Homilies for the Easter Triduum, 2019

A New Commandment

Maundy Thursday – 18 April 2019

A Homily Delivered by Dr Russell Goulbourne, Parish Theological Student and Dean, Faculty of Arts, University of Melbourne

I give you a new commandment, that you love one another. Just as I have loved you, you also should love one another.

Well, this is awkward, isn’t it? My first opportunity to preach at St Mark’s – and Fr Stuart is really putting my innate English reserve to the test, isn’t he?

Because tonight’s liturgy is all a bit intimate, it’s all a bit too up-close and personal for me. For tonight we have feet. Feet all over the place. Feet that are freed from the decency of socks and shoes. Feet in all their glory – or lack of it. Feet – warts and all. Quite literally.

But I have to get over my reserve and face up to reality. For tonight I have a choice to make; tonight, we all have a choice to make. Indeed, tonight’s liturgy holds before us a choice like no other liturgy in the church’s year.

I’m not talking about the choice of whether or not to take your shoes and socks off and have your feet washed. Tonight, some will have their feet washed; many of you will choose to stay safely in your pews, with your laces doubled-knotted. And I understand that; that’s fine. No one here is compelled to participate.

No, the choice tonight’s liturgy holds before us is about intimacy, about vulnerability, about love. The choice we all face tonight is the one Jesus presents us with in tonight’s Gospel: to love or not to love.

Jesus chose to love – to love not some, but all. Tonight, Jesus offers his life in bread and wine – and in washing. The one whom we look upon as the human face of almighty God kneels like a servant to wash his disciples’ feet. One by one, Jesus kneels on the dusty floor in front of each disciple. One by one, the water of his humble, vulnerable, self-giving love washes over the feet of each disciple, regardless of where those feet have been or where they are going. No one is left out, no one is excluded. Not even Judas, the one who will turn away, the one who will betray; even he is washed. All are washed. All are loved – intimately, unconditionally, unselfishly. Warts and all.

The way of Christ is the way of love – and the way of love is a way of life. Love, for Jesus, is not about feelings and emotions but about a choice. And that’s the choice before us: to love or not to love. It’s all or nothing. The commandment to love one another includes everyone – even Judas, even our Judas. We can’t choose to love only those whom we like, to love only those whom we consider to be deserving, to love only those who look, think or act like us. No, it’s all or nothing. To love or not to love: that is the choice. And it’s a choice not just for tonight but for every day and every night; it’s a choice not just in the liturgy but in the world.

Now that’s some choice. So much for my innate English reserve! 

I give you a new commandment, that you love one another. Just as I have loved you, you also should love one another.

This body brings unity and healing

Good Friday—19 April 2019

A Homily Delivered by Fr Stuart Soley, Parish Priest, Saint Mark the Evangelist Church, Fitzroy

At the end of Mass last night we sang Thomas Aquinas’ thirteenth century hymn ‘Of the glorious body telling’ as we prepared to take the blessed sacrament we have reserved for this celebration to the altar of repose. We see where that glorious body ends up today … on the cross shedding ‘the blood all price excelling’. Film and some hymnody draws attention to the raw, brutal, cruel end to which the Saviour’s life came as he was hung on a tree.

But its not the detail of the cruelties and sheer bloodiness of the crucifixion I want to draw attention but rather to see this as a further emphasis in the way that God interacts with us—that is in the fullness of our bodily existence.

Jesus is God embodied …. he walks with it across Galilee and to Jerusalem … he eats with people showing us that God is there when we are fulfilling our bodily needs with food … and we know he had a reputation for parties … with all the attendant risk of overeating and greed. That final meal, we marked last night, was also one in which he washed feet … that intimate, sensual interaction which countless Christians sanitise by saying it is all about service.

So at home in this body he allows himself to be touched by women and men alike, pressed in and jostled by crowds eager for healing and grace, dined and satiated, lying head on breast of the other in close and intimate connection, the kiss that most sensual of gestures that can greet and betray all point to the sheer bodilyness of God’s connection with our whole being. In the end this body of Jesus is anointed, wrapped and laid in a tomb.

Our bodies are crucial to the spiritual journey. It is the way we know God. We are not just spiritual beings in some kind of dispensable vessel.

The life and passion of Christ … in fact his whole gestation and birth … show us that God affirms and is expressed through our bodily existence—living, breathing, experiencing existence. One blogger suggested that this week is all about the body—your body and mine; Jesus’ body—baby, boy, man, punching bag; the disciples bodies—up close and then fleeing; Pilate’s (his hands in particular) … you get the idea. And then that body stretched and nailed to the cross.

