousia (Ancient Greek: οuσία) but of one prosopon.[

Nestorius. The Bazaar of Heracleides] Both Nestorianism and Monophysitism were condemned as heretical at the Council of Chalcedon.

[6] Cf. John 14: 9; Jesus saith unto him, Have I been so long time with you, and yet hast thou not known me, Philip? he that hath seen me hath seen the Father; and how sayest thou then, Shew us the Father?, 1: 18, 1 7: 3.

[7] Laurence Cantwell, “The Quest for the Historical Nicodemus”, Religious Studies, Vol. 16, No. 4 (Dec. 1980), pp. 481-486.

Sermon Preached by the Rev’d Dr Jeffrey Hanson at the Church of the Advent, March 1, 2020, the First Sunday in Lent

There are two things going on in today’s Gospel that I think need to be distinguished. The Lord Jesus is fasting, and he is being tempted. These are two different sorts of experience that we often conflate but that should be kept separate from each other.

Jesus is in the desert fasting for 40 days at the prompting of the Holy Spirit. This is a good thing, it is of God, and it strengthens him for what is to come in his ministry.

At the end of this period he is tempted by the devil. This is a bad thing. The devil does this, and the devil’s malicious intent is to weaken and distract him from his ministry.

Being tested and being tempted are not the same thing. In fact, I think we can say that Jesus being tested is what makes him ready to face being tempted.

And this is not unusual in the Scriptures. Israel as a chosen people was tested in the desert for 40 years; Jesus is simply repeating this same pattern, and we know this because in every temptation he eventually faces he quotes from the book of Deuteronomy to thwart the devil, and Deuteronomy is a reflection on Israel’s sojourn in the desert right before entering the land of promise.

I quote from chapter 8, where Moses is addressing the people: “You shall remember all the way which the Lord your God has led you these forty years in the wilderness, that he might humble you, testing you to know what was in your heart, whether you would keep his commandments, or not. And he humbled you and let you hunger and fed you with manna, which you did not know, nor did your fathers know; that he might make you know that man does not live by bread alone, but that man lives by everything that proceeds out of the mouth of the Lord.”

This I suggest is our way in to understanding Jesus’ experience of testing because it is his way of understanding it. These verses from Deuteronomy are obviously on his mind since he casts them in the devil’s face when he is eventually tempted.

Israel was tested in the desert for 40 years by God to try their hearts, to see if they would keep God’s commandments and be worthy of their calling to be God’s witness to the nations. During that time God fed Israel with the food of angels, manna, to show to them that no one lives by earthly bread alone but by God’s sustenance and provision.

At the end of the 40 days of fasting, only then, does temptation come. It is only then in fact that Jesus feels hungry, that is, feels the effects of his having been tested.

And let’s try to be very clear about what exactly the devil’s temptation consists in. I think it’s everything to do with this insidious little word, “If.” This is how the devil always works; his only power is that of deception, and he uses it to undercut our confidence in the promises of God. Jesus has just heard, in the immediately prior verse to this reading, God the Father himself proclaiming from heaven, “This is my beloved Son.”

What could be clearer? Yet no sooner does that happen than the devil right away begins playing his games of nasty insinuation. “Are you really the Son of God? Did God the Father really say he loved you?” “If you are the Son God, then why not prove it?”

Now normally this temptation to turn stones into bread is interpreted as an enticement to gratuitously display supernatural power: If you are the Son of God then do a magic trick. I think that may be part of it, but I don’t think that’s the whole explanation.

Jesus’s answer to the devil, which again comes straight out of Deuteronomy, tells the whole story. The reason Jesus refuses to turn stones to bread is not so much because he refuses to do a magic trick but because he is reliant on the promises of God to provide what he needs. To say as Jesus does that we live by everything that proceeds from the mouth of God is to say that we live by the promises of the Father. The point of his answer is that he doesn’t need to provide himself with bread because God has promised that one way or another, even when it seems like our need is very great, God will provide us with everything we require.

It is I suggest precisely the same issue that is at stake in the second temptation our Lord faces, which again is couched in this cynical hypothetical tone: “If you are the Son of God, throw yourself down” from the pinnacle of the temple.

Once again, the whole story here only comes into clarity if we read Jesus’ response against he background of Deuteronomy, which again Jesus quotes verbatim but incompletely: “You shall not tempt the Lord your God” comes now from chapter 6, where Moses tells the people of Israel, “You shall not put the Lord your God to the test, as you tested him at Massah.”

