In the name of God, the Father, Son, and Holy Ghost. Amen.
I can but be mindful today that we are in this Mass, on the recovery side so to speak, of the Annual Parish meeting. I am sure it went well and was an occasion of appropriate amity.
It has to be said, however, that the history of church meetings, and indeed formal business, has by no means always been thus, which is to say dealings of sweetness and light.
There are no parallels to be sure, but one thinks of the church furniture being thrown by enraged Presbyterians when Laud attempted to impose the blessing of the use of the Book of Common Prayer in Scotland, as one example of a meeting that did not go well (in the High Kirk in that instance).
Then again, it is cautionary to recall the impact of Pope Stephen VI’s desire to assail the reputation of Formosus, in the 9th century.
Since the latter was dead one might have thought this to be an impediment, but Stephen was not to be so easily deflected and simply gave orders for a trial go ahead with the accused dug up and dressed in the robes of his office and placed in the dock so that the case could proceed.
Needless to say, the judgement went against the accused.
This left the matter of how to effect a punishment. Again, Stephen was equal to the challenge and simply instructed that the remains of Formosus be dragged through the streets before being tossed finally into the Tiber.
Good order in the church also decayed somewhat when Urban VI was elected in 1378, an event which triggered the Great Schism. Noting which cardinals had failed to vote for him he ordered their torture and execution, with his one recorded concern being that the screams of his enemies were not loud enough….
(Then again one has to doubt how he came out of it all in the end when one recalls how and where he was placed by Dante in the Inferno…..)
But we must not get diverted by the cautionary curiosities of Church history and its many episodes of deplorable disorder….
For we come today to one of the shortest but also most sensational sermons ever given, which is that in the Gospel today –which relates it all in a mere seven verses.
But before we do so, I want to notice something more telling than merely the sensational curiosity of those dark episodes of history I have just sketched, for they prompt a question about why we find stories and narrative so engaging – even in the briefest of forms.
I call to mind here Galen Strawson who in a recent book of essays with the engaging title, Things that bother me, includes a biographical chapter. This starts conventionally enough with his school days, after which, in the words of Kieran Setiya his prose:
“ shivers into fragments: taking LSD, travelling from Turkey to Iran, listening to Bob Dylan and to Berg’s Lyric Suite” before in a final scene, “ filling a blue mini (car) with beech leaves”
Of this sequence of scenes, this commentator observes:
“The writing is sparse but eloquent, emotionally honest, bright with sensation.
What do these episodes have to do with one another?
In the midst of beauty, it feels unimportant to ask.”
Does it really? The comment alludes to a notorious thesis maintained by Galen Strawson which holds it to be a “fallacy of our age” that meaningful lives require “narrativity” when, so far as he is concerned, we could live far better instead, and more simply, in a constant present.
This is a very curious idea but I suggest illuminating in its error.
Think for a moment about the pieces of music we are hearing today in the Mass setting (Britten) and motets. It is indeed an interesting question to ask just what it means to speak of the “now” in a work of music. Just what is the present moment in listening to music?
Is it ever really possible to live in an evanescent moment and truly to hear music (even in one’s mind)?
I would venture to say no, and that this tells us, that as incarnate beings it is impossible to hear music without it being sequential and that in hearing it we must hold in tension the immediate present or ‘now’ with what has gone before, in order to hear music as such at all.
Just think of a solo Cello suite and the way in which one seems to hear chords and even more than one melodic line even, in fact they are merely ‘implied through the mind’ as one does not at any one given moment hear such complexities, thus demonstrating that the effect achieved relies upon the interplay of the mind and the memory which is where the music is actually experienced.
But now you may wonder why I touch upon this.
The answer is that not only do we, as humans live our lives sequentially, but we need something parallel to my point about music – namely a narrative within which and through which to order our lives, in fact I suggest we actually need a meta-narrative as well, within which to frame our lives as a whole if they are to have truly deep, which is to say adequate, meaning.
And that takes us back to that Synagogue, all those centuries ago in Nazareth, of which we heard in the Gospel. This was the first Sermon by Jesus Christ himself in the Synagogue of his home village of Nazareth where he had grown up.
It is important to understand the context for we know that before Jesus returned to Nazareth there had already been a quite extensive ministry in Jerusalem where he had
- cast the money-changers from the Temple,
- performed a number of miracles,
- met Nicodemus, and then en route to Galilee
- the woman of Samaria at the well.
Reports of all this would have preceded him and would have evoked the curiosity of the Nazarenes’ as everyone gathered in the village synagogue, where he would so often have been seated as a child before.
The service itself would have opened with prayer and psalms and would have featured two readings, one from the Law, one from the Prophets. It would have been at that point that Jesus rose, signifying His intent to be reader of the Prophetic portion in the scroll.
