Third Sunday of Epiphany 26 January 2014
Yr A : Isaiah 9.1-4; 1 Cor 1.10-18; Matt 4.12-23
In many ways it was the simplest of Anna’s art works but probably the one which continues to echo most in my memory - the patchwork of kitchen roll on the pillar at the north-east corner of the sanctuary. It was so unobtrusive that you could come into church and not notice that it was there but once you had seen it you couldn’t overlook it. In a sense, it did nothing dramatic. It was simply a seeing of what was there and re-presenting it, making it new for us once again. It was, essentially, an intensification of what is there all the time, focused in a panel of extra brilliance and more dramatic contrasts. Anna, seeing the multiplicity of colour and texture in the stone, was inviting us to treasure what is there before our eyes day after day and to see it afresh.
In a somewhat similar way, I carry in my memory Eric’s powerful and illuminating description of one of the capitals in the cathedral at Autun, a description he gave in the course of a broadcast meditation some 30 years ago. It was the capital which depicted the Flight into Egypt and Eric drew attention to the way the sculptor has set the scene on a design of spinning wheels - and the extraordinary way in which this artistic device conveys a vivid impression of movement - not of desperate, uncontrolled flight but of steady purposeful motion: the purposes of God unfolding before our eyes.
On this Sunday, various themes jostle for our attention: we are still in the mode of the week of prayer for Christian Unity; the feast of the conversion of St Paul is barely complete and our readings present us with some of the characteristic notes of Christian vocation in the familiar Matthean account of the call of Peter, Andrew, James and John; while the reading from the first letter to the Corinthians provides a salutary reminder that the Christian community is still subject to sin, to disunity, and to dissension. Yet seeing and movement are the two fundamental keys which run through all these themes and hold them together in a way that can speak directly to us. Another capital in Autun cathedral depicts the Conversion of Paul. Here, Paul is confronted by the risen Christ who is so close to him that they are almost touching - and leaning towards him so that Paul has to bend backwards and is almost falling over, clutching his throat in alarm. Here is a seeing so dramatic that it blinds him temporarily; a movement of God towards him so intimidating that he falls over backwards.
The converted Paul, now revered in the Christian community, writes to the church at Corinth lamenting their divisions. To our shame, we see ourselves in his description, claiming loyalty to this or that as necessary if not for salvation, then at least for the good estate of the Church of England and allowing ourselves to murmur and grumble at our own brothers who cling stubbornly to some other ‘necessity’. Here what is needed is a clear-sighted seeing of the dangers which arise from such polarising divisions and a willingness always to move nearer to the light and truth and unity of Christ. Paul does not give exercises for resolving conflict such as our facilitators might. Indeed (as, at our best perhaps we have discovered) there are serious indicators that diversity of views and commitments are possible and good in the Christian church - but they must be understood by all to lead towards, to build up the unity of the body of Christ. Paul is content to hold up the mirror; to say, Look and see what you are doing, in order to bring us all back to his initial appeal, ‘by the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, all of you be in agreement, with no divisions among you but that you be united in the same mind and the same purpose’. This movement is not one that is achieved by human contrivance but by the grace of the Lord Jesus - but we have to know our need of such grace.
It is the theme of movement which characterises the Gospel reading - caught so marvellously by the Magnificat antiphon ambulans Iesus with its suggestive opening. All is God’s initiative: indeed, the source of our movement is God’s movement towards us in Christ. It is Christ who stands before us and calls "Come and follow me". Here there is another challenge for us. God’s movement is unceasing - ‘new every morning is the love...’ but we naturally tend to move in a series of cumulative jumps. A moment of revelation, of insight is given and something shifts in us. We note and accept the change and its consequences but then settle in this new space for a time, until the next ‘moment’. The danger then is that we take our eye off the ever-moving Christ and see instead yesterday’s illumination. We are reminded of R S Thomas’s words in Pilgrimages ‘such a fast God, always before us and leaving as we arrive...’ There is an inevitable restlessness about our discipleship in this world: not only does the ceaseless energy of God chafe against our inclination to move in fits and starts but there is also the tantalising way in which each new glimpse seems never quite long enough: we are worn out simply with the frustration of not being able to stay still. Yet Thomas himself moved towards a more accepting position when, in The Echoes Return Slow he writes,
But love answers it in its turn: I am old now and have died many times but my rebirth is surer than the truth embalming itself in the second law of your Thermo-Dynamics.
The sculptor of Autun surely understood something of the complexities of our Christian pilgimage when he carved the holy family making their pilgrimage of flight to Egypt. He manages to suggest that entrusting ourselves simply and wholly to the goodness of God is the best way of tuning the rhythm of our movement to that of the divine energy, so that our patient plodding along after our fast God is not grudging or reluctant but suffused with a contemplative joy, a true resting in the Lord. Here, in this place of our pilgrimage, this Galilee of the gentiles, where the Light has shined on us, we dare to follow the Lord Christ who summons us to life in the kingdom with the Father and the Spirit, to whom be glory and dominion now and for ever.
Peter Allan CR