Fr Thomas Plant, Tokyo-based Anglican priest and comparative theologian

Month: May 2011

Moses and Mary: the Commandments and the Annunciation

A sermon preached in Selwyn College Chapel, Tuesday 10 May 2011

I’m sure I’m not the only one here who likes a good steak. And while I understand that some people like theirs charred to a piece of boot leather, personally, I prefer it barely to have touched the grill – so I’ve got something to dip the chips in. But even so, when I see it there, prepared for me on a plate, or when I buy it shrink-wrapped in the supermarket, I don’t really pause to think of how it got there, that life was taken, blood was spilled. Death is commodified into discrete packages, spilt blood sanitised under the clingfilm or on my plate.

Tonight’s stories of Moses and Mary relate two quite different experiences of God, but are united by a common first response: fear. Pure fear at the awesome life-making, life-taking power of the divine, so far beyond comprehension that it risks breaking their minds. Noone has seen God and yet lives. And so it is that Moses, urged on by an awe-struck people, ascends towards God into a light so bright it blinds and becomes a dazzling darkness. And he descends, face shining, to lay down the Law: the first Covenant, for the people to obey strictly, in due fear of the Lord.

From that same bright darkness appears to Mary a shining envoy, whose first words are ‘have no fear:’ though seeing an angel in full glory must make watching Saw 3 seem like a picnic with the Care Bears. And Mary is afraid. But where God gave Moses commandments, to Mary he gives an invitation. It is her ‘Fiat,’ that ‘let it be,’ which redefines His Covenant with the world. God did not force Mary – God is not a rapist – but showing Himself as the free gift of love, He invited her to give an equally free, loving response. God is love, and love does not compel, but reaches out and welcomes.

But do not think for a moment that this tames the Divine. In the new Covenant of the Incarnation, where God gives Himself in human flesh, our relationship with Him is redefined: redefined, but not sanitised. People saw God and lived. Yet God revealed is no less hidden, the radiance of Christ no less blinding. The living God is even more the God of death, since even He has passed that gate which still awaits us all. Death must not be taken lightly: even the death of a terrorist should not be treated like a victory in a soccer match.

For we are all invited to follow Mary in bearing Christ: but in the wombs of our hearts. And we, like Mary, have the freedom to respond. This makes us no less, but all the more accountable to God: that God whom we know not in fuzzy feelings, or the prepacked sentimentality of feelgood hymns, but in dumbstruck awe at the boundless depths of His love.

The opinions represented herein are those of Thomas Plant only.

2nd Sunday after Easter: “The law that no man breaketh”

“I am Death; I am the law that no man breaketh” – the first words of Holst’s opera, Savitri, which my wife and I went to see last week. In this story, taken from the Sanskrit epic the Mahabharata, Sāvitri, wife of the woodman Satyavān, hears the voice of Death calling to her. He has come to claim her husband. Satyavān arrives to find his wife in distress, but assures Sāvitri that her fears are just illusion, māyā. But for all his complacency, when Death arrives, all strength leaves him and he falls to the ground. Sāvitri, alone and desolate, welcomes Death. Death, moved to compassion by this, offers her a boon: anything she wants, except for bringing Satyavān back to life. So, Sāvitri plays a sophistic trick on Death. She asks only for life. Death at first is confused, wondering why she asks for something she already has. But she asks again, saying that all she wants is life, life in its fullest. Death grants her his boon – on which she tells him that a full life for her is impossible without her husband. Death is defeated and leaves, awakening Satyavān, and so proving right his original contention: that even Death itself is only māyā.
This Hindu tale might seem at first sight to have something in common with the Christian story. After all, did not Jesus also conquer death?
Yet a week after Easter, nobody doubted that Jesus had died. Even when he appears to the disciples, he emphasises not the defeat but the reality of his death; any illusion that his death was not real was shattered when he presented his wounds still bleeding for Thomas to test and touch. God did not become man to dismiss suffering as an illusion, to go through the motions of death; but to enter into the reality of human suffering, to submit to the real law of death. In submitting to the law of death, he breaks it; and entering into human suffering, transforms it. The grace of God does not destroy what he has made, but perfects it, not denying its reality, but bringing it to the fulness of reality. Death is indeed a gate that all must enter, but a gate which by the grace of God poured from the Cross leads to fulness of life.
This is what makes the Christian religion fundamentally a sacramental religion; a religion of which the fundamental sacrament is the Cross. The schoolbook definition of a sacrament is, I suppose, a real and effective sign: an action which simultaneously signifies and effects the grace of God, blessing some part of creation with the uncreated, bringing closer to full reality that which is real but imperfect. The gracing action of the Holy Spirit did not eradicate death, but transformed it into the fulness of life; and it is this same Spirit that animates the Church and effects God’s work through it. The same Spirit that, this evening, will take our reality in Baptism and brings us closer to the perfect image which we were made to reflect. The same Spirit by which the Church is commissioned to forgive the sins of the repentent and reconcile us, imperfect as we are, to the God who is perfect. The same Spirit that, two days ago, took what was already there between Prince William and Catharine, but transformed it, moving it closer to the self-sacrificial bond of love that the sacrament of Matrimony signifies and embodies. And the same Spirit which, this morning at the altar, will transform humble bread and wine into its fulness as the Body and Blood of Our Lord, corporeal food into spiritual food, food which as we eat it transforms what we are into what we are meant to be. All this is born from the sheer bodily reality of the Christ’s death, a victory over a very real enemy, but by a merciful conqueror, who does not destroy but redeems.
Yet we must remember that the Kingdom to which that primal sacrament of the Cross points to a Kingdom where ultimately, all sacraments shall cease; and this brings us back to Savitri. We cannot conclude, with her, that all is illusion. But nor can we avoid the fact that the reality of the world we live in is at best only partial, and will remain so until all is brought to the fulness of reality where all illusion, all suffering, and even death itself are finally dispelled. It is a Kingdom to which our present reality blinds us; but blessed are those who do not see, and yet believe. So, let us continue groping forward as blind witnesses to the invisible grace that Christ bestows on us in Church and Sacrament.

The opinions represented herein are those of Thomas Plant only.

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