SERMON: The Faith In Four Days by Martin Thornton

The Faith In Four Days by Martin Thornton

From A Joyful Heart: Meditations for Lent

There are many ways of observing Holy Week, ancient and modern, traditional and experimental, all concluding with the tremendous impact of Maundy Thursday, Good Friday, Holy Saturday, and Easter Day.  An obvious and exciting thing about these four days is their distinction in message and devotional emphasis.  What is frequently brought out less clearly is the essential interrelation between them; to live through these four days is to cover the calendar, virtually to live through the creed.

Maundy Thursday is basically the day of the eucharistic celebration, which word has its particular theological relevance.  For significantly, the sacraments are administered; only the Eucharist, in normal discourse, is celebrated.  So what does the word “celebrate” imply?

Firstly, it implies community.  A desert-island castaway might just remember his birthday – given the means to calculate it – and drink his own health in coconut juice, but it would barely pass as celebration.  Secondly, it is based on memory of a significant event in the past, and thirdly, that even is more than recalled, it is made present by re-enactment.  The important date as you celebrate your birthday is today, now you are sixty; that you were born sixty years ago is the celebrated event, there is a connection between the two, spanning sixty years, but it is today, now, that the celebration takes place.  So lastly, a celebration has to be historically based.  It may be possible to conjure up all kinds of peculiar incidents to celebrate, like falling in the river after another celebration or being bitten by a dog, but such events must have happened.  Any excuse for a party, but you cannot just invent a celebration.  All of which, on reflection, contains quite a bit of useful, simple, yet sound eucharistic doctrine.

Maundy Thursday points to the family feast of the people of God.  It is more than that, much more, but the analogy of the family meal suddenly becomes liturgically topical, offering some illumination on current pastoral practice and experiment, and possibly some guidance.  The Eucharist is the Christian family meal; yes, but what sort of meal?  Because there is more than one kind.  Some of it is obvious enough: the heavenly banquet, high mass, with a sanctuary full of ministers dressed up with rightfully gorgeous dignity, the great family occasion, perhaps the wedding breakfast of the heir.  And all properly formal, correctly ritualistic; but there are other sorts of family meals, which happen more frequently.

Good old English Sunday luncheon; roast beef and apple pie, with grandparents and a nephew or two to swell the numbers.  Dom Cuthbert Butler’s Benedictine ideal comes in here: love, familiarity, good manners, but no pomp or regimentation.  Even the most Edwardian family does not dress for Sunday luncheon, but ties, jackets, and no exposed braces gives the main thrust of the thing.  This is the Sung Eucharist on a normal Sunday.

Then there is what Mrs. Beeton calls that comfortable meal called breakfast; the quiet little celebration early in the morning.  And supper which is nearly but not quite the same, only in the evening.  What of the house-mass?  Assuredly the shirtsleeves and carpet slippers affair round the family hearth, with little pomp and a minimum of ceremony.

The point of the analogy is that the riches of the eucharist are too much to absorb at one go, and we may be missing out by a bigoted insistence on a single type.  The numinous wonder of the old high mass, eastward position and eastern altar, pointing to the majesty of the Holy Trinity; the domesticity of the ferial central altar; the so-special occasion demanding serious preparation, and the straight low-key celebration which is the Christian’s normal daily food, the simple family meal.  Perhaps parishes and people might benefit by switching the devotional emphases around?

Maundy Thursday remains the day of eucharistic celebration, the re-enactment or making present of the passion, which points to the incarnation.  So to the cross.

You cannot be light-hearted before the cross.  But you can be, and ultimately must be, unsentimental and theologically aware, and the secret of Good Friday devotion is an attempt at a synthesis between what tradition knows as the objective and subjective theories of the atonement.  To sum up, we seek a subjective approach to an objective fact: “When I survey the wondrous cross.”

The initial approach on Good Friday has to be unashamed nakedness, prostration; the woodlouse has to roll itself up into a ball of surrender.  The crucified, atoning woodlouse incarnate.  The physical sufferings of Jesus are treated in hundreds of devotional classics, not least in that sublime devotional-theological synthesis in the ninth Revelation of Julian of Norwich: “Then, said Jesus our kind Lord: ‘If thou art pleased, I am pleased: it is a joy, a bliss, an endless satisfying to me that ever suffered I passion for thee; and if I might suffer more, I would suffer more.'”

It would be foolish to try to improve on this meditation, except possibly to show the inadequacy of the woodlouse analogy at this point.  It can be assumed that physical suffering increases with human sensitivity, our own sufferings are more acute than those of a woodlouse in the fire, and the sacred humanity of Jesus implies a greater sensitivity than we can imagine.  Yet this means little compared with the spiritual agony of the sinless suffering which is the price of sin: “My God, my God, why hast thou forsaken me?”

Yet the cross is a wondrous one; it is the supreme victory, and on the grounds that nobody will achieve the ultimate synthesis – with the possible exception of Julian and Saint Anselm – it comes down to the question of attrait.  So we should not be ashamed if our meditation on the passion fails to stir our affections as truly as we should wish.  It is more important to cling fast to the objective fact of atonement once for all achieved.  “O sacred head sore wounded” has to be balanced by “Sing my tongue the glorious battle.”

