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

Month: July 2020

The Dance of Mirrors

Sermon preached at Holy Angels, Hoar Cross, on the seventh Sunday after Trinity, 26 July 2020. Readings here.

Where is the treasure beyond price, this fine pearl, this token of the Kingdom, which will make people drop everything they have, leave behind all worldly concerns, abandon everything to obtain? This philosopher’s stone worth more than all King Solomon’s gold, which gives the gift of discerning between good and evil? This talisman which protects its bearer from destruction in the pits of hell and grants the gift of eternal life? What is it, and where can it be found? 

Mary Magdalene, whose feast the Church celebrated on Wednesday, looked for it where nobody expected. She was the first to find the treasure beyond price hidden in a crucified criminal’s empty tomb. 

She had glimpsed the treasure in Jesus before: possessed by demons, she had received Jesus’ healing and absolution. The tradition of the Church used to identify Mary Magdalene with the Mary who was Martha’s sister, and sat still, listening to Jesus and anointing Jesus’ feet, while Martha bustled about and told her off for being lazy. Even though scholars now think that these are two different Marys, their stories are connected by what they found in Jesus: the wisdom they heard and the peace he gave, beyond all understanding. 

And isn’t that what Solomon is also just as famous for, as for his gold? The wealth of Solomon is a biblical figure for the wisdom of Solomon. So much so, in fact, that in the Apocrypha or Deuterocanon, sadly omitted from most Protestant bibles but prescribed to be read by the 39 Articles of the Church of England, there is an entire book ascribed to him and called simply, “Wisdom.” It comes just after the Song of Songs, that beautiful love poem between King Solomon and the Shulamite woman so often chosen as a reading at weddings. In the Book of Wisdom, Solomon carries on the theme, personifying Wisdom, or “Sophia” in Greek, as a beautiful woman, and himself as her lover. He declares her “more precious than much fine gold,” “a jewel beyond price,” “an infinite treasure.” In Matthew’s Gospel, Our Lord draws often and deeply on this “wisdom literature” of the Old Testament, as we call it, and that is what He is doing here, almost word-for-word: the treasure beyond price is Hagia Sophia, that “holy wisdom” beyond compare. 

Wisdom is a fuzzy word, notoriously difficult to define. It clearly means something different form just “intelligence” in our modern sense: you couldn’t measure wisdom with a number, like IQ. Nor does it mean “knowledge,” because people can know a huge amount and still not be particularly wise. 

We can define wisdom more closely if we link what the Wisdom of Solomon has to say about it with what we read in St Paul’s Epistle to the Romans. In Wisdom 7, Solomon describes the Wisdom he loves as being like a “spotless mirror of God’s glory, and the reflection (or image) of his goodness.” St Paul writes that God “co-operates for Good” with “those who love Him,” who are “conformed in the image of the Son” and thereby “glorified.” To be wise is to have a soul that mirrors God’s glory, that reflects back the light of his perfect image. To ask God for wisdom is to ask him to polish that mirror so that it reflects without spot or stain, no “dark glass” but clear as the most dazzling diamond in a wedding ring, and just as much a token of love.

The life of prayer is about polishing the mirror of our souls. It takes time, hours spent in silence and devotion, basking in God’s radiant presence. If that sounds self-indulgent, then there are two points to bear in mind. 

First, Mary Magdalene went back from the empty tomb to share the treasure with the disciples, earning herself the title of “apostle to the Apostles.” Mirrors reflect outwards. Prayer is not just spiritual sunbathing. If our mirrors are polished, then those rays shine out onto the people around us, in works of love. The difference from before is that now they are God’s works, working with us for the Good, rather than just our own feeble and self-interested endeavours.

Second, even after the disciples left the tomb, Mary Magdalene stayed on, weeping and longing. She knew that the treasure she yearned for with all her heart would be found in her Lord, risen and calling her by name. So I’m not talking about our hearts reflecting formless light, but the image of God specifically as He has revealed Himself in the person of Jesus Christ.

So where do we find this great treasure? We cannot step into the Tardis to go and join Mary at the foot of the Cross or the empty tomb, so we must seek it here. The Eucharist is our school for discernment of God’s image, that we may reflect it. In the seeds of wheat and grapes, we see Him whose body was planted in the tomb; in the sun and rain which bring the seeds to new birth, the glory of the divine order which sustains all life; in the work of human hands to make bread and wine, the co-operation of God with us towards the greatest Good of life eternal; in the offering of these gifts, the self-offering of the One who gives us life by death to self; in their consumption, the eating and drinking of His most precious body and blood, the internalisation of divine glory, that He may dwell in us and we in Him forever. In this school of Christ, our Master forms us into lovers of Wisdom, no longer divided from Him or one another, but united by the same one light which flickers between us all in the dance of mirrors, communion with Mary Magdalene and all the saints whom He has called. 

Prisoners of death

Sermon preached at Pusey House on the 6th Sunday after Trinity, 19 July 2020

For the Scripture readings, click here.

If the body is a prison, then death is Alcatraz, the final loss of liberty: we strive to technologise and medicate our way through it as much as we do through life. Or, if you think death really does hold no dominion over you, that you have no part in its kingdom: well, take off your masks and sit a bit closer.

But if, like most of us, you’re scared of it, you’d seem to be in good company: for doesn’t even the prophet cry, who can praise God in the pit (Isa 38:18)? We are prisoners of death – and that’s because we have accepted the wages of sin (Rom 6.23), the price of an apple plucked for lust of knowledge.