Those arms outstretched over the whole earth. ‘When I am lifted up from the earth’, John records Jesus as saying, ‘I will draw all people to myself’. (John 12:32) He said this, the evangelist noted, ‘to indicate the kind of death he was to die’. (John 12:33) This drawing all to God in the very thing that flaws all of us at some time in our lives—suffering and death. Intense suffering—physical, psychological, emotional and spiritual suffering—and death.

The image of God incarnate arms outstretched drawing us all to God is striking. If the body was unimportant there would not be this gesture … it would be an intellectual appeal alone. God communicates to us with a body broken and knocked around as well as the beautiful body of the Lord. It is the brokenness which is the binding thing … because we all god through it at some point .. maybe even punched around too.

Some cannot cope with this image. They focus on the blood and gore and the horror of it all … or avoid it altogether and have a barren cross … or they use it triumphantly. But it is more than all of these things.

In her recent book The Merciful Humility of God, Jane Williams, as I noted on Sunday, encourages me to see this as God recalibrating what we think we know about God. God is not might and powerful but humble.

‘The humble God has relentlessly absorbed all our cruelty, violence, hopelessness, selfishness and fear, never returning like for like, but carrying it away with him into death.’ (p.102)

That’s the good news … it is carried away. We no longer be burdened by it.

In that revealing of God’s likeness we learn that true friendship which is what Jesus invites us to be … is about vulnerability (Charles LaFond, ‘Hospitality and the body’ on www.episcopalcafe.com/hospitality-and-the-body/ 15 April 2019) and in that vulnerability there is the inherent risk of being wounded, if not killed. This body is broken and God does not abandon it.

Yet this does not just indicate a turn for the worse in Jesus’ circumstances … it is inherent in the risk that is life. In one of his sermons, the English divine John Donne, links this back to the bodily act of God becoming human.

‘The whole life of Christ was a continual passion; others die martyrs, but Christ was born a martyr. He found a Golgotha (where he was crucified) even in Bethlehem, where he was born; for, to his tenderness then, the straws were almost as sharp as the thorns after; and the manger as uneasy at first, as his cross at last. His birth and his death were but one continual act, and his Christmas Day and his Good Friday are but the evening and morning of one and the same day.” (John Donne, “Sermon Number 11. Preached at St. Pauls upon Christmas Day. 1626.” The Sermons of John Donne, edited by Evelyn M. Simpson and George R. Potter [Berkeley: University of California Press, 1962], Volume 7, p. 279.)

This day we see the body of Jesus on the cross … we are not to flee from this …. just as we are not to flee from the humble God who expresses himself vulnerably in the manger. It is an invitation to allow God’s life to infuse and heal every aspect of our being … especially that which is most wounded and broken … and to allow God to make it whole so our bodies may become the temple of the Holy Spirit which Paul describes. (1 Corinthians 6:19-20) Our bodily-ness is the vehicle for this ultimate spiritual journey and unity of body, mind and spirit. He draws us all into this humble and liberating embrace.

Resist it not.

A Fire to Renew

Holy Saturday—20 April 2019 and Easter Sunday—21 April 2019

A Homily Delivered by Fr Stuart Soley, Parish Priest, Saint Mark the Evangelist Church, Fitzroy

On Good Friday, I preached about the body being the vehicle for us becoming closer to God and God entering every aspect of our bodily existence. Tonight / today I want to link those thoughts with the transformation possible in the resurrection of Jesus.

I had a strong bodily reaction to the news in the freshness of Holy Tuesday morning as I watched the flames engulfing the Cathedral of Notre Dame in Paris. My heart ached. Then the sight of faithful Parisians singing hymns to Notre Dame, Our Lady, as the flames leapt and the smoke billowed, brought tears to my eyes. I was not alone … for there was an extraordinary outpouring of emotion about this disaster, this place, at this time. Why?

Various commentators and politicians have spoken of its importance culturally and historically. Some have even gone as far to mention that Notre Dame is important for being where the seat of the Archbishop of Paris is situated. And then the promise to rebuild it and the promising of almost one million euros from some of the richest in the world. My heart enlarged once more at this news—the journey of sorrow and sadness to hope and joy.

All this has sparked a debate about why all this is being spent on the cathedral. It is now being asked why these monies are not found to deal with every issue that afflicts humanity and this fragile world and judgment is made about the donor’s motivations.

But this argument is flawed. We must stop dealing with things in such dichotomous ways. We do not need to make such choices because there are many things we need to do at the same time and this includes the care of the sacred wherever it is found—be it in humanity or the holy places. But make no mistake whether Notre Dame is restored or not—the economic and environmental systems of the world will remain intact and unreformed—unless we demand that they be reformed.