So what is that? Well, it’s a place and a place of some import during Israel’s journey though the desert. It was there that the people of Israel complained that they had no water to drink and condemned Moses for having led them out of Egypt to their graves. When Moses appeals to the Lord, God commands him to strike a rock with the same staff that was instrumental in the plagues of Egypt, and water in abundance bursts forth from the rock. Moses then names the place where God wrought this miracle “Massah,” which in Hebrew just means “testing,” and he names it this because he says there the children of Israel found fault with God and “put the Lord to the test by saying, ‘Is the Lord among us or not?’” The miracle at Massah proves that the Lord is with his people and that he will provide what they need.

So, when Jesus tells the devil that he will not put God his Father to the test what he means is that he will not question whether God his Father is with him, and he will once more instead trust God to provide what he needs.

The devil’s last try casts aside all subtlety and goes right for the jugular: “Worship me, and I will give you all the kingdoms of the world and their glory.” Once more Jesus’s answer recalls a verse from Deuteronomy: “You shall fear the Lord your God and serve him only.”

At this time Satan departs, and Matthew tells us that angels came and ministered to Jesus. I suspect this too is a deliberate reference to Israel’s experience in the desert, when they ate manna, the food of angels, as we have just been reminded by our Lord’s first reference to Deuteronomy. The Greek word translated here as “ministered” is “diekonoun,” which is where we get our word “deacon.” The most literal meaning of this term is someone who serves by waiting at table, providing food. Since Jesus is now hungry, I think it likely Matthew is telling us that angels brought food to our Lord upon his routing of the devil’s three-fold temptation.

If I am right, then notice something very interesting. In the end Jesus gets from his Father exactly what the devil promises and yet cannot deliver himself. The devil tempts Jesus to eat bread, and God provides him with bread from heaven. The devil tempts Jesus to summon angels from heaven, and God sends angels to minister to him. What about the last one though? Satan promises Jesus authority over the whole world. This too is not his to deliver, but God does crown Jesus the beloved Son with authority over all things. Just not yet.

Because there is one final temptation that Jesus must resist. It comes much later and not from the devil himself but from someone who is speaking diabolically. This final temptation has that same telltale formula: “If you are the Son of God…”

Matthew, chapter 27, verse 40. The witnesses to our Lord’s crucifixion put one last temptation before him. “If you are the Son of God, come down from the cross.”

Jesus successfully resists temptation three times at the very beginning of his ministry. And once more at the end.

And he is able to do so I think because he trusts God from beginning to end.

When Jesus has won the final victory over Satan, over death, and has been raised by the Father to new life, then and only then does he claim for himself what the devil vainly promised in exchange for forsaking God, dominion over all things: Matthew 28, the risen Lord Jesus’s final words to his disciples: “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me…and lo, I am with you always, to the close of the age.”

Those words of promise are the ones we should trust in when facing our own temptations and difficulties. Jesus Christ trusted in the Father who called Israel to be his own people and who promised to be faithful and loving to them. That same heavenly Father is made fully known to us in his Son, Jesus Christ. And he has promised us that he will be with us forever.

Lent is a time to remind ourselves of this truth. We do this by imitating our Lord’s life and practice. Jesus begins his ministry and readies himself for temptation by 40 days of fasting. The church wisely asks us to do the same and for the same reason: Fasting prepares us for the challenges of ordinary life and draws us closer to God in trust. We forgo things we are accustomed to providing for ourselves in order to tangibly live out our belief that ultimately all things come from God. We part with our needless possessions to demonstrate our confidence that God will give us whatever we really need. And we redouble our commitment to prayer and spiritual discipline because this proves to ourselves that are not just physical beings with physical needs but spiritual creatures who require relationship with our maker to be fulfilled.

The Lenten way is the Lord’s own way. If we will follow it, we will endure our own tests, vanquish our temptations, and share in the final victory that Jesus Christ has won on our behalf. Amen.

Sermon Preached by the Rev’d Jay C. James at the Church of the Advent, Sunday, February 16, 2020, the Sixth Sunday after the Epiphany

There is a logical and beautiful flow at the beginning of the Sermon on the Mount. I don’t know if it’s the logic that makes it beautiful or if the beauty is in its logic. It does not matter. We really should read the whole of chapter five to get the natural movement. It starts from the description of those in heaven or headed for heaven in the Beatitudes. Then we have a description of what the believer is like and we had that helpful illustration last week from Father Anderson of how we need to be salt and light, but useful salt and light. The Sermon then flows into the type and amount of righteousness required to be part of God’s Kingdom by keeping His Law. Finally, we have the ultimate end and purpose of keeping the Law, the way Jesus wants it kept, and that the ultimate end and purpose of the Law is heaven and perfection. It’s wonderfully affirming and confirming. To receive the benefit of this movement Chapter Five ought to be read from the beginning to the end all at once. Our lectionary breaks it up into three Sundays of Gospel readings so I am going to go back and use the verses from the Gospel we heard last week because we need to hear those verses again to learn how to keep the Law or the Ten Commandments. Jesus preaches, Think not that I have come to abolish the law and the prophets; I have come not to abolish them but to fulfill them. For truly I say to you, till heaven and earth pass away, not an iota, not a dot, will pass from the law until all is accomplished. “…until all is accomplished; that “accomplishment” is when Christ has come and claimed His Kingdom, or it could be when believers enter fully the joy of His Kingdom. “…all is accomplished.”

