Friday, April 02, 2010

Love Unrecognized: Sermon for Maundy Thursday, Bishop's Ranch

The English spiritual writer W.H. Vanstone once said that the greatest tragedy is love that goes unrecognized. The entire history of salvation is centered on this theme. All that God ever asks of people is that they behold, that they engage in the exchange of love by which God who is beyond being, God the creator of all, consents to have us, his creatures, hold him in being, in time and space, even as God is holding us in eternity. God who unfolds being in the creation enfolds to his heart the gift of our selves.

In the second century, Irenaeus emphasized this reciprocity in his famous saying, "The glory of God is the human person fully alive; and the glory of the human person is the beholding of God." In our self-actualizing, self-authenticating culture, it's not surprising that only the first half of the saying is usually quoted, but the two clauses are dependent: we cannot be fully alive without the beholding of God, because it is from this beholding that our own truth unfolds, our conceptual life becomes transfigured, and our compassion overflows into service.

It is so very simple to turn and behold, but we are frightened of a love utterly outpoured, without condition, wholly accepting, able to weave even our most egregious acts into the fabric of our deification. We are terrified of the invitation it offers us; we are in dread of its strangeness. It demands that we go through a kind of death—and we are afraid of death; it requires us to forget our private soap operas, which are so much more familiar and interesting. Inevitably, this kind of love attracts persecution, exploitation, contempt—even violence and murder.

If and when those who perpetrate these outrages against love ever come to their senses and repent of what they have done, they continue to dodge the truth of their naked helplessness before a God, who is infinitely more naked and humble than they could imagine. They avoid facing this bare and loving truth by projecting their own self-loathing into the mythos of religion, which, in Christianity has led to the repugnant notion that the Father demands the sacrifice of the Son as ransom for our guilt.

While we have always with us those who think the response to violence should be violence—and such people are not confined to religion—the development of blood ransom theology—if it can be dignified by such a term—can be laid at the feet of Hincmar and Radbertus. It was part of their attempt to justify Charlemagne's slaughter of the Saxons immediately after they were forced to convert at sword point; and to better manipulate believers in general, a programme furthered by the 11th century Gregorian reform. Misinterpretation of Paul's Jewish Temple imagery has been further twisted by fundamentalists in our own day. The breast-beating that accompanies such propaganda is not repentance; it is a paradoxical form of narcissism. It is the enemy of beholding. It is the exact opposite of the message of Holy Week and Easter.

As an antidote, let us listen to Isaac of Nineveh, who, in the 7th century, insisted: "The whole purpose of our Lord's death was not to deliver us from sins, or for any other reason, but solely in order that the world might . . . become aware of the love God had for creation. . . . [that] we might be captivated into His love . . . by means of the death of His Son."

The word "conversion" means choosing to turn away from being held captive by disorienting illusion, turning towards the liberation offered by the pure attention of seeking into the beholding. This is the meaning of conversion in the baptismal vows we will renew at the Vigil on Saturday evening, which, as the Syrians insisted, are only a token of a lifelong opening and deepening into beholding. This process is often signaled by weeping, tears that are a mixture of sorrow and joy, like honey in the comb, as John Climacus reminds us. And we might note here that death has no place in the Syriac understanding and rites of baptism.

Beholding is embodied; it is incarnation, transfiguration and resurrection rapt up into one, and we must never forget that the body is the means by which it is effected, signed by the orans position of the arms at the Eucharist, which is the sacramental matrix for beholding, or should be.

But we are too often like the Hebrew people in the book of Numbers. All that God asks of them in the desert, whether the physical wilderness or the silence of the heart, is to behold. The people refuse. They murmur among themselves. Their lethal backbiting is projected into poison serpents. Moses makes a bronze serpent for their healing: they are presented with a forced choice: behold, or die. But even after this lesson, they turn away. They materialize everything to do with religion including the presence of God. The empty mercy seat in the holy of holies is all that is left of the desert presence. But God will not give up. If we will not behold the beauty of the Lord in the desert silence, then perhaps we will be persuaded to behold by beauty marred.

God in Jesus is lifted up like the bronze serpent, not to pay ransom for sin, not as blood sacrifice, but solely to show us the extent to which the divine love is willing to go, love that is willing to suffer even this extremity if that is what it takes to turn us from our lethal self-regard into beholding. As Julian of Norwich's joyful Crucified says, "If it were necessary that I suffer more, I would suffer more." And as our startled eyes turn to behold this transfigured and glorified serpent raised up for us, we are en-Christed with him.

There is no greater exponent of beholding than Julian of Norwich. "I tooke in al his own meaning", she writes, " . . .wher he seith full merrily, "I am ground of thi beseking,"; which word does not mean beseeching, as it is often mistranslated. Beseking is rather an habitual turning into the beholding, which becomes the wellspring from which we live.

Tonight we engage the simple acts of love by which Jesus gave his last lessons in beholding. Behold the beauty of humble human feet, flat and arched, fat and thin, short and long, smooth and wrinkled, sweet and smelly. Behold the love poured out with water to wash them, gentle hands to massage them, kisses to honor them. Behold the enfolding of our solitudes, grain scattered on the hillsides, gathered, ground, bound into this bread broken, where all our diversity is made one in this communion, this community.

"Woldst thou wetten thi lord's mening . . ." asks Julian. "Wete it wele: love was his meaning. Who shewid the? Love. What shewid he the? Love. Wherfore shewid it he? For love. . .. Thus was I lerid that love was our lord's meaning. And I saw full skirly in this and in all, that ere God made us he lovid us; which love was never slakid, no never shall. And in this love he hath don all his werke; and in this love he hath made all things profitable to us; and in this love our life is everlestand. In our making we had beginning; but the love wherein he made us was in him from withoute begynning, in which love we have our beginning. And all this shall be seen in God without end."


Blogger Sr. Valerie said...

It is so very simple to turn and behold, but we are frightened of a love utterly outpoured, without condition, wholly accepting, able to weave even our most egregious acts into the fabric of our deification.

This reminds me of a favorite quote from the poet William Blake:

"And we are put on earth a little space,
That we may learn to bear the beams of love."

12:10 am, April 04, 2010  
Blogger Maggie Ross said...

Bo says, "A very happy Easter to you," to which I reply, and to you and to all my gracious readers!

3:04 am, April 05, 2010  

Post a Comment

<< Home