A Canticle

Yesterday I got a sweet email from my friend Francis Spufford, expressing his prayerful concern for the condition of my country right now, and I replied,

It’s getting harder to maintain hope, and harder still to maintain charity towards Certain People. I told Teri yesterday that I’m ready to move to a cabin in the desert of West Texas and check back in with humanity in 2030. In the unlikely event that things will be better.

Francis answered that “If you do that, you may of course find yourself operating a scriptorium, where the works of St Wystan are copied by hand so they may survive the dark age to come….”

In the current circumstances, that doesn’t seem like the worst way to pass my remaining years.

But Francis also pointed me to this reflection by the Reverend Canon Jessica Martin — whom Francis happens to be married to — about a very small moment very long ago, featuring two very small people, that carries, for those with ears to hear, a very large hope.

Remembering David Martin

The great sociologist of religion David Martin has died: you may read an overview of his incredibly wide-ranging career, written by a former colleague, here. (I was fascinated to learn there that he wrote a so-far-unpublished book on “secularization through the lens of English poetry”!) Today I am giving thanks for his life and witness, and remembering in prayer his family: his wife Bernice and his daughter Jessica Martin — my friend, and a priest whose sermons I sometimes quote or post in toto here.

Much attention will be given, in reflections on Martin’s career, to his work on secularization, and rightly enough, given its influence. But it will be very hard for us to get our minds around the totality of that work, for what it did, above all, was complicate all previous work on secularization. And the primary way it complicated that work was by decentering the Western European account (WEA, I’ll call it) of secularization, which Western intellectuals have always had a tendency to see as the normal or expected path of change in religious practice and experience. But, as Martin wrote in his concise and accessible Forbidden Revolutions (1996), “We can observe at least four distinct trajectories in Christian cultures: Eastern Europe, Latin America, Western Europe and North America. If social differentiation is the working core of the theory of secularization, it takes at least four forms, which do not necessarily converge.”

That WEA model of secularization, Martin argues, “acts as an implicit guide and censor on what we permit ourselves to see” — and therefore obscures from us how secularization happens, if it happens at all, elsewhere. The influence of the WEA model led to it being imposed in Eastern Europe, “the guiding spirit [of] an explicit programme to enforce secularization.” To a somewhat lesser extent attempts at enforced secularization happened in certain Latin American countries as well, and Forbidden Revolutions describes how stubborn practitioners of the Christian faith were able to resist such imposition. Why that resistance took Catholic forms in Eastern Europe and Pentecostal forms in Latin America is the meat of Martin’s story.

Forbidden Revolutions is not generally thought of as one of Martin’s central works — it’s less academic and more Christian than his most celebrated texts — but I find myself thinking of it often these days, even though I only read it once, many years ago. I think perhaps it is time for me to return to it. In the meantime, thanks be to God for the life and work of David Martin. Rest eternal grant unto him, O LORD: and let light perpetual shine upon him. May he rest in peace.

The Four Last Things: Hell (a sermon by the Rev. Jessica Martin)

3rd Sunday of Advent, 16th December 2018

Old Testament: Zephaniah 3.14-20

New Testament: Phil.4.4-7

Gospel: Luke 3.7-18

The Lord is near. [Phil.4]

And the crowds asked [John]…’What then should we do?’ [Luke 3]

Today is a day for joy. Its traditional name is ‘Gaudete Sunday’, which you could translate as ‘Rejoice Sunday’. It gets its name from the first line of the New Testament reading: ‘Rejoice in the Lord always, and again I say ‘Rejoice!’’ That is Paul’s instruction to the people of Philippi; that is what he enjoins them to do in every waking moment. Rejoice! In the watching and waiting of Advent, today points urgently towards the joy which comes towards us. ‘The Lord is near’. He is close now. Before long he will be with us, in our company; before long we will know, just as we are fully known, face to face with our redeemer and judge, Jesus Christ. Rejoice!

