Light inaccessible

A church I once frequented used to give me one of the best spiritual moments of the year by timing the Easter vigil so accurately before daybreak that the sun poured in exactly as the bells rung, the veils were pulled off the crosses and statues, and the first Gloria in Excelsis of the new season was sung. 

It’s no mere pagan hangover that churches are traditionally oriented, in the proper sense of the word, towards the East. We rely on the sun for the heat that gives us growth and life, and the light that lets us see. God is like this, the source of both existence and intelligibility, as the one who creates the world and gives it rational order. 

Of course, if you were able to fly to the sun, you would be burnt to nothing before you even got close; and if you stare at the sun, you will lose your sight. This is also true of God. Moses had to enter the cloud around God and only see his surrounds. He needed a veil even to glance at God obliquely. S John the Evangelist insists that no one can see God and live. His ways are higher than our ways, and in his innermost essence, he as inaccessible to our minds as he is to our bodies. 

His ways are higher than our ways, not in the way that our ways are higher than a chimpanzee’s or an ant’s, that is, different as matter of degree. They can in some limited way do many of the things that we can, and evolution tends towards greater intelligence over time. Rather, our difference from God is absolute. In many ways we are closer to an ant than we are to God. One might even say that it is our shared absolute difference from God that puts us in what moderns might call radical “solidarity” with everything else in creation, though I prefer St Francis’ word: brotherhood. The things of this world are more than colleagues or comrades. Rather, the animals, plants and even inanimate things of this universe are our sisters and brothers, under the paternity of God, and we humans are ordained to love and care for them as such. 

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Christ the Olive: Sexagesima

bowl being poured with yellow liquid

The countdown to Easter continues this Sunday with Sexagesima, Latin for sixty: which leaves us with just a week and a half to the beginning of Lent. That’s why since last Sunday, our readings have turned from the Advent to Epiphany theme of the Incarnation towards the Cross and the Resurrection. The Gospel reading continues from last week with S Luke’s account of the “Sermon on the Plain,” better known in S Matthew’s version as the Sermon on the Mount. Today, we hear Luke’s version of the Gospel in a nutshell: 

“Love your enemies, and do good, and lend, expecting nothing in return; and your reward will be great, and you will be sons of the Most High; for he is kind to the ungrateful and the selfish. Be merciful, even as your Father is merciful.”

Luke 6:35-46

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Blessed is … the man?

green tree
Photo by Pixabay on

Sermon for Septuagesima: readings here.

Ashrei ha’ish:” blessed is the man; so begins the first Psalm, which S Jerome calls a gateway into the Psalter, that great virtual Temple compiled for an exiled people: “Blessed is the man who walks not in the counsel of the wicked.” Now, I’m not a Hebrew scholar, but looking into this, I’ve found that ish specifically refers to a man, singular: adam is apparently the preferred term for “mankind” or people in general. We’ve got a parallel phrase in today’s reading from Jeremiah (17:7), and it’s even more specific: “baruk ha geber” literally means “blessed is the man,” but geber refers to a young, fit and courageous man: a warrior type. Now, I don’t want to make too much of this, but you’ll notice that the translation we’re using in church (the NRSV) has translated both of these words for “man” as “they:” the translators have made an editorial decision to treat the words as referring to people in general and have gone for a non-gender specific, plural term.

But by doing that, they’ve masked something really important for our understanding of the readings today. Because one very influential ancient way of reading these texts – in fact, the way both St Augustine and St Basil read it – is to see the “man” mentioned here referring to a very particular man: that is, to Christ, the Messiah. Given that Psalm 2 is all about the coming Messiah, that would seem to be a fair interpretation! The whole Psalter is then framed in terms of the Law (or Torah), and the Messiah, which is basically the story of the Bible in a nutshell. But our translators have hidden that possibility from us, which is one reason why I’d always recommend the RSV over the NRSV if you want to read something like what the biblical authors actually wrote, rather than what modern translators think they should have written. 

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Naming the Name: excerpt from my new book


An excerpt from The Lost Way to the Good

“It is not easy to find any name that will readily fit such transcendent majesty. In fact, it is better just to say that this Trinity is the one God from whom are all things, through whom are all things, in whom are all things.”[1]

St Augustine

We spend so much time talking. When we are not talking, we fill the gap by watching other people talking. We put the television on “just for company.” As a parish priest, I visited households where it is kept on all day, even while I was there to talk about funeral arrangements or wedding plans. Yet even the most ardent viewer will happily admit that most of what is said on the game shows, chat shows and soaps is quite meaningless. Most of it, in fact, they won’t really hear and won’t remember. It is just there as a comfort blanket of noise. Anything to muffle the awful silence. 

Few people will admit that they are actually afraid of silence. I wonder whether that is because we have never really encountered it. A few years ago, a British “reality TV” program invited some secular twenty-somethings to spend an extended retreat in a convent. Some of the contestants, if that is what they were, were absolutely terrified when they met real silence for the first time. In general, modernity offers unparalleled opportunities for its obliteration. Even when the TV is unplugged, the cellphone put away in the drawer, the stereo silenced, perhaps to go out for a quiet stroll or even just to try to sleep, the noise inside the head continues. The outer chatter may be subdued, but the inner chatter gibbers on relentlessly. And on reflection, most of our inner dialogue, too, is inane. Thoughts suggest themselves in Tweet length. Our rewired minds begin to see all things of beauty as Instagram opportunities. Social occasions are exploited for maximal Facebook potential. 

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In the beginning was the One

In the beginning was the One. One not in number, because there was no other “one” to make up two. One not in sequence, because there was no one and two to add and so make three, four, five and so on. But One as being beyond number, beyond otherness, beyond multiplicity. The absolute simple, the origin of all things beyond all things. 

The One cannot be divided; yet within the One was mind and life. These are not divisions in the one, certainly not parts of that which is indivisible, but they can be differentiated. They were and are inalienable aspects of the One. There was no time when they were not. And so the One is Three: life, mind, and source beyond name. Not three in one so much as three and one, a paradox beyond mere number. 

From the One have come the many. All things that are and were and will be have unfolded from the absolute simplicity of that divine Mind, which we have come to call Word or Logos. There is no time when that Word has not spoken , though mostly it has spoken in silence, through the firmament of the heavens, the motion of the stars and spheres, the turnings that give us day and night. God said, that is, his silent Word declared, “let there be light,” and of that light, all things that exist are refracted rays. And into all these things, even as they unfold from the Living Word, the mind of God, the Life of God imparts life: that Spirit of God hovering over the waters kisses life into the world, out of sheer, unbounded love. Of that love, we have come to know the One as loving Father, loving Word and loving Spirit. 

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A birth, a baptism and a wedding

No, it’s not a clumsy title for a follow-up to Four Weddings. Rather, these are the three defining events of the Epiphany, which for want of a better translation, and continuing the films of yesteryear theme, we might render as The Shining. And in a way, I suppose, God does stick his head through the broken door of the world. “Here’s Jesus!” 

Epiphany was not an original Christian term. The stories of the ancient pagan gods were full of their epiphanies. Zeus’ are probably the most famous nowadays. He would appear as a shower of gold, or a swan, or a bull, generally to get up to some naughtiness with a pretty lady. But while his motives may not have been pure, you’ve got to admit that those – um, entrances – were pretty spectacular. 

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