All is accomplished by keeping God’s Law. Everyone hearing the sermon was aware of that. Jesus’ teaching about keeping the Law is to keep it not as the scribes and Pharisees had been keeping it. He teaches that it can be kept in a much more complete, encompassing, and yes, fulfilling way. It seems that the scribes and the pharisees had fallen into keeping the letter of the Law and forgetting that the purpose of the Law was to love God and love our neighbors in the right way. When concentrating on keeping all the correct rites and ceremonies they had forgotten the true meaning and purpose of the Law. In their way of keeping the Law they had left behind the justice, mercy, love and peace that are the reasons God gave them the Law in the beginning. It was out of love for His people that God gave them the Law so they could love Him back in the right way.

Before we cast a doubtful and critical eye on the Pharisees and scribes, because we think we hear Jesus criticizing them, we do well to realize how easily we too can fall into the same practice, at least I know I can. I remember having to deal with the same problem when I was called on jury duty. I was called to sit on a jury that needed to hear the case of a man accused of driving under the influence. This is dealing with the civil law and not the moral law of the Ten Commandments, but the principle is the same. The man on trial was accused of being under the influence of alcohol while he was driving. I listened to the case and in the end voted with the rest of the jury members and acquitted him. I found myself sticking to the letter of the law and not holding to the spirit of the law.

It seems the man was indeed legally drunk while he was in his car. The car was running, he was sitting behind the steering wheel, and was just about to put the car in reverse to move the car. The police arrested him, charged him with driving under the influence, and brought him to trial. We voted as a jury to acquit. It seems that the way the law was written in North Carolina at the time, established that unless the car moves even a few inches then the driver is not driving. In this case the car never moved.

So in keeping the technical definition of driving under the influence, I found myself being somewhat self-satisfied that I could have a hand in giving the man a new start. I could free him from living under the stigma of being convicted of this drunk and driving charge. The problem is I never really felt good about getting the man off on a technicality. I think it’s because the true purpose of the laws concerning driving under the influence or driving while intoxicated is the compassion, concern, and safety of the people in the community and the safety and concern of the driver. We the jury probably did the man no favor by letting him off. In actual practice the man was going to move the car. He was going to place himself and those around him in danger. In keeping the technical definition of the law, we did not improve the quality of the welfare and care for the people of the community. Where is the love, mercy, peace, and justice in that?

It is very easy to read Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount and think that Jesus is setting aside these Ten Commandments and replacing them with His own interpretation. He is not. He teaches that He fulfills them. Think not that I have come to abolish the law and the prophets; I have come not to abolish them but to fulfill them. He wants them kept because they are the result and proof of God’s love for us. He doesn’t want them kept just outwardly or easily by meeting particular ceremonial obligations. Jesus is teaching that to love God the Law must be kept from the heart first. It reminds me of the Prophet Jeremiah prophesying about the restoration of Israel and the new covenant God would make. …this is the covenant which I will make with the the house of Israel after those days, says the Lord: I will put my law within them, and I will write it upon their hearts; and I will be their God, and they shall be my people. Jesus is indeed fulfilling both the Law and the Prophets.

How does this work? How is this different from the way the Pharisees and scribes were keeping the Law? Faith is the answer. Do you remember from the very end of last week’s Gospel passage Jesus let’s everyone know the amount of righteousness required to be part of the kingdom of heaven? I tell you, unless your righteousness exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven. This is because unless the Law is kept first by faith. There is no amount of actions, no amount of material sacrifices, no amount of good thoughts that will allow the Commandments to be kept. To keep the Law, it takes the grace of faith first.

If we think about faith in God being that act of mind and spirit that accepts God’s Word and then submitting one’s life to its control, then we have the means to be in a right relationship with God. The faith of Abraham jumps out as such a powerful example of how the grace of faith moves the believer into right action. Can you imagine what faith Abraham must have had in being so trusting in God’s Word to him that he would offer his son Isaac? Abraham put his faith in God so unsparingly and moved into the action that God asked him to take. In the end Abraham was relieved of having to take that unimaginable step of purposely sacrificing his own child, but how strong a faith is it that moves someone like Abraham? God supplied a ram to be sacrificed in place of Isaac, and the illustration with which we are left is how strong a faith there is in a man like Abraham and therefore how righteous.

