20 December 2019

Wider than the heavens, our bearing of the Light of the World: Homily for the Twenty-Sixth Sunday after Pentecost, Divine Liturgy of St John Chryostom, Ukrainian Cathollic Cathedral, London, 15th December 2019

In the six years since we have been celebrating the Divine Liturgy in English each month at the Ukrainian Cathedral, I do not think it has happened so far that we have encountered the Sunday chants of the Resurrection in the First Tone. So now here we are in the preparation for celebrating the Lord’s Advent in the flesh in 2019, and we encounter less familiar words to acclaim His rising from the dead.

But it is all of a piece. In the Troparion (see below), we see how the earth contains within it the body of the Lord, a stone laid to seal it in. At His resurrection the Lord gives life to the world of death, first arising within the Tomb before arising from it. It reminds us of how the Prophet Isaiah said (Isaiah 45.8), “Drop down, you heavens from above, and let the skies pour down righteousness. Let the earth come open, and bring forth a Saviour”. In the same way as the Spirit from the Father flooded the Tomb on the Third Day, that in the living of the Trinity the Son of Man and Son of God might rise from the dead, so the Holy Spirit pours down grace upon the Blessed Virgin Mary, filling her with that righteousness that will have been won in the future by her Son’s bloodshed on the Cross, and interring within her, like a plant in the earth, the Incarnate Word Whom she will bring forth as the Saviour. The Tomb, the Womb, a Saviour emerging from within the world and bringing out through it the Kingdom of heaven: it could come no other way. We could not reach it. Instead it has reached into us. Its burst upon our scene is so surprising that it is unrecognisable; but that is what is facing us. Thus we sing, “Glory to Your Kingdom; glory to Your saving plan”. The Lord tells us (Luke 17.22f): “The time is coming when you will long to see one of the days of the Son of Man, but you will not see it. People will tell you, ‘Look, there He is,’ or ‘Here He is.’ Do not go out or chase after them. For as the lightning flashes and lights up the sky from one end to the other, so will be the Son of Man in His day. But first He must suffer many things and be rejected.” In other words the Kingdom will come not in a spectacle, but within the life spent in human and divine love upon the Cross, from within a dead body laid in the earth; and that it all began to play out from within the womb of Virgin, just as it was all conceived when the Spirit of God brooded across the waters and the Creator spoke in His Word, saying, “Let there be Light” - the Word that would take flesh and dwell among us, the True Light who lights every man from within, even though the direction of that light from the very way He made it, caused it not to be recognised.

Both the Troparion and the Kontakion speak of the glory of this light, just as St Paul today exhorts us (Ephesians 5.9-19) to spurn the works of darkness and enjoy the fruit of light. But where is this light to be seen? How is it visible, seeing that we lack the bearings to see it and where it is coming from, even if we notice the shadows where it does not shine? He tells us that we can stand in the light by being awake to the wisdom and will of God in the present moment, not putting things off because we think the Kingdom of God, with the demands and opportunities of our new way of living eternally, can be dealt with all in good time. He tells us not to be fooled by the “business as usual” of the world we are in. He says the days are evil. In our current parlance, we could reply, “Yes, but let’s be realistic. Let’s do a reality check. Let’s deal with the world as it is, not as it’s not. Let’s meet people where they are, not blame them for being where we think they shouldn’t be. As for ourselves, you can only do so much. I am what I am. Take me as you find me. We can cross that bridge when we come to it. We have to live in the real world. We’ll think about heaven when we need to. There’s too much to do here and now. Life is not a rehearsal. Life’s for living, not for dying.” The parlance in the Lord’s time was “Relax and enjoy. Eat, drink and be merry” (Luke 12.16-21); and “Eat and drink today. Die tomorrow” (Isaiah 22.13; I Corinthians 15.32). And to that, the Lord Who said, “Call no man a fool” (Matthew 5.22), says, “Fool – your soul is required of you tonight!”