You may have come to know more of death in these past months than you ever wanted to. We do not want death for those we love; we protest the deaths of those murdered in acts of negligence or brutality; we applaud those who spend their lives saving other people’s. We wear masks, ostensibly less for our own sake than that of others. We resent and resist death, and yet persist in calling Adam’s sin a “happy fault.”

Might we have been better off left ignorant? Well, only if we accept the limits of a certain kind of knowledge: the walls of the fiery prison into which we are all already cast. Our certainty of death, our commitment to the merely natural order as the ultimate bounds of truth, our circumscription of reality by physical mortality – this is what chains our necks from turning just that inch which would let us see the brighter, kindly light beyond the cave, promising to lead us to the knowledge of such good things as pass our understanding.

Only the dead know what is beyond life. And so, to know the fullness of life, we must die. We must leave behind the knowledge of this world for the profound unknowing which alone allows us to “know” the unknowable.

Baptism, death to self, begins the journey. Know ye not (agnoeite, Rom 6.3), asks the Apostle, that you were baptized into Christ’s death? It is not the exercise of our impaired reason, but the glory of the Father (6.4) which shines like the sun to regenerate us, like seeds planted in the likeness of Christ’s death (6.5) – this is what gives us the capacity to know that our slavery to sin is ended (Rom 6.6), and therefore death is no longer our lord (ouketi kurieuei, translated “hath no more dominion,” 6.9). Our new Lord, Christ, leads the Exodus away from where sin still reigns (6.12), binds and defines, into his Kingdom of unbounded, incomprehensible life.

Baptism brings purification from sin and so, in S. Paul’s words, we are justified, made righteous in the sight of the Father. Yet if baptism were the end of our righteousness, Paul would have had no need to write those words at all, and I would have no need to preach to you, already perfect as you are, and exhort you to the further mystery of the Eucharist. We are here because we know only imperfectly, we strain our necks still against the shackles of sin and death to catch a glimpse of that divine glory, of which our souls, though washed in the Blood of the Lamb, still bear only a smeared and murky reflection.

For the perfection of our righteousness, we must climb mountains. Like Moses, we must learn that what we see as dust by day is fire by night; we must enter the cloud to glimpse Him for whom the darkness and the light are both alike (Ps 139:12). And sharing in His divine insight, we find the shackles fall, as we come to see that the light was not only outside our prison after all: for even the fire of the pit has some share in His radiance. Even in the depths, we cannot flee His presence (Ps 139.8).

In today’s Gospel reading, the fire which guided Moses is clad now in the dust of human flesh, both Son of Adam and Son of God. Matthew does not tell us the name of the “mount” of Our Lord’s eponymous sermon, but that doesn’t matter, because His presence there makes it a new Sinai.

Presence is paramount. Our Lord tells us He has come not to destroy the law, but to bring it to perfection (Mt 5:17); he keeps starting, You have heard, and then expounds a Law of Moses; and each time, he takes nothing away from the Law, but rather adds one vital new ingredient: Himself. You have heard, but I tell you… Not only a new Moses, a new recipient of the Law, nor even a new prophet, a new interpreter, Our Lord Himself is the Lawgiver, the Word of God speaking the Mind of God, present now in human form so that His mind may be in us, too (Phil 2:5).

Only by the presence in us of the divine mind could we possibly exceed the righteousness of the scribes and Pharisees (Mt 5:20); only by becoming divine might we be perfect even as our heavenly Father is perfect (Mt 5.48). Without that presence, it would be impossible. Suppose we do not kill. Do we speak unkind words in anger, or to show our peers how unpuritanical and fun we are, unlike those other kinds of Christian over the road? Do we approach the Holy Sacrifice unworthily, without due self-examination, confession, reconciliation? Do we return the Peace with secret hatreds or resentments in our hearts? Of course we do. Only God is perfect.

But don’t think I’m preaching cheap grace. We must not cease striving to work out our own salvation in fear and trembling (Phil 2:12), working with God for our increase in holiness. That is surely what this House is all about. But if we think that we are capable of achieving this by our own intellectual endeavour, our fallen skill, our knowledge, we are mistaken. It is by the gift of Christ’s presence in word and sacrament that we can share in the unbounded unknowing of the Divine mind.

How? The key is in the Collect. Purified by baptism, illumined by the Holy Spirit that we may hear the Word, repent and make a true confession, we come to the perfecting mystery of Christ’s Body and Blood; and in so doing, we pray with the Psalmist (Ps 24) that He, the King of Glory, perfect image of the Father’s light, may enter not only our heads but open wide the gates of our hearts.

It is, in the end, by divine love that we may know beyond knowledge the One who is above all things, who passes understanding, and who grants to the children of Adam the fruit of sanctification (Rom 6:22), eternal sabbath rest from the fears and longings which fetter us here below. Lift up the gates of your heart, open wide the doors, and the prison of your body becomes a Temple for the Lord of Glory to enter in.

So may the dazzling darkness of the Undivided Trinity lead us beyond knowledge into the mind of Christ, in loving communion with his blessed mother and all the saints – that we may know the true value of life, in all its fullness.

Gospel 7 The Eucharistic Christ

Final video in the Gospel series: how the Scriptures point to Christ in the Eucharist and through the Church.

Judge Not

Video homily for Lichfield Cathedral School.

Towers of Faith: The Areopagite Option

An introduction to Pseudo-Dionysius

What has Platonism ever done for us?
Go beyond the Benedict Option in this lecture for towersoffaith.com.

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