For us, the means of receiving the grace of that righteousness that is faith in Jesus Christ. It is only by faith in Jesus’ once-for-all sacrifice that allows the goodness of God’s grace to forgive our sins and then the Law can be kept. Jesus teaches that at the heart of the Commandments, “Thou shalt not kill” and “Thou shalt not commit adultery” are anger, lust, and hatred. Those are the sins that keep the Commandments, at least the Sixth and Seventh Commandments, from being kept. Before any of the Commandments can be kept, before any of the Law can be kept, the sin that is at the root of disobedience to the Law must be confronted. Jesus is truly teaching a more all-encompassing, a more exacting, or more fulfilling way of keeping the Law. They must be kept first inwardly.

Who is there that has not had to face these sins of anger, hatred, and lust. We can rely on the grace of Christ freely given by faith in Him to face and have those sins forgiven. We can move from acting on our anger in particular first by asking God to take it away. Please God, take away the anger that I have toward my loved one. Take away the anger that I have toward my neighbor, or the government, or toward You. God can and sometimes simply take it away. Pray, and I mean truly pray, for the person with whom you are truly angry. Really place the life of the person who is the object of your anger in the hands of God. It can be amazing how, if you truly pray for someone, you see them in a different light. I think it’s because you begin to see them as someone God loves. Ask God to help you step away, be slow to anger. In facing anger, hatred, and even lust in this way the possibility of meekness, that opposite of anger, will be shown forth. Remember, the meek are listed in the Beatitudes as the ones who will inherit the earth.

Why? Where are we going? What are we doing? Remember if we read the whole of chapter five we come to the fulfillment, the accomplishment. For truly, I say to you, till heaven and earth pass away, not an iota, not a dot, will pass from the law until all is accomplished. We have gone from knowing how we are supposed to be: that is Blessed ones from the Beatitudes. We have learned that faith in Christ is the means to righteousness by living a life in accord with God’s Law. Now we can go on to the accomplishment. The movement is complete with heaven. We are looking for Christ to accomplish His work of coming from heaven and claiming His Kingdom. Those who are part of the Kingdom by loving Him according to His Law will be claimed by Him forever.

His grace and love are here for us even now as they will be when He comes again. Just as we pray in the collect for today, …grant us the help of thy grace, that in keeping thy commandments we may please thee both in will and deed, through Jesus Christ our Lord,…We can live and love God as He would have us. All the time we are keeping the Law we are being directed, pointed, and conformed to heaven. Father John Saward has written a book that defines the Catholic doctrine of heaven called “Sweet and Blessed Country”. In that book he explains the teachings of the Catholic Church about heaven using the images from a fifteenth century altarpiece in Avignon, France. There are many moving descriptions from the Early Church Fathers and the Medieval Doctors and one in particular from Saint Augustine that describes our seeking of heaven. Let us, then lodge in the inn of this life as passing pilgrims, not as permanent possessors. Eternal are the blessings that await us: life everlasting, the incorruption and immortality of flesh and soul, the fellowship of the angels, the heavenly city, honour without end, the Father and the Fatherland, the Father without death, the Fatherland without foe.

It is there in heaven that the movement ends and is fulfilled. Jesus has taken us in His Sermon on the Mount from showing us who will be in heaven – The Blessed Ones. He has shown us how to allow the grace of righteousness to enter and live in His Kingdom by loving the Law, and ultimately to be with Him in heaven where all things are accomplished.

In the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost. Amen.

Sermon Preached by the Rev’d Daphne B. Noyes at the Church of the Advent, Sunday, January 26, 2020, the Third Sunday after the Epiphany

Today’s gospel contains a message about vocation, about calling. Well, it contains many messages about many things, but let’s focus on vocation. The vocation of four fishermen, and you and me, and the Church of the Advent.

When Jesus encounters the four fishermen, is there anything remarkable about them? At that point in their lives, probably not. They were just guys with boats and nets and mouths to feed and skills they had inherited or been taught, skills at which they might have excelled or might not. I suspect Jesus called to them based more on their potential than on their accomplishment. This is good news for all of us: Jesus is not looking for what you’ve done in the world but is counting on you for what you can join him in doing.

Once they heard the voice of Jesus, I imagine it wasn’t simply a matter of “Follow me.” — “Oh, okay.” There was a bit of conversation that ensued; and here is a blank page in the story — an empty space where each one of us can reflect on the particularities of what happens in our lives when we hear that voice, or, better yet, feel the ineffable tug that comes from being called.

Remarkably, all four of these people, just as they are, follow after this stranger who interrupts their daily routine. All that is asked of them at this point is simply that they follow: as they are, from where they are, being who they are. As is true for the followers of Jesus who come after them, the meaning of their choice will unfold only over time.

