Sunday, 11 May 2014
Homily for the Sunday of the Paralytic, 10 May, Ukrainian Catholic Cathedral of the Holy Family
The early books of Alan Garner, supposedly written for children but no less captivating for the older child, open the imagination to unforeseen new dimensions. Thus he stands in the noble tradition of Tolkien, C S Lewis, George Macdonald and Charles Williams. They did not write science fiction or fantasies. What they set out to do was to tell the story of people’s lives and worlds, if we were to come across the same things by stepping into another universe. None of them are writing about utopias, where everything is sinless or perfect – far from it in Mordor and Narnia. Nor are they tales of magic, in which nature is gone against and impossible dreams conjured up into reality; where the obstacles of evil are smashed by a trick from outside help, instead of being worked on and worked with, repurposed, restored, remade, recreated from within. For this is what miracle is, the power of creation to thrive within the limitations of creation, and to overpower that which would thwart it, to transform and transcend it. C S Lewis calls this “deep magic”; the other writers, too, look for signs of a deeper reality that can take form in our world, and in our souls, but which is so difficult to grasp, even when we see its meaning at work before our very eyes.
So it is in Alan Garner’s story of Roland, Ellen and their friends. Elidor is set 40 years ago in grim, industrial, declining Salford. The children are playing around the slum clearances, yet warned not to enter an abandoned church itself in the process of demolition. But Roland hears a pure note of resounding music – a horn? a song? - that draws him into the church. The others follow and they find themselves in a beautiful land called Gorias, which also faces destruction and misrule. They are welcomed as saviours. The people of Gorias do not make them kings, or ask them to fight any last battles; instead they ask them to take the Treasures of Gorias, which are their symbols of justice, prosperity, authority and spiritual good, back to their own world for safekeeping, lest they fall into the hands of the wicked. Thus Roland, Ellen and their friends take away a gleaming sword, a cauldron of plenty, a spear and an ancient stone. Finding themselves coming out of the church, in their hands they see a jagged plank of wood, a broken cup, an iron railing and a lump of stone from the old church. They cannot explain or understand their Treasures. Soon they are pursued; they face mortal danger and then a terrible crisis, when their parents dispose of the “rubbish” they have collected. But they persevere; and one day the music resounds again, this time from within their closely guarded debris. The wicked have failed, the good have prevailed and the children are called back to restore the Treasures they had kept safe in hiding. On returning to Gorias they find they are carrying not the debris of destruction and decay but, once more, a sword, a cauldron, a spear and a stone of destiny.
Listening to the Scriptures today, we hear the first-hand accounts of people who met the apostles and the Lord Himself. Like the Treasures of Gorias, they are disregarded in this world, but bearers of the power of another. First we meet Aeneas, laid low from the fullness of active life for eight years, now told to rise up. Secondly, we meet Tabitha, who spent her life in goodness for others. Her untimely death clearly broke the hearts of the disciples, so they turned to someone whose name, like hers, had also been changed. They called on Peter the Rock of the Church, who had been transformed from the simple fisherman Simon. By faith in his Master, Simon Peter’s prayer raised Tabitha-Dorcas up. Finally, we meet a man by the pool of Bethsaida, who had been paralysed for thirty-eight years - so long that no one had noticed him, until Jesus walking by saw into his heart. It is the same story – the Lord sees the truth, and the patient hope of the people waiting for the Kingdom to come, and He wills its goodness to prevail and outlast what has, until then, defeated it.
He proposes to the paralysed man that he should stand up. When He talks of standing up, Jesus is pointing towards His resurrection from the dead, after the destruction of his life in the flesh on the Cross. But the apostle Peter is not merely looking back on the past and hoping prayer will patch people up, or even repeat the same return from the dead as happened to Jesus. He is drawing on the resurrection as a fact of existence – an ever present reality that has been opened up to us and is live and active.
For the resurrection we believe in and even now live in, is not an after death experience. It is not a remedy for ill, or a corrective to adversity. Nor is it a magicked happy ending to undo a disastrous finale. Neither is it the result of the death on the Cross, or the next step in unfolding events. In God’s plan, it is what was going to happen all along, because it is the nature of things all the way through.
I began with a story that shifted us in and out of different worlds, so that we had to think that what we see in this world is not how it is in another. So it is an interesting coincidence, too - is it not? – that in the Scriptures the word Bethzaida can mean both “the House of Mercy” and “the House of Disgrace”. There an old man who kept his eyes lowered in humiliation, from whom the world looked away in disgust, is the one to whom the Lord turned His mercy, and not to others. The one consigned to oblivion is remembered in the Kingdom. As for Roland and Ellen, the souvenirs of a day’s play on a demolition site can be known to be the Treasures in another world entirely. By the same token, the normal state of things in heaven appears different to us when they come into the dimension by which we are bounded. Thus, what does the life and person of God the Son look like when He enters the world? He takes on mortality in the cycle of creation. What is the human nature of the Second Person of the Trinity like, when He lives a Man among humans? He who endlessly and completely gives Himself out in unconditional love to the Father and the Spirit in heaven repeats the same pattern without ceasing, as He gives Himself out in conditional love to the Father and the Spirit within His creation. Here it leads to sacrifice and death on the Cross, but it is indistinguishable from the same Mystery of endlessly giving and being given which is the One God in Trinity. And what is the life of God the Son, when He has died to the world like all His human kind? He who endlessly and completely receives the unconditional self-giving of the Father and the Spirit in heaven, in the same pattern receives them within the creation; and it cannot be that any of His Person, even his crucified humanity, can remain in death. Having given Himself away completely, in love He is raised by the Father with the Spirit, since they never cease to give themselves completely to the Son. It is not just how it was always going to end; it is just how it is. What we have witnessed and experienced as Resurrection is the One God who exists as Trinity. And it is this existence, this inexhaustible power, this unconditional love, that Christ calls upon to raise the paralysed; that draws us up in resurrection even now; that animates the Church to stand up as image of the Trinity’s love and indestructible truth and justice; what is truly right and good in the world. As St Paul put it, “dying, behold, we live.”
In a few moments time, we will be drawn up above our mortal horizon into the dimension of heaven. We, the Church, will see the Lamb upon the throne and we will be asked to take the Treasure of the Kingdom and bring it into our world. We will see before us mere bread and wine, but we will know it to be the Body and Blood of Christ, God among us. As we feed on this Food, we will understand what it is for us people and our world of events, hurtling to history here, nonetheless to form the population of heaven - the operation of the very Kingdom of God - there on high in glory and the endless cycle of giving out in love and praise, here in the no less constant cycle of sacrifice, elevation on the Cross, resurrection and undying hope, as we face the blessedness without ever turning away. For heaven is not an aftermath, but the dimension of the earth as it is designed to be in the Kingdom of God, the ever giving and given God, who is ever descending to live in us that we may live through Him, and ever rising within us, so that, free of all that holds us back, we too may be raised, and live in the same unconditional love and inexhaustible hope.