Sermon in CR church Easter 4
If you go to of the basilica of Saint Ambrose in Milan, the re is so much to move the Christian heart but before one enters the basilica, on the right of the narthex, the re is an early carving of the 11th century and it depicts the mythical figure Orpheus, here singing to calm demons, a type of Christ conquering death and the devil.
If the Orpheus legend is present to us at all, it will be the figure of Orpheus going to the underworld to rescue Eurydice, the one who is life to him, one of those types we find across the classical world for a life freely given, so that another might live. Orpheus fails, for Eurydice lacks the same dedication as Orpheus and she turns back and he loses her.
One of the things which strike about that carving is that Orpheus is a shepherd. According to the myth Orpheus was indeed a shepherd but it is mostly as a musician that he is remembered.
It is an interesting type but in that carving it is at one remove from the background of those who laid down their lives, whether for other people or for ideals or for societies. In the Old Testament it is rare; the re are the martyrs in the books of the Maccabees, of course, very Greek and indeed perhaps the re is something the re of those pagan heroes who freely choose death rather than dishonour and do it for the good of their society, sublime behaviour, approaching if not reaching the divine. Indeed in the light of that background it has been suggested that a better translation of the Greek word for good in ‘ the good shepherd’ would be noble.
It is of course an image which does not come with that of shepherd. We do not think of noble shepherds; ‘shepherds’ do not get good vibes. Furthermore associating the shepherd with an idyllic and rather escapist life may be a moribund image but as we shall soon sing it is still alive in our culture; this is not a sound to be found in John. His hearers would have had a rather negative association with the shepherd; you are as likely to have come across a good or a noble shepherd as to have come across a good dealer in used cars or, if that is not too stereotypical, as a Murdoch free culture Secretary. It would have been a disturbing image.
Of course Jesus does nothing to help us to make us less disturbed. He has used three images to describe Himself; He is the good shepherd but He has also described Himself as the door and is the door keeper, a series which even Saint Augustine was reluctant to unpack: ‘There is no need... of seeking any o the r meaning, no need but if you really must.... , do not leave the path, go not outside of the Trinity’ (In Joannem 46.x) (my translation). Jesus presents us here with nobility at the edge of what we count respectable or manageable and in terms of likenesses which cannot be made simple. All stands or falls with Him. Yes - the re is no o the r way to God than through Jesus Christ; He is both the entrance to the Father, the one who opens and shuts and He is the one who knows His own to the extent that we matter to Him as much as His life. What cannot be managed, what falls outside our expectations and respectabilities is united in the person of Christ.
To Him we matter as His life; for each and every one who hears His voice, believing in what He says, He has freely given His life. Unlike Orpheus, unlike those heroes of old, the death is not for the benefit of one or just a few but is effective for all those whom He has chosen, for the entire flock all those who will hear His voice and follow.
Orpheus and heroes function at the edge of divinity and humanity but the y cannot move beyond either the mythical or the sublime; in Christ, a true life freely given and a death freely willed and accepted speaks to us. He is the sole source of what can give life in the face of death and how committed is that source to we who die! How little we allow ourselves to be moved by how much we matter, how much to Him we matter. As we have but recently sung: What good would life have been to us, had Christ not come as our Redeemer? Father….. How boundless your merciful love! To ransom a slave you gave away your Son.
It is not a source to which we individuals can put bounds; it is proper to relate salvation to right belief - right belief belongs to the faith that saves - but One whose voice we hear is a resource of unmanageable depth which cannot be confined and we should be ready to meet sheepy signs and sheepy people in whose gifts make real the grace of Christ .
An example, from the art of Orpheus from music. It is the song he sings in the face of death, the death of Eurydice, when he recognises the limit both of his art and his humanity. A word on the singer, a sheepy person who made the role of Orpheus her own; born a hundred years ago, raised in Blackburn and not the most devout member of the church. Both her art and her person touched so many that her early death affected the country so much that it cast a shadow over the celebration of the coronation. She last sang this song, bones in her leg having splintered on stage in the first act but she was determined to give her all….
Thomas Seville CR