Sermon in the Community Chapel

Sunday 31 January, 2010

(click on the picture for a larger image)

The Dominican Order – the Order of Preachers – has given to the Church an abundance of riches in the extraordinary number of preachers and teachers who have lived the religious life under its rule – from the great St Thomas Aquinas (whose feast we have just celebrated) to Edward Schillebeecx who has recently gone to his reward, from Dominic himself to Yves Congar the greatest Dominican of the 20th Century. The Dominicans studied the scriptures and prayed about and meditated on the faith in order that they might teach it to others. From the majesty of the Summa Theologica to the simplicity of the Rosary they sought to make the Gospel story available to the hearts and minds of all.

But the Dominican that I have found most helpful to my understanding of the Gospel never wrote any theology and, if he did preach, none of his sermons have been recorded. Guido Pietro who was professed in the town of Fiesole took the name Giovanni but he is better known to the world as Fra Angelico. Fra Angelico made faith visible. There is not a mystery of Christianity that has escaped his art. You don’t have to go to Florence to see his frescoes. A visit to Fra Angelico at San Marco on your computer would be time well spent in learning how to communicate the faith.

This morning I want to use one of his frescoes to help us meditate on the mystery of faith revealed in the Presentation of Christ in the Temple.

This is the most tender portrayal of the story from Luke Ch2. Fra Angelico has used a very narrow range of colours from brown through yellow to green. Because this is a painting for religious, not intended for public scrutiny, none of the expensive colours like the blue made from lapis lazuli or the gold leaves are employed. Nevertheless the result is an extraordinary meditation on the themes related to the story as recorded in the Gospel. We have an explosion of light in and around the two main characters – old Simeon and the infant Jesus. Light radiates from Jesus face and Simeon’s complexion shines in reflected glory. The light from Jesus face comes from no external source for this is an epiphany – the shining forth of God’s glory, a light to enlighten the Gentiles and the Glory of his people Israel.

Simeon looks tenderly on Jesus; the old order of prophecy gives way to the new order of divine presence. The eyes of the Christ-child return the old man’s loving gaze My eyes have seen the salvation.

The Presentation of Christ in the Temple is almost like an acted parable of Luke 4, the Gospel for today and of the themes in the Principal’s sermon last week. Right at the beginning of his Gospel Luke declares that the gift of Jesus Christ is not for one group only – whether ethnic, political or religious – his salvation is prepared before the face of every people and his light and glory is for the nations as well as for God’s beloved people. This is the manifesto of the Good News which Jesus preaches and acts upon. Thus in the synagogue when he preaches on Isaiah 61 he omits the verses about the vengeance of the Lord and the declaration that foreigners will be servants to the chosen people. He rubs it in with the stories about the widow who Elisha attended to and Naaman the leper. The Naaman story is particularly well related to the idea of God loving and saving the pagans. Naaman claimed that when he went down into the pagan temple of his master nevertheless it was the God of Israel that he worshipped. Jesus belongs to humanity he is the gift of the one who wills that all may be saved.

Luke is at pains to point out the cost of that gift. If you look again at the Fra Angelico fresco you’ll see how the artist has picked out and highlighted the theme of sacrifice from the story of the Presentation. Joseph holds the basket containing the two young pigeons required for the sacrifice of the purification. Simeon stands by the altar and (although in the Gospel there is no indication that he is a priest) he wears the mitre of the high priest. He holds the sacrifice in his arms This child is destined for the falling and the rising of many in Israel, and to be a sign that will be opposed so that the inner thoughts of many will be revealed—and a sword will pierce your own soul too.

If you look at the baby the swaddling clothes are wrapped tightly around him so that he has no independent movement – he is bound as a sacrifice. The red bindings on his feet are a reminder of the blood that will be shed for redemption of the people. In Christ’s halo alone Fra Angelico has painted a red cross.

And here we are at the heart of the Gospel – sacrifice – God giving us what he requires us to give him.

Having left what was probably the worst school in Belfast at the age of fourteen I cannot boast of a classical education but there is one sentence of Latin that I learned from ever I was able to read – it was present everywhere – on public buildings, trolleybuses and bin lorries: Pro tanto quid retribuamus which was the city motto. It means something like : What can we give in return for all this?

What can humankind give to a God on whom we depend for our very existence? What can we give that is rich enough for us to tell Love that we love him?

And that a higher gift than grace should flesh and blood refine

God’s presence and his very self and essence all divine

We can only truly love God when he gives us the means of loving and that he does by embodying his own love in his son and our brother Jesus Christ. Sacrifice as seen in Christ is the giving of oneself totally for and too the other. In the dispensation of this world that will always entail suffering, loss surrender – hence the crucifixion. But sacrifice itself is an analogy for life in the Godhead. In the Trinity each Person gives himself wholly to the other, each looks from himself to the other, love and obedience are synonymous; Gift, Giver and Receiver are equal; Love, Lover and Beloved continue in one eternal dance. When the Word became flesh we were invited to join in that dance.

In this Eucharist we meet with Love in its sacrificed state. We see the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world. He invites us to partake of his broken body and become one flesh with him so that he and we may commune at the Father’s table.

If I have not love, says St Paul, I am nothing

Love, love, love, love, love, love, love.

Love is all you need, sang the bards of my youth.

My brothers and sisters consider what this means for those who would minister in Christ’s name, called to be Icons of Christ. Nothing says it better than the King James’ version of Paul’s great hymn:

Though I speak with the tongues of men and of angels and have not charity, I am become a sounding brass and a tinkling cymbal. On the other hand Christ says to us: By this shall everyone know that you are my disciples, if you love one another.

John Gribben CR