The questions or doubts or hopes or fears of those fishermen and so many others (including you and me) — as compelling or disturbing or inspiring as those factors might be — are not really the point here. Rather, no matter what the response is to hearing that voice or feeling that tug, it must inevitably lead to the realization that if God speaks to us at all in this world, if God speaks anywhere, it is into our personal lives. The words of the psalmist bear this out: “You have searched me out and known me … you discern my thoughts from afar.”

One way to think about vocation is as the possibly overlooked place where neither function (what do you do) nor identity (who are you) alone can carry the fulness of your being.

The theologian Frederick Beuchner has written, “Vocation is the place where our deep gladness meets the world’s deep need.” This paints a pretty rosy picture of vocation: “deep gladness” is a characterization with which some — including me — might quibble. But none could argue that the world is not a place of deep need. The desire to respond to that deep need led to the founding of this parish 175 years ago. It was conceived not as a shrine but as a place that existed theologically before it existed physically. One founder commented that Boston’s Episcopal churches … “had the prayer-book, but hardly its spirit; they did not follow its principles.”

The founders proposed that the best way to follow those principles was “to secure to a portion of the City of Boston the ministrations of the Holy Catholic Church, and more especially to secure the same to the poor and needy…”

Through the decades, the founders and those who came after them bore witness that deep need endures. It is not restricted to the poor and needy. It can be elusive. Just over one generation ago, the parish’s rector noted that “The Church of the Advent is a parish which, above all, is grounded in a vocation that has to do with the burden and the joy of history.”

From the Advent’s very beginnings, the burden has been closely felt by some; others have been been embraced by the joy; many have experienced both. This is meet and right: Even before the Advent was founded, William Croswell acknowledged that he would come to Boston as the new parish’s first rector, willing, he said, to “[identify] myself with the good or evil that is in store for the church.” We detect no sign of rose-colored vocational glasses in those words.

Making decisions about our individual vocations and the vocation or vocations of our beloved parish is not restricted to check marks on a ballot or motions at a meeting. Discerning our individual and communal vocations is an exercise most effectively undertaken together, face to face, eye to eye, heart to heart, with care and honesty and hope and love. Today, as 175 years ago, as Jesus walks the rugged shores and dusty streets of our lives, he calls to us, again and again and again, Follow me. Follow me. Follow me.

Those who hear and respond to the call learn in a visceral way that in order to walk toward something — even the unknown — one needs to turn and walk away — even from what is most familiar and precious. And that often for things to come together, they must first fall apart.

All this leads to the eternal truth which will over time emerge:

The peace of God, it is no peace / But strife closed in the sod / So let us pray for but one thing / The marvelous peace of God.

Amen.

Sermon Preached by the Rev’d Canon Alistair Macdonald-Radcliff at the Church of the Advent, January 19, 2020, the Second Sunday after the Epiphany

Central panel of the “Adoration of the Mystic Lamb” altarpiece by Hubert & Jan van Eyck, c. 1430
The Shepherds of Arcadia (Et in Arcadia ego), Nicolas Poussin, 1637

 

From today’s Gospel:

When Jesus turned and saw them following, he said to them,  “What are you looking for?”

 In the name of the Father Son and Holy Ghost. Amen.

Familiarity is a fine thing but today,  as you were listening to words “Behold the lamb of God” three German words might have formed in your mind: namely sitz im leben  and with them the that fine German name Herman Gunkel.

Indeed you might even have been thinking “Wo ist mein Gunkel,wenn ich ihn brauche?” (Where is my Gunkel when I need him?)

This fine phrase – sitz im leben — much beloved of certain Biblical Scholars for the last hundred years or so [1] essentially means ‘setting in life’. It points to the very interesting question of what something means in its context – be that social, cultural, literary and beyond….

Which brings us to the question of: what do you suppose that phrase, “Here is the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world’ meant to John the Baptist and his hearers when he made this exclamation? And what does that mean for us? And how do these meanings connect?

Moreover, as the academic J. H. Roberts puts the matter, at one level [2]:

Though the message of John. 1 : 29, 36 may be pretty well understood by the average reader of the Bible, it presents the scholar with quite baffling problems …

For example:

  1. There is the point that nowhere else in the Fourth Gospel is the idea suggested that Jesus is the paschal lamb.[3]

Then again,

  1. The Greek word amnos is not the term for the paschal victim in the Old Testament, and
  2. it was not the function of this victim in any case to take away sin

 – and so on and so forth.

Yet, transcending all these academic issues is surely a quite fundamental overarching point about the Evangelist author himself,  namely,  that St John wrote his Gospel after and in the light of  the suffering, death and exaltation of Jesus.

