Preaching at St Mary’s Priory the former Bishop of Gibraltar & Europe Rt Revd Dr Geoffrey Rowell said:-
Exaltation and humiliation; stooping down and lifting up; death and eternal life; crucifixion, resurrection and ascension – these contrasting themes weave in and out of our readings today. The strange story in the book of Numbers, when the people complain against God and against Moses for bringing them out of Egypt not to a land flowing with milk and honey, but to a desolate wilderness; and their murmuring and complaining leading to God sending fiery serpents to attack them, and Moses pleads for them, and is told to make a bronze serpent and put it on a pole, so that by a kind of sympathetic magic those bitten by the serpents, but who look on the bronze serpent, may live. Then this is taken up by Jesus in St John’s Gospel, where Jesus speaks of his own ‘lifting up’ so that those who have faith in him may have eternal life, the only life that really matters. It is the first mention of eternal life in St John’s Gospel. And the ‘lifting up’ is a word that can refer to the literal lifting up in the agony of Crucifixion, and the exaltation of a king enthroned. For St John, as his Gospel makes clear, the glorification of Jesus, the full disclosure of him as Lord and King, is on the Cross. And St Paul in the great hymn in Philippians, speaks of how Christ, the one who had full equality with God freely chose, in the words of Lady Julian of Norwich, ‘to come down to the lowest part of our need.’ That, said Lady Julian, is ‘our highest prayer.’ ‘He emptied himself’ – gave himself away, gave himself for you and for me. As we sing at Christmas, ‘Behold the great Creator makes, himself a house of clay, a robe of Virgin flesh he takes, which he will wear for ay.’ Or in the wonderful phrase of a Christmas sermon by Mark Frank, one of the notable 17th century Anglican preachers, who spoke of the child of Bethlehem as ‘glory wrapped in rags’ – ‘ By this day’s emptiness we all were filled.’ In that ‘stooping down’ as the great theologian, von Balthasar says, the love of God was stretched from heaven, to the furthest apartness from God, a love that knows our human condition from its formation in Mary’s womb to the annihilation of death. To redeem us God did not stand aside, but remade us from within. In the great cry of dereliction on the Cross – ‘My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?’ God amazingly, most incomprehensibly, knows the absence of God. It is that embrace of love on the Cross, which gathers us into the life of Easter, as the Lord have the beloved disciple to his Mother, and his Mother to the beloved disciple. The feast of the Holy Cross, is the feast of the triumph of the eternal love of God.
One of the greatest paintings of the Crucifixion is the painting by Matthias Grünewald, which was painted for a hospital in Colmar in Alsace. The patients of the hospital had a terrible, incurable skin disease, which was caused by poisoned rye. They suffered agonising boils and painful pustules. As they looked from where they lay to the great reredos behind the altar they saw a crucified Christ, not robed in glory, not in priestly vestments, but a scarecrow figure, hanging in appalling pain from nailed hands, his head bleeding from the crown of thorns, lolling down, and his whole body marked with the same scars and boils that mark the sick of the hospital. At the foot of the Cross are two figures, Mary Magdalen, with her jar of anointing oil, and John the Baptist, who has a lamb at his feet, pointing to the agonised Christ on the Cross. The Baptist was not of course there in the Gospel accounts. He had already died at the hand of Herod. But this is a picture which reminds us of John the Baptist pointing to Jesus and saying, ‘Look, here is the Lamb of God.’ Grünewald’s picture, which we know as the Isenheim altarpiece, speaks of a God who in the costliness of his love and forgiveness does indeed come down to the lowest part of our need. As Hubert Vanstone put it:
Thou art God, no monarch he,
Formed in easy state to reign;
Thou art God whose arms of love,
Aching, spent, the world sustain.
Or another poet priest, Studdert Kennedy, ‘Woodbine Willie’, the First World War padre, who was so appalled by the suffering of those to whom he ministered in the mud and the trenches of Flanders, that he railed against a God cast in the image of earthly power who did not come down to the lowest part of our need.
Praise to God in Heaven’s highest and in all depths be praise
Who in all his works is brutal, like a beast in all his ways.
God, the God I love and worship, reigns in sorrow on the Tree,
Broken, bleeding, but unconquered, very God of God to me.
So Studdert Kennedy goes on:
And above all in the horror of the cruel death He died
Thou has bid us seek Thy glory, in a criminal crucified.
And we find it – for Thy glory is the glory of Love’s loss,
And Thou hast no other splendour but the splendour of the Cross.
For in Christ I see the martyrs and the beauty of their pain
And in Him I hear the promise that my dead shall rise again.
High and lifted up I see Him on the eternal Calvary,
And two pierced hands are stretching east and west o’er land and sea.
