When the artist Paul Gauguin[1] completed the painting he would later call his manifesto, he was 50 years old and broken: his body by illness and injury; his mind by relentless depression and overwhelming debt; his spirit by insurmountable grief at the death of his 19-year-old daughter, Aline.[2] He declared “I have lost my daughter. I no longer love God.”[3]

Perhaps you have seen the artwork that emerged from his agony; we are fortunate to have it nearby at the Museum of Fine Arts.[4] Entitled “D’ou Venons Nous / Que Sommes Nous / Où Allons Nous” or “Where Do We Come From? What Are We? Where Are We Going?” the massive painting — 12 feet by four feet— was described this way by Gauguin:

To the right at the lower end, a sleeping child and three crouching women. Two figures dressed in purple confide their thoughts to one another. An enormous crouching figure, out of all proportion and intentionally so, raises its arms and stares in astonishment upon these two, who dare to think of their destiny. A figure in the center is picking fruit. Two cats near a child. A white goat. An idol, its arms mysteriously raised in a sort of rhythm, seems to indicate the Beyond. Then lastly, an old woman nearing death appears to accept everything, to resign herself to her thoughts. She completes the story! At her feet a strange white bird, holding a lizard in its claws, represents the futility of words….So I have finished a philosophical work on a theme comparable to that of the Gospel.[5]

Gauguin’s vision and questions offer an entry point into today’s story from Mark’s gospel. I daresay that after witnessing the miraculous exorcism or healing in the synagogue at Capernaum, the disciples — those hardworking fisherfolk who left families and friends to go with the one who said, “Follow me” — might well have been asking themselves the same questions Gauguin immortalized. The very identity of Simon, Andrew, James, and John — their “what are we” — was undergoing tremendous transformation as they moved from being fishers of — well, fish — for people hungry for food, to fishers of people hungry for spiritual sustenance. “Where do we come from” and “where are we going” were likely on their minds as they ventured further and further away from home, following the young man from Nazareth who astounded people with his authority. His teaching. His healing.

The theme is also pertinent on this day of our annual meeting, as we honor where we have come from, ponder what we are, and consider where we are going.

Last week, a number of parishioners met for a seminar on challenging conversations. Toward the end of the gathering, the presenter, Harvard Law professor Bob Bordone[6], invited participants to describe the Advent’s community. Answers were varied, but — not surprisingly — shared a consistent theme: identity as Anglo-Catholics. Time did not allow us to delve into various definitions of Anglo-Catholicism, so today, with that in mind and in the spirit of Gauguin’s interrogations, I offer for your consideration some thoughts about our tradition.[7]

We share a corporate vision that emphasizes the church as the body of Christ and an integral element in the proclamation of the Gospel. It is, in part, a materialistic vision that rejoices in the physical, in the flesh, rooted in the principle that matter is the vehicle of the spirit, not its enemy. This is perhaps most apparent in our worship. Evelyn Underhill:

Worship is a spiritual activity; but we are not pure spirits, and therefore we cannot expect to do it in purely spiritual ways. That is the lesson of the Incarnation. Thus liturgies, music, symbols, sacraments, devotional attitudes and acts have their rightful part to play in the worshipping life…If music is something that may awaken the awed awareness of the Holy, if pictures can tell us secrets that are beyond speech, if food and water, fragrances and lights, all bear with them a memory of sacred use — then the ordinary deeds of secular life will become more and more woven into the seamless robe that veils the glory of God.[8]

The material world is the primal sacrament from which all others derive: Bread and wine are symbols of the transformation of all human resources. This idea of transformation extends to the quest for a transformed society, evidenced in the liturgy of the eucharist, when “the fruits of the earth and the work of human hands”[9] are brought within the redemptive process.

The bread and wine at the offertory set forth structures in history which have been brought out of the fallen world into the first stage of its redemption.[10]

Although we value tradition, we have a rebellious streak. The fact that the Tractarian movement is remembered primarily for controversies about church furniture and fashions is not the point: once a movement of nonconformity has been inspired in one area, it can spread to others. In 1946, one priest described the eucharist as a “meeting of rebels against a mammon-worshipping world order.”[11] Alongside pastoral ministry, especially to the “sick, the friendless, and the needy,” the task of nourishing a culture of resistance to challenge society’s false values — racism, sexism, inequality, prejudice — is equally important. The eucharistic principles of common life and equality are maintained only when they are extended to the social order outside the sanctuary.

Finally, the Anglo-Catholic vision is expansive, not contractive, concerned with the working out of God’s purposes in the upheavals and crises of world history. And God knows we have no shortage of upheaval and crises. As William Temple famously noted, “The Church is the only society that exists for the benefit of those who are not its members.”[12] A century ago, one theologian urged the church to go beyond preaching the Gospel to

…return to what the New Testament calls “the Gospel of the Kingdom” — the Kingdom of God, the cardinal doctrine of our preaching, regulative of our theology … the touchstone by which all the activities of the church are tested.[13]

These words remain a central truth.

There are those who believe that our tradition is isolated, exclusive, frozen in the past, detached from the realities of the world. To them I say: No.

“One of the insights of the Anglo-Catholic tradition…is the recognition that visions and dreams…must constantly be tested against experiences of real people and concrete struggles — against the realities of homelessness, racial oppression, the collapse of communities….It is out of our old history that our new history must be made.”[14]

Gauguin referred to two figures in his painting who “dare to think of their destiny.” And that is what we do today. Not only because it is annual meeting, but because we must, of necessity, consider our destiny every day. Every time we speak to, and listen to, each other. Every time we approach the altar. Every time we pray. Like Gauguin’s figures, we too are part of a masterpiece born of suffering and hope and love.

Amen.


[1] 1848-1903

[2] She died in 1897.

[3] The Letters of Paul Gauguin to Georges Daniel de Monfreid, translated by Ruth Pielkovo. New York: Dodd, Mead and Company, 1922. He wrote that initially news of Aline’s death “did not move me particularly, I have grown so used to suffering. Then each day memory comes back, the wound opens more deeply…”

[4] See http://www.mfa.org/collections/object/where-do-we-come-from-what-are-we-where-are-we-going-32558.

[5] The Letters of Paul Gauguin

[6] See http://hnmcp.law.harvard.edu/hnmcp/faculty_staff/professor-robert-bordone/

[7] Drawn largely from a presentation by Anglican priest Kenneth Leech (1939-2015), “The Radical Angl0-Catholic Social Vision,” presented in March 1989 at the Centre for Theology and Public Issues, University of Edinburgh.

[8] Evelyn Underhill (1845-1941), from Love’s Redeeming Work: The Anglican Quest for Holiness.

[9] From a prayer said “quietly” by the Celebrant when placing the bread and wine on the Altar before they are consecrated. The form of this prayer goes back to the Jewish Berakhah, a prayer of blessing or praise to God starting “Blessed are You, Lord our God, King of the Universe…”

[10] F. H. Smyth, Discerning the Lord’s Body (1946)

[11] Fr James Addlery, in “Christian Socialism Past and Present.” The Commonwealth, December 1926.

[12] William Temple (1881-1944) was Bishop of Manchester (1921–29), Archbishop of York (1929–42) and Archbishop of Canterbury (1942–44). See also Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Letters and Papers from Prison. “The Church is the Church only when it exists for others…nor dominating, but helping and serving.”

[13] P. E. T. Widdrington, The Return of Christendom (1922). See Matthew 4:23; Mark 1:14.

[14] Leech

Print Friendly, PDF & Email
Sermons