In the face of such utterly transformative events, it was both natural and right to interpret the earlier events in the life of Christ in the light of what happened in his passion and resurrection

Thus, St John was able, quite justifiably,  to see in the Baptist’s cry: “There is the Servant, the kingly Messiah’ in accord with the larger meaning of Isaiah. 52/53[4]:

Surely here indeed,  the kingly Messiah had brought about the salvation of God’s people by means of his suffering and death ‘like a lamb to the slaughter’ [5]

By accepting such an overarching meta-narrative approach, any limited effort to find merely one definite Sitz im Leben can quite appropriately set aside a move that allows a much greater richness of approach– for both the author of the Gospel and as today – in a manner which transcends such narrow questions  as what john the Baptist himself believed at the time of the events reported. (Which remains an interesting academic matter but not one that is vital for us.

Hence the Gospel message concerning Christ viewed from the perspective of the gospel as a whole includes

  • the idea of an offering/sacrifice;
  • and the idea of the redemptive-historical work of salvation by God –which is enriched and illumined by the imagery of the paschal lamb (and the sacrifice made by the Israelites before the flight from Egypt)

While there is later the further idea added of the lamb as leader of the flock, (which is recurrent in the Revelation of St John), a perspective that stands in close relationship to this preaching about the Servant who was destined to be exalted in glory as Ruler, God’s kingly Messiah.

When taken together this collectively entails that in the image of The lamb of God we have an image which, through time,  has come to possess and disclose extraordinary power.

All of which clearly invites complex visualization and it is that which brought to mind

The Ghent Altarpiece   sometimes also known as the Polyptych of the Adoration of the Mystic Lamb) [6]

Quite appropriately it is a highly complex work.  In what we may, for present purposes, think of as the main painting (of the lower tier of the interior as it were — which becomes visible when the main panels are opened)  we see the single large painting, from which the altarpiece takes its name.

This shows, in a highly sophisticated manner, the Eucharistic sacrifice of the Mystic Lamb (which is the symbol of Christ as actually present), placed on an altar surrounded by fourteen angels and set in a rich and fertile hedged meadow, on the outskirts of an urban context that looks remarkably like Ghent or Bruges….

Four groups observe, in this meadow. On the top left, there is a procession of bishops and cardinals. On the top right, comes a group of women martyrs bearing palm leaves as the symbols of their martydom.

On the bottom left, we see a group of kneeling Jewish prophets behind whom are great pagan philosophers and scholars drawn from all over the world, as evidenced by their different styles of attire.

And then, on bottom right, we see the twelve Apostles, followed by Popes and other clergy. Saint Stephen is shown carrying the rocks of his martyrdom.[7]

All these groups are looking towards the altar in the centre of the meadow which is thus the central point of the entire painting in every way                                                                                                             

The angels surrounding the altar hold the instruments of the Passion

  • the pillar against which Christ was lashed,
  • the nails used to fix him to the cross,
  • the sponge dipped in vinegar.

Then in the very center, we see that blood is pouring from the lamb’s body into a chalice a last detail which–while small in scale– is absolutely central to the real meaning of the entire work, which is all about

  • sacrifice,
  • blood,
  • and indeed the role of the church visible with the priesthood–at one with Christ– in effectually administering the holy sacraments.

Meanwhile, in front of the altar there is what might at first seem something strange – namely a fountain—but this of course is nothing less than the ‘Fountain of Life’ from which a trickle of the water falls out towards us the viewers of the painting —who are thereby also brought into its drama, wherein —through its central act,  the blood of Christ gives us life through this divine economy into which we are called.

And as one further but important  detail I may appropriately note here – at this time when we are celebrating the long and important ministry in this parish of Deacon Daphne, that in classical mythology Daphne was that mysterious thing known as a nymph – perhaps best described as “a force of nature reified”.

The ancient Greek Daphne was a daughter of the river god Peneus and the nymph Creusa in Thessaly and as such always associated with fountains, wells, springs, streams, brooks –and other bodies of fresh and flowing water – so may we not see in that fountain of life in the foreground of the painting some adumbration of the vital Diaconal role and ministry in the church and indeed general economy salvation !

But to press on further here, we must note finally here, the inscription on the altar which states in Latin the key text of today’s Gospel:

“Behold the Lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world.”

All of this when brought together, brings us to a fascinating tension in this work between

  • the realism of the style

and the

  • deeply analogical and metaphorical character of the meaning, it is intended to represent.

This invites reflection on those two great and deep Greek words of mimesis and anamnesis which I have referenced here before and which can be loosely rendered respectively as imitation and representation   versus recollection, calling to mind – with the latter being  daily iterated in the words of the Eucharist itself; ‘do ye this in remembrance of me’

But when we think about the realism of the painting how far does that go?

For there is here

  • realism of form , whereby aspects of the world of our experience are represented

and

  • more deeply perhaps, a realism of meaning: whereby a transcendental and spiritual reality– lying behind the world of experience– is somehow captured or adumbrated through elements of this created world that are here visual (and elsewhere verbal as in the word of  Scripture)?