On my knees – I fall and worship that great Cross that shines above,
For the very God of Heaven is not Power, but Power of Love
There indeed are words for Holy Cross Day, words for the Exaltation of the Holy Cross. And there indeed is our recalling to the cost and challenge of our mission, something much deeper and demanding than the often trite mantras of mission with which the contemporary church is too often content. I have recently been reading a challenging book by a psychotherapist who specialises in the healing of traumas, whether of soldiers after terrible experiences of war (what in Studdert Kennedy’s days was called ‘shell shock’, and which the army commanders of the time denied and the wimps were punished and even executed for it), or of abuse in childhood, or the experience of horrific natural disaster. The title of one his chapters is ‘The Unbearable heaviness of remembering’. We do well, as we ‘do this in remembrance’ of our Lord in this Eucharist, to keep that in mind. We remember not, in the trite phrase of some new eucharistic prayers, that ‘on the night before he died, he came to supper with his friends’, but ‘on the night on which he was betrayed.’ Communion is established in the very context of betrayal. In this he comes down to the lowest part of our need. And the Lord takes bread and breaks it, and identifies it with his very own life, his very own body, saying ‘Take eat, this is my Body, which is given up for you’. ‘You are to go on doing this in remembrance of me’ – not just thinking back in a casual way, but for a re-presencing of me. The Eucharist, the Last Supper, is a prophetic sign – it looks forward to, it is inseparable from, the breaking of the Lord’s body on the Cross. As often as we do this, St Paul reminds us, ‘we show the Lord’s death until he comes.’ In this broken bread, which is his body, and in this cup of wine, which is poured-out life blood, we receive his life to be our life. This Eucharist is sacrifice – not a repetition of Calvary, because indeed ‘only once, and once for all His precious life he gave’ – but, as it is put in a wonderful phrase of the Anglican-Roman Catholic agreement on the Eucharist, ‘we are drawn into the movement of his self-offering.’
In broken bread and wine outpoured
The meaning of my life is given,
The sacrifice of love for me,
God’s living bread come down from heaven.
Our Baptism, too in inseparable from the Cross of Christ. We are baptised into his death. The baptisms of the early Church in the context of the Easter Vigil, saw a Passover from death to life, as the candidates waited in prayer, and then went down into the water, plunged into the transforming life of Christ and raised to the new Easter life with him. The very word ‘baptise’ means to drench or to drown – we are to be drenched, drowned in the life of Christ, in the life of his self-giving love. So the Risen Lord’s command at the end of Matthew’s Gospel – ‘Go and make disciples of all nations, baptising them in the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit’ – is a sending out to plunge, drench, drown those who become disciples, in that communion of love which is the reality of the life of the all-Holy God, who in Christ reveals that love through his Passion, Death and Resurrection, and pours out His life-giving Spirit to be our life, the life of the Church of God.
Those who reflect on the life of the Church can speak of ‘baptismal ecclesiology’ or ‘eucharistic ecclesiology’ – an understanding of the Church rooted in our common baptism, or an understanding grounded in the communion which is God’s gift to us in the eucharist – ‘the eucharist makes the church as the church makes the eucharist.’ But both belong together, for these two sacraments are gifts and means of grace. They are the sharing of the divine life with us. ‘God became man, that man might become God’. Our calling and destiny is ‘that we may become by grace what he Christ is by nature.’ Our Christian faith is inescapably a supernatural faith, ‘a yon side religion’, as an old Lincolnshire farmer once told the saintly Bishop Edward King.
The Catholic faith into which we were baptised, and which we proclaim, is indeed the faith once delivered to the saints – for what other faith would we wish to live, proclaim, and indeed to die for. What other faith is there in which to grow. Catholic means universal, open to all, but it also means the wholeness and greatness and the overwhelming reality of a faith which is the gift of God’s own life to us. We cannot live this and proclaim this unless we are committed ever more deeply to what T. S. Eliot called ‘a life-time’s death in love’, to being transformed into the likeness of Christ from one degree of glory to another.’ If we would be Catholic, then we must be concerned for unity, As Newman wrote in his Apologia he had always, as an Anglican, ‘ever kept before me that there was something greater than the Established Church [which then of course included the Welsh dioceses], and that was the Church Catholic and Apostolic, set up from the beginning, of which she was but the local presence and organ. She was nothing, unless she was this.’ And there will be no unity without growth in holiness, in that sacrificial love which is at the heart of the divine life. And there is no apostolic ministry which is not rooted in that costly commission of the Lord.
When I became Bishop in Europe I had a meeting in Rome with Cardinal Ratzinger, later of course to be Pope Benedict XVI. I asked him for his understanding of being an ‘ecclesial community’, which was the language used about many non-Roman Catholic churches. He replied that ‘you cannot be an ecclesial community without having the marks of the Church – and you Anglicans have them very deeply.’ I asked him about the reality of the eucharist celebrated in an ecclesial community whose orders he did not recognise as valid. ‘Is it nothing?’ ‘No, it is never, ever nothing.’ It is a real and transforming gift of grace, a sharing in the divine life. I treasure a present from him on my retirement, his book on the infancy narratives of the Gospels, inscribed to me in his own hand ‘in communion of faith, and hope, and love.’ In the broken-ness of the Church the Spirit of God still moves to draw us into unity, to enable communion, to transform us in holiness, and to send us out to share that life with others.
If our Lord came down to the lowest part of our need, by his self-giving, self-emptying in love, so that even the darkness and nothingness of death was redeemed and taken into his life, then we too must be changed, over and over again, into the pattern of his love, so that we become diagrams of his glory. In the Lord’s self-emptying is the fullness of his life, for that is inescapably the way of love. As we celebrate the glory of that love in the Cross of Christ, may we be so transformed. As another poet-priest, Thomas Traherne, who ministered at Credenhill not so far from here, puts it:
O let me so long eye Thee, that I be turned into Thee, that I may be a mirror of Thy brightness, an habitation of Thy love, and a temple of Thy glory.