Oh, but hang on a moment, you’re thinking. Isn’t today the day we get some preaching about hell? Don’t duck out of it; we hardly ever get any preaching about hell these days, and we were quite curious about what you felt able to say. Is it real; is it not real? Is anyone bound for it, or are we all redeemed whatever we do, think, feel or say? Have we any time or place for hell in our polite, restrained and studiedly incurious Church of England? And what has hell to do with rejoicing?

When I was a very small child, I was walking with my mother by the sea, and I asked her whether hell was real. It was a cold, grey day: we were on a pier somewhere, sharing a paper cone full of tiny shrimps, which tasted surprising; delicious. She paused a long time, and then said, cautiously, ‘Some people say that the hells we experience happen before we die’. She didn’t say anything else. But I thought about that for a long time, I am still thinking about it half a century later, because… it turned things upside down, somehow, if this world was the world with the real horrors in it; and the world to come – whatever else it might contain – was to be a place mercifully free of man’s inhumanity to man.

Put aside the pictures in your mind of the medieval place of punishment; the strange, toothy stick-insect torturers of Hieronymus Bosch, the half-comic prancing devils with their pitchforks, and the patient, agonised, mutilated bodies of the lost. These are human nightmares: they imagine the ways in which God might be cruel in a peculiarly human way. It is true that the ingenuity and passion we expend upon hurting each other participate in the nature of hell. Each time we see another person as less than fully human – a thing to be used or discarded – we draw nearer to its gates. Yet it is not true that ‘hell is other people’. Hell is where we are when other people vanish from our affections, hell is not a hot place but the place where love grows cold; hell comes near when we lose our capacity for sympathetic imagination; when we look around the world we are in and see nothing but endless reflections of our own hungry, lonely selves.

Last week Canon Johnson, pondering the nature of God’s judgement, talked about the experience of being brought up into the light, the place where the secrets of all hearts are revealed. I want to think about that. About what it might be if every part of you were discovered, shone upon: the secrets, the forgotten things, shames and struggles and failed attempts at goodness; resentments and hatreds and griefs; pride and contempt; cruelties of thought, hidden actions, furtive transgressions; and those stark moments of self-knowledge which are too hard to bear and have to be shoved under a muffling cushion of distractions, busy-ness, business, discontent, wandering, or sleepiness. There it sits, this jumble of half-remembered nastiness and misery, telling you at intervals: no one knows how unpleasant you really are; no one’s love could survive what you know of yourself; trust nobody.

But in the steady, bright gaze of this light, the whole lot comes out, tumbling out any old how, tawdry and battered and small. And you are still loved.

And you look at it, and it’s a painful kind of relief, sharp and searing, like grief or the way it feels to sob and sob and let it all go, the way it feels to stop maintaining it all day after day after day, and you think, ‘What now?’’

‘What then shall we do?’

Because you’ve been carrying hell, and it was a dreadful thing, and now it’s all over the floor.

And this is when the Lord does something unbearable. He hands it back to you. He gives you a choice.

He says, ‘What shall I do?

‘I won’t take it away if you want to keep it. It can go as soon and as fast as you choose, washed away in the deep waters of baptism, dissolved by innocent blood, broken like a dying body. But if you are attached to it, if you can’t find it in yourself to give it away, it’s still yours. This is judgement; that you have to be ready to give yourself away, even the bits you clung to as being absolutely your own, the nasty bits you didn’t ever have to or want to share. Mercy is on the other side of your pride, your self-respect, your contempt, your greed, your familiarity with your own sins, those sins which know you better than anyone in the whole waking world. Are you ready to give yourself away like that?’

And you say, ‘What do you mean by giving myself away?’

And he says, ‘By being ready to be as small as everyone else. As small as the person you despise most, the person you think barely is a person. By learning to love in places where you have so far barely managed even to take notice. By giving up being afraid that people will find you out. By looking outwards, and discovering what you are being asked to give by discovering what someone else might need.’