It is interesting that St Paul’s antidote to living in this world, without paying attention to the direction from which the Kingdom is entering, is to sing hymns and spiritual songs. I have been singing hymns all my life. One can remember so much of them by heart. The way our brains work is that, often, we cannot remember the words so easily on their own, but when the music is recalled it unlocks the words. It is all to do with where the memory of music and thus lyrics is laid down in our heads. This is why so much of our Divine Liturgy’s prayer is sung, whereas in the Latin Church more of it is spoken. We not only remember it better. It sinks in; and we can call it forth from spirits when we sing. So I urge you to learn and sing our hymns and spiritual songs, not only in our Byzantine Liturgy, but also in our rich Christian culture in England. Try not to rely on texts and orders of services, but, as St Paul says, “sing and make melody to the Lord with your heart”. For this is the direction from which comes the light that we call radiant, and that others just cannot see, or that they dismiss as religious fervour. So, if you find it difficult to pray, or to concentrate on devotions – sing. Even if you are embarrassed to sing out loud, recall a tune in your head that unlocks the words of praise and devotion to Christ, and let your heart make joyful noise with it. Or gently hum. Or softly whistle. But hold the words with the melody, and St Paul says that in that very act the Spirit will fill you. This will be just as He filled the womb of the Blessed and spotless Virgin with the Divine Son, and just as He filled the body in the earth’s stone tomb when it arose from the dead.

It will be the same as the Angel Gabriel saying to the Virgin, “Rejoice”. In that instant she became Mother of God as the Lord took her flesh for His own. And in the same moment that we rejoice or lament with the Lord in our hearts, as today’s Theotokion tells us, we shall “become wider than the heavens carrying our Creator”. Imagine what it would be like if the words addressed to the Mother of God in the Theotokion were turned upon us. Then we should see where the complete surprise of the Light is coming from as we, even we, are told, “Glory to Him Who dwelt in you. Glory to Him Who comes forth from you.” We will be amazed, and just like the Mother of God, we would ask Saint Gabriel, “How can this be?” Yet it is. One of the great English hymns puts this profound dogmatic insight into how the Light comes into the World:

How silently, how silently
The wondrous gift is given;
So God imparts to human hearts
The blessings of His heaven.
No ear may hear His coming,
But in this world of sin
Where meek souls will receive him still
The dear Christ enters in.

O holy Child of Bethlehem,
Descend to us, we pray.
Cast out our sin and enter in,
Be born in us today.
We hear the Christmas angels
The great glad tidings tell.
O come to us, abide with us,
Our Lord Emmanuel.

For Emmanuel, God is with us. If you cannot see His light, come to confession that with a purified heart you may sing. For as the Light dawned from the Womb of the Mother of God, and then from out of the Tomb, so the direction remains the same. The Light shines upon His world from within the light in the lives of the People of His Church.

Note: Hymns for Sunday in the First Tone

Troparion of the Resurrection
Though the stone was sealed by the Jud├Žans* and soldiers guarded Your most pure body,* You arose, O Saviour, on the third day,* and gave life to the world.* And so the heavenly powers cried out to You, O Giver of life:* "Glory to Your resurrection, O Christ!* Glory to Your kingdom!* Glory to Your saving plan,* O only Lover of Mankind."

Kontakion of the Resurrection
You arose in glory from the tomb* and with Yourself You raised the world.* All humanity acclaims You as God,* and death has vanished.* Adam exults, O Master,* and Eve, redeemed from bondage now, cries out for joy:* “You are the One, O Christ, Who offer resurrection to all.”

When Gabriel uttered to you, O Virgin, his ‘Rejoice!’ * – at that sound the Master of all became flesh in you, the Holy Ark.* As the just David said,* you have become wider than the heavens carrying your Creator.* Glory to Him Who dwelt in you!* Glory to Him Who came forth from you!* Glory to Him Who freed us through birth from you!