So it is with all that in mind, that I  now would like to consider briefly a quite different and much later painting  by Nicolas Poussin (1594-1665)[8], The Shepherds of Arcadia

This painting – which is, in its own terms, quietly obscure –  has come to prove quite fascinating over time, because of the challenge of how to interpret it.

In basic terms,  as we look at it, we see quite simply three shepherds and a rather grand woman –for whose presence it is hard to derive an obvious reason– all placed by something that seems to be a tomb.

The wider symbolism (as evidenced by the chitons, chaplets and sandals) discloses that this is all taking place in Ancient Greece. More specifically,  it is set in the lushly beautiful land of Arcadia,  which was a real place in ancient Greece that later became idealized.[9]

It seems that the first visual representation of all this –under the familiar memento mori theme (popular in 16th-century Venice)  made concrete via the inscription ET IN ARCADIA EGO, was by the artist Guercino in his earlier version of the scene, painted between 1618 and 1622[10]. There the memento mori message is reinforced by a skull placed in the foreground, beneath which the famous words are carved et in arcadia ego—but once again,  what do they actually mean?

In one sense, it is simple enough and can be rendered:

‘In Arcadia, (there) am I’.

(And the usual initial interpretation is that the “I” refers to Death, and “Arcadia” means a current utopian land outside our here and now.

Yet,  Poussin’s biographer, André Félibien,  interpreted the phrase to mean an implicit past,  such that “the person buried in this tomb once lived in Arcadia” (as in ‘I also was in Arcadia’) where Arcadia is THIS WORLD rather than any other—but one experienced by the person in the tomb in the past.   In this interpretation,  the meaning is that the person in the tomb once enjoyed the pleasures of this life, in our world.[11]

Nowadays, as befits an era of alienation and secular nihilism it is the (former) interpretation where the word ‘ego’ refers to Death that seems generally preferred.[12]

(Common to both interpretations is a wider deeply ironic contrast which is being drawn in the painting: between the shadow of death and the usual idle merriment that the lives of those in ancient Arcadia were thought to embody.)

But then again, we need to remember that it was Poussin as one of the greatest classical artists of France who painted this picture and that points to something further.  And when we look at what is happening in the picture very closely we can indeed see something more. For one of the two shepherds is recognizing the shadow of his companion on the tomb and seems to be circumscribing the silhouette with his finger.

And why might that be so significant ?

The answer to this,   goes back as far as that great grandee of the ancient Roman world, Pliny the Elder, who (in his Natural History) XXXV 5, 15), sees this moment of adumbration as the moment in which the very art of painting itself is first discovered.

Thought of in this way, the shepherd’s shadow is the first image in art history.

But the shadow on the tomb is also a symbol of death (in the first version symbolized by a skull on the top of the tomb).

Thus perhaps,  we are invited to see that,  from the prehistorical era of the earliest cave painting onward, the discovery of art and the engagement (and projection of meaning that it allows), has been the enduring creative response of humanity to our human condition and the shocking fact of our mortality.

Thus we can see here death’s claim to rule even Arcadia as challenged by art (arguably symbolized by the beautifully dressed but otherwise mysterious woman in the painting). Thus she stands as revealed in Arcadia with the universal significance of meaning itself – whose prerogative death has only the power to usurp.

This casts art as standing in the face of death as enabling anamnesis through mimesis and so allowing us to recall absent loved ones, and a consolation in the face anxieties and angst, able to evoke and reconcile conflicting emotions, and overcome in some measure the individual human condition of isolation, and indeed to facilitate the expression of the unutterable[13]

Yet here perhaps there is one very subtle gesture in the painting that merits thought for we see (on looking carefully) that the woman has placed what seems to be a calming hand upon one of the shepherds in such a manner as suggests an invitation to the calm of resignation –in accepting that such is the way of things.

For in the end here art and its projections of meaning may go on,  but however long we flourish, each one of us must ultimately die…..

Poussin’s painting  is very much NOT a Christian one, even though it makes a very deep point about meaning and the place of art in sustaining it.

And that takes us back to the first painting.

For Art there,  makes possible a uniquely powerful expression of the meaning and ultimate telos of goal that is at the heart of the Gospel and Christianity, even though that meaning ultimately transcends art as well: for the meaning of Christianity must always transcend (i,e be greater than) the temporal media through which it comes to expression,  in this life.

Where Poussin offers resignation van Eyck speaks to that fuller and eternal reality of Christian hope

And that is why we can be helped through the van Eyck to affirm the words in the Gospel when Andrew says to Simon, just as the Wise men did of the epiphany and those other Shepherds in Bethlehem before them:

“We have found the Messiah”….