Having read standing, in reverence for the Scripture, Jesus we are told then resumed His seat in the way appropriate to the status of one who is to teach, and one having authority.
At that point, the implicit drama suddenly reaches its peak, as his opening sentence made the sweeping assertion that the great prophetic words which He had been reading had now been fulfilled in him.
In short a world historical moment had arrived for his was a claim of startling audacity : “Today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.”
It was too, we may note, an emphatic and unhesitating assertion of his central claim as to who he was and what he represented.
This was definitely not a situation where people around him came up with ideas by way of response to his enigmatic but profound impact – a point worth keeping clear at a time now, when there are many who want to move the interpretation of Jesus away from what he said about himself to the interpretation made of him by those who came to follow him (which would be inherently more speculative).
This difference has significance that should not be overlooked.
There is a current tendency to move away from the “downward Christology” represented by what Jesus himself asserted to the “upward Christology” of what his hearers came to suppose about him instead. This reflects a wider tendency in our culture to suppose that meaning is ultimately something we each create and in a sense impose upon the world. – much as “Beauty” is sometimes said to lie “in the eye of the beholder”
The universalization of this constructivist idea risks generating reliance on an inadequately examined wider theory, in which the entire world of our experience and meaning is turned into a drama comprised of choice: where reality is a kind of fiction, a world where matters of fact and of things-being-the-case become increasingly hazy and malleable.
On the one hand, this leads to a deep vagueness, and on the other, to a world where claims become ineradicably contestable with seemingly little clarity as to what would, or even could, conclusively settle conflicting claims (for example in the presumptive absence of access to the way things are). Increasing stridency in advancing incommensurable claims is naturally one result, while rising potential for conflict is another.
Though there is however one area where we do not seem ever to imagine that we could behave like this (which is surely significant) and that is in regard to money.
I must not digress, but consider what would happen if I were to go in to my bank and say that as part of my self-understanding, from henceforth in my overdraft account 1 + 1 would equal 0.5 while in my deposit account, 1 + 1 would equal 4, and that accordingly, in order to respect my self-understanding the bank should henceforth recognise a 50% decrease in by indebtedness and a 50 % increase in my overall worth.
I have a suspicion that my presentation would not end well and that a harsh assertion of what would be termed ‘financial realities’ would probably be made, leaving my happy notions of constructivist banking rather battered and bruised!
But returning to Jesus’ sermon we may note that in addition to the bold clarity with which Jesus begins to set out as straight facts who and what he really was, there were also the deep truths presented in what he said regarding us and our destiny aside from the redemption offered in Christ. These frame then, by way of contrast, the radiant hopes he unveils for mankind and the possibilities before us, in him.
Elsewhere, in the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus advances an authoritative proclamation of the laws of the new kingdom that is his, And asserts that these claims supersede the ancient law of Israel, and the covenant made by God with Moses.
His new dispensation presents a foundation, on which whoever builds shall never be put to confusion. For Jesus presents himself as the Son of God whose work is nothing less than the salvation of the world.
All this is made possible by virtue of who he is and the fact that,
‘He that hath seen Me hath seen the Father,’
The revelation he makes of Himself is the Revelation of God,
His death is for the life of the world;
and in worshipping him we worship God;
when we trust in Him we trust in God;
when we obey Him we obey God.
Cumulatively, this asserts that as a matter of fact the nature and perfection of what was made manifest in the flesh, in the person of Christ, was such as could only adequately be captured by accepting the fullness of the claims he himself set out so clearly: and by recognising that he was God in human flesh, which is to say a fully human person who was also divine.
This was indeed a tremendous claim whose weight can be seen in the response (later on in the Gospel) of those who were horrified by it and promptly proclaimed ‘This man blasphemeth’ even while the others understood and confessed ‘Thou are the Christ, the Son of the living God.’
Consistently here in the Gospel thus, we, just like his original hearers are presented with our Lord’s conception of himself and of his own work.
Jesus, as the Christ, lays claim to the possession of the fullness of the divine Spirit:
‘The Spirit of the Lord is upon Me.’ And he lays claim to be the Messiah of the Old Covenant, with all the fullness of meaning, and dignity which that entailed. He makes a direct claim to be the fulfilment of all the previous prophetic utterances to Israel.
Thus was presented a revelation and Epiphany in that small synagogue at Nazareth, that was also addressed to the church and the world for all time to come, for Jesus stands as the centre-point and pivot on which the history of the world turns; with all that was before converging in Him, and all that was after flowing from Him.
