16 December 2014

Homily for the Twenty-Seventh Sunday after Pentecost, Ukrainian Catholic Cathedral of the Holy Family, 14 December 2014

Here in our Byzantine church in London in December 2014, we seem for an hour to have stepped out of time. A few yards away Oxford Street is heaving with shoppers, engrossed as one mind in the drudgery of shopping for Christmas. Yet here we are keeping an ordinary Sunday, and our celebration of the Nativity of our Lord God and Saviour, Jesus Christ, according to the flesh is a month away.

It is true that two weeks ago we began the Nativity Fast, but it is only next week that we will begin to sing a chant that looks to the coming feast with an anticipation that we share with the expectant Mother of God. We are also a few weeks away from the Sundays that will honour the ancestors of Christ who prepared His coming. But coming out of the time around us, does not mean that we have put the world on pause. We are not at a stand-still. Yet standing is the theme taken by both the Apostle and the Evangelist today.

For St Paul (Ephesians 6.10-17), standing is readiness and resistance, holding your position against the coming struggle. He alludes to the prowess of the soldier, the champion standing head and shoulders above the rest, the athlete whose years of physical training have prepared him to go to, in the defence of peace. This spiritual warrior is confident in the Lord of hosts and assured in what he is to do. His standing is strong, and recalls to us the way St Paul talks about how we may all attain the fullness of the stature of humanity in Christ. With this stature, such a soldier of Christ may be like a coiled spring; but the image of him is static. He stands in the strength of waiting and resilience.

In St Luke’ story (Luke 13. 10-17), at first sight the standing comes after release for an old lady of her years of being bent double. It is healing; it is freedom from misery and the spirit-sapping energy of adversity and disability. We are drawn into a bewildering scene where a woman, who has not only been disabled for eighteen years but marginalised for it because her condition is blamed on a baleful spirit, is spectacularly healed. In the dramatic moment, we expect universal rejoicing and wonder at the power of God among us. But the magic of the moment is snapped, when a clergyman with an answer for everything declares that healing on the Sabbath is against the rules. It did not dawn on him that this was not earthly effort, but can only have come from the initiative of God. You can just hear him turning on Jesus, and saying, “It’s not what you did, it’s the way you did it”; or, “You should have consulted me first.” The Lord can readily point to the double standards and the failure to see the purpose of God: that God made the Sabbath to show off the completeness of the world and of humanity that was once achieved by creation, and now by healing and salvation. Ironically – again, you can picture it – the head of the synagogue congregation and the Lord have a “stand-up” row; and between them a dumbfounded woman, also standing up, but for her it the first time properly in two decades, her lips frozen in mid-praise to God, while the very person who should have been most glad for her, the man of God, is shown up and blames the Son of God for making the world a little more like the Kingdom of Heaven than it was before. Yet the image we have is still static; we and the old lady are not moving now; again things are static. There is a hint of it in today’s troparion (Sundays of the Second Tone): “When You went down to death, O Life immortal, You struck Hades dead…” There is something abrupt, and we hold our breath as we wait for something to happen next.

In our language, standing tends to give that impression – waiting, resisting (confronting, perhaps), talking, meeting, arriving, even holding things up. Standing is after the end of things, or before their beginning, or a pause in their midst. But to the first hearers of the Lord and the readers of St Paul, standing is all about an act that is in the process of being done, a dynamic movement on which there is consequence and progression.

When St Paul writes of standing, the word he uses is part of the same word he uses for the resurrection of Christ. Telling us to stand, he is telling us to live the life of those now risen from the dead, even before their deaths. Imagine if we in English never knew of the word “resurrection”. Imagine if all the time, like the Dutch and Germans, we referred to the Upstanding of Christ. In other words, St Paul is not telling us to train and arm ourselves for a fight, even a spiritual one, so that we can stand and be ready. He is telling us to stand up, just like Christ stood up from lying in His grave. St Paul is telling us to live not as those preparing to live out our days on earth, as we head towards our deaths, but with the capacity for living the life that is already ours – the life of resurrection that is already at work in us, countering the effects of evil and destruction, which did their worst until Christ rose up and stood over them and can now never separate us from Him. This is why we sing every Easter, “Christ is risen from the dead, trampling down death by death and to those in the tombs giving life”. In the famous hymn by Charles Wesley, “Soldiers of Christ, arise” (The Whole Armour of God, Charles Wesley, 1747), he speaks likewise of overcoming, of “tread[ing] all the powers of darkness down” – not by mere victory, but by living the resurrection life in which we “stand entire at last” – entirely filled with grace, entirely filled with freedom from sin, from the destroying limitations of earthly life, thus entirely human again, being filled with the Upstanding of Christ himself within us.

So look again at the Gospel. It is not just the story of a healing miracle. It is a description of Christ’s own resurrection and the new life that comes from it for all. Like Him, the woman is brought down to nothingness until, by the end of her own Good Friday and then the beginning of the Sabbath –do not forget that days begin on the sunset the closes the preceding day, the Friday evening – she is finally laid low and all her strength is drained. The miracle of the destruction of death is worked through her on the Sabbath, which means cessation – not merely cessation from work activity, but the enforced cessation of sin and evil’s activity too. While no act appears to be have been happening, the power of God to heal and set the earth-bound soul to the eternal liberty intended for it takes effect. Lo and behold, she rises; she stands up. It is not the end of an old infirmity. It is not the afterword towards the end of a life, whose most active years, once full of potential, have been lost. It is the Upstanding of Jesus at work in her.

As we look forward with those around us to the forthcoming celebrations, we have stepped out of their time but we have not frozen our chronology, or pressed the “pause” button. The fast of moderation and the entering of a saner, less frenzied dimension may come as a relief. But we are not here for respite. We are here because we know that the real hurry of humanity is not for material things that will pass on their way in a few weeks’ time. The real hurry of humanity that we are occupied with is to meet the timing of God, who started His standing up even before there was a resurrection to show for it, as the story of the old lady has shown us. His constant standing up in every day and season takes us by surprise too, because we entertain the notion that the Resurrection is a thing of the past; and then it comes up to us, stands before us, and reminds us that we belong not to this world - or even to this passing world’s next world - but to a new, enduring and eternal world that has been begun in the midst of us and our time, and of which we are the population. Living in such a world, it is possible for us not to sin. In such a world, dying, behold we live (II Corinthians 6.9), and yet it is not we who live, but Christ who lives within us (Galatians 2.20). In such a world, it is possible for us to realise the Kingdom of God. In such as world, standing is not a matter of waiting or keeping still, but of movement upon movement, energised by grace to aspire for the blessedness of living in the very heaven, and constantly to hurry to catch up with it and get into it.

St Paul tells us that “you will be able to stand, and after having done everything, to stand”. It is a strange phrase, if you think it is all about withstanding, holding ready and staying still. But if you remember that it is about Christ’s ceaseless moving to stand up, to stand up within us, to be our rising as well, our will is nothing other than to be one with our God, and to desire above all things His Coming Kingdom, saying,
Still let the Spirit cry
in all His soldiers, “Come!”
Till Christ the Lord descends from high
and takes the conquerors home.
The Whole Armour of God, Charles Wesley, 1747