And at that point, you really can choose. God never rushes anyone. You can keep your hell, and bolt yourself into it; but the bolts are on the inside. Right up to the last moment of choice, conscious or unconscious, the Lord is near, the one who turns the shadow of death into the morning, his hands ready to take the bundle of nastiness from you and leave you light and clear, winged, transparent, emptied; yet still held and filled, solid and real, rejoicing and strong.

Freedom is always at your right hand, every day. Rejoice! The Lord is near. He is coming, he is close. He will make your heart free. The choice is yours. It is always yours. If what you want is hell, you will not be denied it. After all, you made it yourself. But the light is always waiting beside you, just in case you are ready to turn, and to be rescued, and to consent not just to know, but to be fully known.

Amen.

“The Lord is with you”

Sermon by the Rev. Jessica Martin
Ely Cathedral, Advent 4 (24th December 2017)

Old Testament: 2 Sam. 7.1-11, 16

New Testament: Rom.16.25-27

Gospel: Luke 1.16-38


‘Greetings, favoured one! The Lord is with you.’

‘The Lord is with you’.  Gabriel’s greeting blazes into the life of time and hangs between him and the girl to whom he is speaking.  It is not a promise.  Promises are about the future.  This is now.

The angel who came to Abraham, back near the beginning of God’s story with his people – he uttered a promise. That angel said, ‘I will surely return to you in due season and your wife Sarah shall have a son’.  Sarah was not in the room – not standing before the angel but listening from behind the wall of a tent, and she heard his prophecy with the kind of despair which makes people laugh – you will know that rejecting laugh that wards away sorrow, and keeps you safe from pain? – that was Sarah’s response to God’s promise. And the angel heard the despair, and overturned it, saying, ‘Is anything too wonderful for the Lord?’  And in due season she had a son.

But this angel, Gabriel, the messenger of God, speaks no promise. There is no narrative trajectory forward; no future fulfilment.  Although Mary converses with him, and although her obedience to the way of God is discovered through what she says, the pinpoint of the present moment seems to spread out over the whole encounter. So that it becomes hard for us, hearing what happened, to say when the moment wasthat God entangled himself into the life of her flesh and became a shining particle of the world he himself had made.  Does Gabriel’s greeting itself bring the life of God into her?  ‘The Lord is with you’.  God has spoken those words across the centuries, the millennia before this moment: ‘I AM with you’ he says to Moses at the burning bush; he speaks his presence through the prophets innumerable times; he affirms it in song and story, the great covenant assurance which yearns for our answering embrace, and which so quickly finds us slipping out from under the everlasting arms and heading perversely into the darkness.

But there is no yearning here.  This is a piece of the everlasting joy which Gabriel speaks – not words, but an act which brings the Word that makes all into the little room in which they stand, and fills it with himself.

So Mary’s question asks only to understand what is already with them, already happening.  ‘She pondered what sort of greeting this  might be’, writes Luke.  But the gift is already given, the favour already granted .  ‘The Lord is with you’.

It is always possible to draw back from the presence of God.  He will never overwhelm. The brightness of his presence is always mercifully shadowed by cloud, and the questions he asks can always meet with refusal.  But in this encounter the only mismatch is in understanding, in the faltering of the intellect before the impossible actions of God.  ‘How can this be?’  asks Mary.  The answer is the same answer as for Sarah: ‘For nothing will be impossible with God’. The difference in the two meetings is not a difference in God, but in the varying kinds of human response he met with – the one almost beyond hope, and the other illuminated with hope’s promise and open to the fulfilment which comes to her in Gabriel’s words.

And, like Sarah, with the joy comes pain – but the completeness of Mary’s embrace accepts the pain with the joy, and rejects nothing of what God brings. She will neither laugh nor turn away, but ponder all that comes to her without defence.

Gabriel goes on to speak to Mary of what shall be.  ‘The holy Spirit will come upon you, and the power of the Most High shall overshadow you; therefore the child to be born will be holy; he will be called Son of God’. Even then she could, as anyone could, say ‘not me’.  But she would have to push away the delight of what has already been in the nature of God’s greeting.  In the actions of love it is very hard to say when fulfilment comes; it is there as much in the moment of understanding, the moment when you know that love speaks in the other’s presence, as ever it can be in the embraces which will follow.  And this is a love affair, where God will dare his own diminishment into absolute weakness, and all for love. The immensity of his intention floods his encounter with Mary, and she allows herself to be soaked in its life. It is as if she knows herself fully for the first time, just as in every love affair the heart of it is the sense of being fully known.