But Notre Dame, and many other sacred sites I might add, including this place, are even more than these descriptions. You just have to watch a Mass in that place to see in the faces of the faithful that pack that cathedral each week … a lively place that draws devotion and energy. Where does this devotion and energy come from? The light of the world … the resurrected Christ.

For me personally Notre Dame is one of those extraordinarily beautiful and luminous holy place … a ‘thin’ place where the divine is so close. A reported 30,000 visitors visit this cathedral each day. I was one of those back in 2006 … the noise and movement of crowds up the aisles and round the ambulatory is constant. They stop to light candles or write intercessions in a large book and as this melee goes on … the Mass is celebrated in the body of the church. I took in the sights, marvellous at the treasures and made my devotions before heading back outside only to experience this amazing urge to re-enter the cathedral once more to spend time in its mystical vibrating beauty. I was mesmerised and ‘felt’ that wholeness that God invites us to.

I share these reflections with you to illustrate that this is about a living, dynamic place … not a monument to the past or some confection of what that past is about. As one blogger put it dead stones and trees were fashioned in this place to worship the living God.

For the resurrection of Christ permeates all things and all places in this earth.

The resurrection of Christ is not about righting the past but drawing us into a present which is infused with new life and possibilities; new life and possibilities we began to live within with our first encounter with Jesus.

In her book The Merciful Humility of God, Jane Williams draws some beautiful portraits of those who encounter the resurrected Jesus. In each of these the living one—Jesus raised from the dead—confirms each of them in a new journey and identity—an unfolding transformative life—that they had begun when he was with them before his passion, crucifixion and death.

The stand out messenger at Easter is Mary Magdalene. For her the encounter with Jesus draws her into a new life.

To others she will always be the woman with a past ‘that would always dictate her future, but Jesus had given her hope that her life might have greater meaning.’ (p.122) It partially ends because of his death but he confirms her in a new role … apostle, the bearer of good news. So too with Peter who is the ‘rock’ in the earthly life of Jesus but is to become the shepherd … living beyond his vulnerability and drawing people into the new life of the risen Lord.

This is the vector of resurrected life … a transformation from the past .. no longer shackled by it but free of it and the seeds of that new life are being sown right now in your life and mine.

This is the possibility of the flame that was ignited here tonight (last night).

That flame burns in this Easter Candle.

It is available to us all through this coming year.

This flame indicates life is here … because it pierces the darkness where there is no hope or when life is just a directionless existence.

This flame indicates life is here … that darkness and evil has not quenched life or spirit.

This flame indicates life is here … flickering into a flame to bring warmth, healing and a guide for the journey ahead.

It is an exquisite irony that a flame somewhere in Notre Dame fanned into an almost uncontrollable conflagration. It was not the Easter flame, it must surely be a stray flame. But this coalescence of the two types of flame illustrate the double edged quality of fire. It is potent for us to consider these things.

We Christians know from the depths of our spiritual DNA that even if there is such a conflagration it will be true that from the ashes of such a conflagration are the seeds, the fertiliser for new and renewed and vibrant growth. It is never stops at desolation and disaster for us. As I said on Ash Wednesday as we were marked with ashes for the journey of this holy season … ashes can be the best fertiliser for growth unleashing what is deep within.

At Notre Dame amidst the debris of the crossing at which the weight of the falling spire broke the stone vaulting over the altar I noticed that the statue of Notre Dame de Paris to the right of the altar stood there undamaged overlooking the holy place. Mary, Mother of God watches over all that her son brings to fulfilment. Much was made of the saving of some of the so-called treasures of the Cathedral including one which is reputed to be the crown of thorns.

Michel Aupetit, the Archbishop of Paris, puts all this in context for the believer:

We must ask why Notre Dame was constructed. Why this human genius? Because they could have done something functional. Its far more than functional. And why? Because what is honoured there is absolutely splendid, that’s what we believe. And if you want to ask the real question, what jewel is this jewel box for? It’s not for the Crown of Thorns, you know? It’s for a piece of bread. It’s astonishing. How can one construct such a work of art for a piece of bread? That piece of bread is the Body of Christ. And that endures. Nobody will ever be able to destroy it.’

At Easter Time we remember that it is in the breaking of this bread that Christ is present to us … this life force, this light that no darkness can extinguish. We are guided by his light. We are fed by his body and blood for our spiritual journey. We are all called to this journey of transforming life to its fullness and wholeness. In this we are led by the Light of Christ … the morning star that knows no setting.  And the Easter Liturgy reminds us that we do not keep this for ourselves but pass this flame of life and wholeness on to others .... so pass it on … don’t keep it to yourselves … pass on the invitation to a transformed life in the light of the Resurrected One.

For Christ is Risen!