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.