AMEN


[1] Evidently, the term Sitz im Volksleben (‘setting in the life of the people’) was employed first time in 1906 and then later the phrase, Sitz im Leben in 1918. The latter term being used by classic form critics. See Chris Tuckett,, Prophets and paradigms: essays in honor of Gene M. Tucker ed. Gene M. Tucker, Stephen Breck Reid 1996 p. 113,  Form-Criticism of the Old Testament (Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 197; and Christopher Mark Tuckett:  Reading the New Testament: methods of interpretation 1987 – 2014″

[2] “The lamb of God”,  Neotestamentica, Vol. 2, The Christ Of John: Essays On The Christology Of The Fourth Gospel (1968), pp. 41-56

[3] While one passage might be quoted in support in John. 6 (where Jesus is said to be the Bread of Life,  which some would argue points toward the idea of the Passover)  C.H. Dodd argued instead that the comparison made there is to the manna in the Sinai and not to the Passover.

But this argument,  even if true, does not exclude the idea of the lamb being seen as the paschal lamb,  and Dodd himself grants that chapter 6 does seem to be related to the eucharist and this certainly was related to the paschal meal.  Moreover St John at least had in mind (via the tradition of the date of crucifixion) that Jesus died as the paschal lamb.

[4] ….he was wounded for our transgressions,
he was bruised for our iniquities:
the chastisement of our peace was upon him;
and with his stripes we are healed…..;
and the Lord hath laid on him the iniquity of us all.
He was oppressed, and he was afflicted,
yet he opened not his mouth:
he is brought as a lamb to the slaughter,
and as a sheep before her shearers is dumb,
so he openeth not his mouth.

[5] This is assured by translating whatever prior Aramaic term the Baptist used, with ho amnos tou theou – a move which allows combining the various lines of thought associated  with the Servant

  • his atoning sacrifice
  • the slaughtered lamb
  • the glorious triumph attained by the Servant.

As an interpretation of the Evangelist’s  airov would then have the connotation of substitutionary bearing of sin,  53 and tou kosmon 54 would emphasise the universal value of

the substitutionary and expiatory death of the Servant: the nations and kings of the world would be brought to do homage to the Servant-King,55 for his death was to be not only for Jewry, but with a view to the gathering of all God’s scattered children (John 11:52).

When the solution of the problems of St John’s gospel (1 : 29, 36) is sought in this direction, it becomes clear that these verses are in line with the tradition of the earliest congregation as depicted in the first part of Acts.

There are many indications that the Pais-christology was far more widespread in the early church than can commonly be understood by reading a translation of the N.T. or even by a cursory reading of the Greek text itself. We have found that knowledge of this earliest tradition by John the Evangelist is at least to be seen in 1 : 29, 36.

[6] This astonishing work was commissioned by the prosperous merchant Jodocus Vijd, deputy burgomaster of Ghent, and was begun in 1425 by Hubert van Eyck, who however died before any significant work had been completed on it and  Jan van Eyck took it over.

[7] The further side panels on this tier show various groups of saints (with, to the left, Judges and Soldiers of Christ; and on the right, pilgrims and hermits) all painted against a backdrop of a single landscape with verdant slopes but a stony path. (and on the extreme right there is a towering figure of St Christopher, patron saint of travelers —but we must not digress).

[8] Who was himself almost the life’s work of Anthony Blunt, sometime Keeper of the Queen’s paintings – notoriously exposed late in life under Mrs. Thatcher as one of the notorious Cambridge spies but I digress….

[9] The first literary record in the Western canon of a tomb with a memorial inscription[9]  set amid the idyllic settings of Arcadia is to be found in Virgil’s Eclogues V 42 ff.   It was this idea that was taken up anew and revived much later during the Florentine Renaissance and the time of Lorenzo de’ Medici in the 1460s and 1470s, and  by 1504, Jacopo Sannazaro had established the Early Modern concept of Arcadia as a lost world of idyllic bliss, only now to be remembered in regretful dirges.

[10] Now in the Galleria Nazionale d’Arte Antica, Rome

[11] This reading was common in the 18th and 19th centuries, e.g.  William Hazlitt who wrote that Poussin “describes some shepherds wandering out in a morning of the spring, and coming to a tomb with this inscription, ‘I also was an Arcadia’.”  See “Why the arts are not progressive – A fragment’, in The round table: a collection of essays on literature, men, and manners, by William Hazlitt. Edinburgh and London: Constable. 1817. p. 258.

[12] The vagueness of the phrase is famously discussed by the art historian Erwin Panofsky in his essay: Meaning in the Visual Arts. University of Chicago Press, 1983.

[13] See, Becht-Jördens, Gereon; Wehmeier, Peter M., Picasso und die christliche Ikonographie. Dietrich Reimer Verlag, Berlin 2003, pp. 181–209.