11 December 2017

A Tree, a Vine and some Bread: Homily for the Twenty-Seventh Sunday after Pentecost, Ukrainian Greek Catholic Cathedral of the Holy Family of London, 10 December 2017

Once I knew a severely disabled person. Her body was twisted and rigid; it was very difficult to make her comfortable. She lacked the ability to understand or to communicate much, but we knew she lived in constant discomfort, because the pain lined her face, and we could see it. But they knew how to change that, because once a week she knew she was going to the swimming baths. Her family and carers would take and place her agonised body gently into the water. At that moment, her entire frame relaxed and her limbs, hands and joints unfurled. The lines melted from her face and it shone with open joy. Her cries of pain yielded to moans of pleasure and shrieks of exultation. It brought infectious happiness to all around. Furthermore, the effect lasted for the rest of the day, so that she could go home painlessly with delight all over her.

It grieves good-minded people, when they see other people in adversity like this. It provokes generous donations, and acts of unself-conscious kindness; even self-sacrifice. English people are famed for their sympathy for the under-dog an d the disadvantaged; but today’s Gospel (Luke 13.10-17) takes us beyond our initial indignation at the injustice of adversity and the exclusion inflicted by men of God who place conditions upon God’s power to heal and save. For what Our Lord Jesus sheds His light upon at this part of St Luke’s Gospel is the entire picture of that which stands in the way of the full achievement of that which human beings’ were created for. These obstacles may be self-inflicted; or they may be harmful influences from ill will and a life of unblessedness away from God; or they may come from natural conditions that have developed over many years. To all of our limitations, Jesus presents the blessedness of the Kingdom. At every Divine Liturgy we begin by recalling this, and many a time we sing of the blessedness, not of success or approval or prowess whether spiritual or worldly, but of those who are poor in spirit, who mourn, who do not put themselves first, who work for righteousness, who are merciful, who have honest hearts, who make peace, who endure adversity and injustice for the sake of the greatest prize of all: Heaven. And not just a heaven after death, but the blessing of living it now - if this is the approach to life in Christ that we resolve with all our heart to take, and make our own (Matthew 5. 1-12).

Jesus tells the story of the constricted woman whose life and heart are liberated for joy and the service of praise, in the context of three other observations. First, he speaks of the fig tree in the vineyard. The vine bears fruit, but the fig does not. The tree draws the goodness out of the earth, yet that is not enough. The owner of the vineyard is convinced to wait, to put more fertilising goodness into the earth, until the time that the fig will bear its fruit. It reminds us strongly of St John of the Cross listening to the complaints of those who were hated without cause and took it to heart, contemplating revenge or answering back. He said, “Where you find no love, put love; and then you will find love there.” So, a life held back by lasting failure, suffering because of being unloved, fruitless because of receiving no nourishment from anyone else, turns from dull wood and gives out of itself into blossom and fruit. The fig’s first fruit, as Jesus knew, would be bitter; but after that the harvests would be sweet. Time, patience, love, forbearance, belief in what will come: with all these in mind, He goes to heal the woman.

Immediately afterwards, He describes her heart as the mustard seed – on such a tiny speck of love and humanity He lavishes the expertise of the Sower, tending it from germination, uncurling in the dark earth, watering it under the warm sun, until it shoots and grows to overwhelming size. Think of that young woman I once knew, whose grimace under a cramped heart and body was unbounded to joy; and think of the woman bent double for eighteen years, her mindset unclosed and her voice released from ignored misery to spectacular glory for God. Notice how He does not wait for her to declare her faith in the Kingdom. It is He who calls to her, as He called to Andrew by the sea of Galilee, imparting the gift of belief, recognising that she has trusted God for all the years that she has come to the synagogue without relief. And so she is given the power to imagine the Kingdom come at Christ’s touch. Then, Jesus compares everything that has happened - in His thinking and in His miracle - to another laying-on of hands: the touch is firm, like that of the woman who mixes three measures of flour with water and yeast, kneading it until it is risen and can be baked into bread.

And now we see where He is pointing. Soon, friends among the Pharisees come and warm Him that a second King Herod will come to kill Him like the first had tried to; and Jesus tells them that He must take three measures of His own. On one day and a second He will teach His disciples, drive out evil and cure people’s bodies and souls; and on the Third Day he will achieve His goal: to die in Jerusalem. Thus on the Cross, He will be shown disfigured and bent double. The story of the woman’s in the synagogue was about Him. It is He who will be despised and begrudged. He will be the barren fig tree, denied love and rendered fruitless. He will thirst for nourishment but receive vinegar to drink. He will be reduced to insignificance and nothingness, only to be hurried into another man’s hole in the ground. He will be the One untouched by the woman’s anointing touch to prepare Him for burial.

And yet we know that this is not the end: this is the how the Kingdom comes. We know it from the description of the only kind of people that will inherit God’s World in the Beatitudes. We know it, because we know that the Lord expects the fig tree, after three measures of barrenness, patient then nourishment and initially bitter fruit, to bear sweetness and delight. We know it from the woman’s spirit crushed for years of living death, and then set free for the happiness in a life well lived because it is oriented to His presence and His coming Kingdom. We know it from the firm touch of the baker, who takes inert powder and causes it to rise. We know that on the Third Day He will rise again; and it will be like the difference between dead wood and sweet fruit, a tiny seed and the large plant that grows from it, the flour and the loaf, to see the constricted, bowed down, destroyed human form, prevented from living, then delivered and transformed, standing forth, standing up, risen and glorious in the Kingdom of blessedness, which we are to inhabit even now.

All these events and tales of long ago do not merely motivate us from the memory. It is no accident that Our Lord sets them out with the examples of flour leavened to rise and make bread, and of a fruitless tree in a vineyard. He Who has promised to be with us always calls us over constantly into His presence, His Kingdom, where He is the Vine nourishing us with His own Blood in the Eucharist that we endlessly need to receive, and where He is the Living Bread giving His own Flesh for the life of the world.

In a few moments, we will take wine and water, and leavened loaves, and bring them to the Altar for the sacrifice. As Jesus foresaw at the conclusion of his stories, we will see Him at His coming and say, “Blessed is He Who comes in the Name of the Lord”; and we will hear Him say to us in return, “Blessed are those who are to sit at the feast in the Kingdom”.

Lord Jesus, we await Your coming. Give us this Bread always. May hearts and spirits which have been contorted by sin, self-pity and adversity be unwound. Lord, may those who are not ready to stand against the wiles of the devil, now stand clothed in Your armour, strong in Your power (Ephesians 6.10-11, today's Epistle). Lord, may we be in Your Kingdom, on earth as it is in heaven. God with us, Risen Lord, give us this Bread always.