I do not think that I am alone in being a little disturbed by military parade services, because the only posture suitable before the cross is naked prostration, not standing proudly to attention with personal decorations flapping.  Yet if we are at the cross with Saint Anselm, or with Julian, perhaps a modicum of flag-waving might be permissible: “It is finished,” the victory is complete.  Christ ascended the cross naked and yet “the royal banners forward go.”  An ancient liturgical tradition sees Good Friday as a non-liturgical day, with no music, hymns, congregational meditations, or whatever.  Just prostration plus naked joy at the foot of the cross.  It is a pity that this tradition has been overruled, and it could hint at a return of the cricketing nightmare: have the laity got to be stimulated and talked at all the time?  Are the faithful incapable of one day’s holy silence?

Or rather two days.  Because if there is a day of contemplative silence within the Christian year it must be Holy Saturday, or Easter Eve, or the Greater Sabbath.  The original sabbath indicates God’s outpouring of contemplative love sustaining the completed creation.  The second, or Greater Sabbath, is characterized by Christ’s contemplative love consummating creation’s redemption; the whole creation, all four divisions of the Thomist league.

On Easter Day, all but the grizzliest puritan want our churches and cathedrals to be bedecked with color and flowers and music, indicating the victory of Christ for creation.  But must we all start bustling about at nine o’clock on the Greater Sabbath morning?  Having made the penitential gesture of austerity for the forty days of Lent, what a pity to spoil it all right at the end.  And it is playing into Screwtape’s hand, for there are three things that the devil can neither achieve nor tolerate: prayer, silence, and sitting still.

There are many classic analogies for the resurrection: the grain of corn that has to die and be buried in order to rise and bear fruit through transformation  The Easter egg which, being broken, brings embryonic life out into a wider, more expansive environment.

Christianity teaches the doctrine of the resurrection of the body, which is so distinct from the philosophical notion of the immortality of the soul.  That is why I have always been suspicious of the world “soul,” either in theology or more especially in devotion: it tends to become either ambiguous or sentimental.  Neither do I feel at home with the Quaker’s divine spark, or the life-principle, or similar phrases.  Yet what does one make of Christ’s resurrection as of cosmic significance, as affecting all four divisions of the Thomist football league, in this context?  And how is this squared with God’s personal love for the woodlouse and for Sister Milly, the millipede?

It is a hoary old idea that, explain it how you like, by physics or chemistry or physiology, there remains some indefinable and wondrous thing called life, which must be indestructible because if the resurrection is of cosmic significance, then everything is indestructible.  It was brought home to me a couple of years ago when I nearly died, and watched a woodlouse wandering round the bean plants exuding nitrogen, volatile plant nutrient: life.

In spite of the great Albert Schweitzer, neither have I been entirely happy with the morality centered on the sanctity of life, especially as it pertains to emotive subjects like euthanasia, capital punishment, and pacifism.  Let me hasten to add that I have no intention to cut my throat, that I have no desire to hang anyone, and I do not want to start a war: I simply do not find the sanctity of life arguments very convincing.  It is simply that, if we take the doctrine of the resurrection of Jesus seriously, human life here in the third division is less, not more, important.  After all, Saint Paul was bewildered: “to be with Christ which is much better.”  He was willing to stay in the third division if he could be useful, but he was more anxious to get into the second with all the other saints.  It is a peculiar embryo duck that does not want to be hatched.

It is central to the gospel that Jesus did not have to die; he chose to.  And what happens to the Christian tradition of the glorious company of martyrs?

But back to Milly and the woodlouse: no immortality of the soul, no divine spark, above all, no death, because the last enemy is overcome.  “Sing my soul the glorious battle.”  That is the Easter mystery: let us rejoice.

I have hinted that these four days summarize the whole of Christian living based on the whole creed: Maundy Thursday has the Eucharist based on the incarnation; Good Friday is atonement-redemption day; Holy Saturday is the contemplative consummation of the redeemed creation; the whole cosmic universe is resurrected on Easter Day.

These four days depict the fundamental progression of the Christian life of prayer, a progression of three stages, or aspects of prayer, which nevertheless continue to interplay throughout the whole of life, however advanced that life may become.  The three stages start with the covenant relation between God and humankind which means obedience to the divine command.  Maundy Thursday is all about simple obedience: “Do this in remembrance of me”; never mind the theory, stop fussing about worthiness of reception; do it.

Good Friday is also about obedience, that of Christ on the cross, the final consummation of the covenant with the Father.  The next stage is our encounter with the resurrected Lord, our relation with God transformed from simple obedience to his commands to a living personal relationship.  That is one reason why, whatever our attrait, however lacking in affective devotion, meditation on the cross and passion, centered on the Sacred Humanity, cannot be left out.  Without the resurrection, the Easter message, there can be no meeting with Jesus.

Finally, there is incorporation into that Sacred Humanity; the grafting of human buds into the divine parent-stock: the stupendous hope of our deification, or as Teilhard would have it, christification.  This is what Saint Paul means by being “in Christ,” and it is the contemplative stage; back to Maundy Thursday and on again to Easter Day.

If that is the fundamental schema of Christian life – covenant, encounter, incorporation – it is to be noted that it forms both progression and pattern.  In other words, we move from obedience to awareness of Christ’s presence to contemplation of and in his resurrected life. It is trinitarian and eucharistic.  But in another sense all the stages overlap and interact throughout life; we never grow out of the need for simple obedience to divine commandment.

1 Comment on SERMON: The Faith In Four Days by Martin Thornton

  1. Thanks, Julia. I realy appreciate the stuff you post – gems from so many writers on my reading list that I never quite get around to otherwise.


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