No wonder then, that of those who understood the Bible states ‘They that went before, and they that followed after, cried, Hosanna! blessed be He that cometh in the name of the Lord.’
But there is too here, in the message of today’s Gospel, another and contrasting strand which speaks to the sad nature of the unredeemed human condition. It is the depth of the understanding of this that helps us to see what, alone, we would be unable to remedy.
For we are all in various ways suffering the consequences of our fallen –which is to say sinful– human condition –aside that is from God’s mercy.
It is sin that impoverishes, while no one who possesses Him, by love, trust, and conformity of will is truly poor, in the deepest sense for whatever else one has, whatever else one lacks, our true wealth lies in God.
It is sin too that ultimately leaves people captive through our own misguided desires, whereas even when faced with physical constraint we can never ultimately be captive in the spirit under God.
Our passions, our self-will and our habits may enslave us — but God frees us.
Sin imprisons by distracting us from our true treasure or by misleading us into pursuit of a vain substitute when we effectively worship this or that false idol.
Christ comes to us today therefore, just as he did in Nazareth, not only to proclaim, but to bestow, the blessings of which He speaks.
He not only comes to
- ‘preach good tidings to the poor,’ but also
- ‘to heal the broken-hearted,’ and
- ‘to set at liberty all them that are bound.’
He is the good news he proclaims and is thus the Gospel which he utters.
He does not merely proclaim the favour of heaven, but actually brings
- ‘the acceptable year of the Lord.’
Jesus does not here detail the means by which He is about to bring about the golden year, the year of Jubilee, for ‘that lies in
- His death on the Cross for the abolition of sin,
- His Resurrection for the abolition of death;
- His reign in glory for the bestowal on all sinful and bruised souls
- of the Spirit of healing and of righteousness.
It is here that we need to recall that opening point about narrative and the need for a meta-narrative in which to frame the meaning of life itself – and our individual lives– as something inherently narrative in character, such that we would be impoverished to try and live it only in the ‘moment’ of Galen Strawson.
Here we arrive at terrain traversed by Erich Auerbach, in his famous book Mimesis in the domain of aesthetic realism – for, in that work he sets the stage for a powerful argument to the effect that it is through the Christian gospel, in which God incarnates himself (amidst) the humble and destitute, that the affinity between what St Bernard calls ‘sublimitas’ and ‘humilitas’ is established. Thus Christianity, with its reversals of rich and poor, and superficial inversion of the Messianic kingly concept, shatters the classical equipoise between high and low. But it is also deeply realist, for, in its grasp of the quotidian and demotic it gets to the heart of things and anticipates the philosophical perspective in which true knowledge is knowledge of the underlying mechanism of things.
What lies behind realism is thus in a deep way nothing less than Revelation itself.
Auerbach might have quoted Matthew 25 here, which has the Son of Man coming again to judge the living and the dead, and the Gospel of St Luke today, where the cosmic metaphysical grandeur of God incarnate in human form, through his sacrifice making redemption available to all, is not left as some remote and abstract matter. Rather salvation and indeed damnation are integrated into “such embarrassingly quotidian matters” as one offended commentator put it (Eagleton) as feeding the hungry and visiting the sick and setting the captive free.
Thus is Salvation, in Christian tradition, an ethical and indeed societal matter and not a merely cultic one for it is framed by the deep understanding of a realist narrative of truth.
How apt in the face of such awe inspiring disclosure as the Christian Epiphany then is the understated response of Christ’s hearers in Nazareth who wondered at the ‘words of grace’ and a narrative wherein
“Today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.”
 The analytical philosopher and son of P. F. Strawson, the late Waynfleet Professor of Metaphysics.
 “Storied Career Thoughts of a philosopher of narrativity” London Review of Books, 2018.
 Then again, I suppose it is possible that this particular bank manager might have been so blessed as to study a modicum of philosophy and therefore respond with a more creative account of my difficulty, than a crude and harsh assertion that I had parted company with reality or was indeed simply out of my mind. For example he might have been non-realist but coherentist banker.
This sophisticate could then say that he had no wish to make any claims about the nature of reality, be it of the financial or any other kind, but merely to say that I was simply neglecting to play by the rules of the game we had agreed upon when I opened the account.
According to those rules, (entirely regardless of whether or not the many hundreds of pages it took Bertrand Russel to establish in the Principia Mathematica that 1 + 1 = 2 had in fact established an objective reality) I had agreed that for the purpose of my banking game with the bank that this was how things would be for the purposes of my account.
In this way he could shrink from a claim to objectivity or mathematical Platonism, by saying this issue turned merely upon an instance of subjectively agreed coherence but use that intersubjective position to deny claims of mere relativism.
 Mimesis: The Representation of Reality in Western Literature