Catholic Contextual urban Theology, Mimetic Theory, Contemplative Prayer. And other random ramblings.

Sunday, 2 November 2014

Sermon at Parish Mass, All Saints 2014

Revelation 7:9-14
1 John 3:1-3
Matthew 5:1-12

There is a wave of interest in the gothic at the moment, as you may have noticed from reruns of Dracula on the TV, and series about gothic art and architecture. There is currently an exhibition at the British Library that I went to see the other week, marking 250 years since the publication of the first gothic novel, “The Castle of Otranto”, by Horace Walpole. It’s a completely bonkers story of a haunted castle in Italy but it launched a genre in literature, architecture and art. 
The gothic movement had both a light and dark side. The gothic revival produced beautiful churches, luminous and mysterious spaces intended to lift you to the heavenly realms. But it also produced dark novels such as Dracula and Frankenstein, explorations of terror and fear.
What brought this about? Partly, according to the exhibition, this was a reaction against enlightenment rationalism and the advance of science. Of course science is a good thing and has given us countless benefits, but 300 years ago its enthusiasts thought that everything could be explained, everything ordered and brought into the light of reason. Mystery was banished. Religion had become very dull. Sunday sermons were social events in fashionable churches, but congregations didn’t really expect to hear about God or Christ. At best people would pay their respects to a distant deity who might have set the universe into motion but bore little resemblance to the passionate loving God whom Jesus called Father. There was no place for the supernatural, or miracles, or for lives transformed by grace. No place for saints. 
It’s no coincidence that the gothic arrived at the same time as various revivals in the church, such as the methodist and anglo-catholic movements, all of which reasserted the spiritual reality and power of faith. Something of this overlap could be seen at Strawberry Hill, the gothic mansion built by Horace Walpole, where his most treasured objects included a reliquary that contained a bone of St Thomas Becket. Relics are tangible links with mystery and holiness, and to celebrate this feast we have some on our altars today.
Andrew Graham-Dixon, in his series on BBC4, called the gothic movement a “re-enchantment of the world”. The gothic recovered a sense of mystery both in the world around and in the world within. Human consciousness is a bit like an iceberg, there is the surface in the sunshine where light and reason hold sway, and then there are the vast hidden depths beneath. 
The enlightenment couldn’t deal with those depths, and so had lost sight of the human. Pure reason by itself wasn’t enough to account for the complexity and mystery of what it is to be a human person. The Gothic revival sought to go back to the ages of faith, when people were in touch with mystery and the supernatural. And that meant acknowledging the darkness as well as the light. Gothic novels such as Dracula were about naming the hidden desires and fears that lurk within the human subconscious. 
This is not something that should be strange to us as Christians. God in Jesus shared our human life in all its complexity and depth, to redeem it all. We are not just rational machines. God has called us out of darkness into his marvellous light, and part of that means the depths of the unconscious coming into consciousness. 
What is in those depths within? Bishop Richard has spoken of the need to acknowledge “this thing of darkness that is mine”. Lurking secrets, parts of ourselves we have never explored, the source of our violence and hatred and uncontrolled desires, yes, all that is there. But deeper still is the source of being who is God himself. Go down deep enough and the clear pure spring is there. Redemption in Christ does not deny the darkness within but brings it into his light.
The Book of Revelation, part of which we heard this morning, is a very gothic book. There is light and darkness and terror and much laying bare of what goes on beneath the surface of things. But in the end it is about a movement from darkness into God’s light. The great multitude we saw today have been through the “great ordeal”, a terrible and destructive violence like that which Jesus suffered on the cross. But now they are robed in white and worshipping the Lamb. They followed his pattern of suffering and now share his glory. And he will guide them to the springs of the water of life, the source of being which is the truest and most abiding thing in the depths within.
In the face of the great ordeal, this is the only enlightenment that makes any sense. The convulsive violence that engulfs the world in Revelation is not rational, calm, or ordered. But it is how the world is, as we can very well see. And it comes from the depths of the human heart. God in Jesus has embraced that reality on the Cross, has drunk the cup of wrath to the full. In God’s light the world appears in the full horror of the truth, and in God’s light it is redeemed. The darkness is not explained away, not reasoned out of existence, not suppressed. The mystery of being human is not denied, but redeemed. 
This is the other meaning of the feast of All Saints: everything is made holy. We think of this as the feast of all the people who are alive in Christ and so are saints, and that is true. But it is also the feast of all sanctified, everything made holy. It is the feast of Christ who is the head of all creation, the fullness of him who himself fills all things. This means among other things everything from the depths within brought into the consciousness of God. Everything known and redeemed.
And this is what it is to be a saint. To be redeemed. For the darkness to be brought into God’s light. For the springs of living water to be opened even in those depths where we only dare to look because God is already there and sees all. The saints rejoice around the throne of the Lamb who alone can bring all of this world of sin, and all of the depths within, into his kingdom. The saints, who were part of that world of sin, suffered its great ordeal, but because they had faith in the Lamb they were not overcome. 
Jesus has opened to us the consciousness of God, and to enter into that consciousness is to become like God, as 1 John says. “What we do know is this: when he is revealed, we will be like him, for we will see him as he is.” But this means purifying ourselves. This means allowing the light of God to shine in the depths and bring all into his light. It means leaving behind the darkness and violence of this world as God’s light discovers it in us.
The feast of All Saints is about everything within being brought into the consciousness of God. This is the meaning of the beatitudes, today’s gospel reading: let God’s light shine in you, and you will begin to live like this. You will be blessed. The beatitudes describe God’s light at work in those who have endured the great ordeal. They have known the suffering and violence of the world, but in God’s light they have emerged from it triumphant. 

And so the darkness does not have the final word. It has been redeemed and transformed. We look to the saints in glory to re-enchant the world, to recover for us the true and full vision of what it is to be a human person. “Who are these, robed in white, and where have they come from?” They are the poor in spirit, the meek, those who mourn, the merciful, the pure in heart, the peacemakers, the persecuted. Theirs is the kingdom of heaven; they are the saints in light. And by God’s grace so can we be too.

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