‘The Lord is with you’, says Gabriel. Not ‘the Lord be with you’ but ‘the Lord is with you.’  And, hearing that, she knows what to say. ‘Here am I’.  Here am I, the person who carries the Lord, because the Lord is with me.  And the I that I am shines with his presence because he spoke himself into my frail and ordinary life, until it shone with his light and I saw who I was transformed by it.  ‘Here am I, the servant of the Lord: let it be with me according to your word.’

And the word itself was already spoken at the very beginning. ‘The Lord is with you’.

The Lord is with us.  His promise is already here and we stand on the edge of Christmas contemplating the birth of God’s helplessness, the solid truth of his speechless presence in our arms.  We stand before an everlasting joy, until it spills into our own present, into this now of the end of 2017, reverberating there as it reverberates across all the whole of time, the everlasting in a little room, love who hurries towards us, love who is at the door, love who is already here.

For nothing is impossible with God.

Amen.

a homily to remember by Jessica Martin

The preacher in most Anglican traditions works under strict time constraints: what one has to offer must be given in just a few minutes. When anything of substance gets said in such a brief compass, it is a great blessing. Also: when a sermon of any length works from poems or stories in ways that are richly theological and deeply biblical, that too is a great blessing. And when a single briefly sermon uses literature imaginatively, unexpectedly, and profoundly … Well. The following homily was preached a few days ago by Jessica Martin, residentiary canon at Ely Cathedral. I am posting it here with her permission. 


Southern Cathedrals Festival Eucharist: Feast of Mary Magdalene, 22nd July 2017

1st lesson:  2 Cor. 5.14-17 

Gospel: John 20.1-2,11-18

 

But Mary stood weeping outside the tomb. Jn.20.11 

 

May I speak in the name of God, Father, Son and Holy Spirit.  Amen.

She turned her eyes towards him for the first time… — & he was looking at her with all the Power & Keenness, which she beleived no other eyes than his, possessed…. — It was a silent, but a very powerful Dialogue; — on his side, Supplication, on her’s acceptance . — Still, a little nearer  — and a hand taken and pressed — [and her name, spoken] — bursting forth in the fullness of exquisite feeling — and all Suspense & Indecision were over. — They were re-united.   They were restored to all that had been lost.

Only — it wasn’t like that, quite, — was it? Perfect happiness, the same writer observed, even in memory, is not common.  Yet how the soul yearns for that moment, for the overplus of bliss that comes when you turn, blinded by tears, and your beloved that you thought lost for ever is there before you speaking your name, and you say, ‘How could it ever have been otherwise?  My life has been a dream until now. How was it that I did not know that you were there all the time?’

The dying woman who, in Winchester, in the relentlessly rainy spring of 1817, wrote that scene of fulfilment beyond loss, was of course Jane Austen.  We mark the bicentenary of her death this year at the time and place of her dying. Some among you will recognise the encounter as being from the close of her last novel Persuasion, but some will not know it — because she discarded the draft. She was unhappy with the ending she had written and replaced it instead with one of more indirection, where a letter stands in for the ‘silent, but very powerful Dialogue’ and the fulfilment of the plot upon words only overheard. Neither touch, nor voice is retained in the moment of reconciliation as it went to press, months after Jane Austen herself was dead and buried. The body was absent. Clear-eyed and unsparing to the last, she would not allow herself even the dream of so impossible a meeting. The most she would allow us to see of immediate, passionate felicity was the sensation of an ‘overpowering happiness’ in solitude as her character, Anne Elliott, read to herself words of love.

Yet the prospect of fulfilment beyond absolute loss stands like a promise and we cannot look away. The novel, a literary form which has dominated our cultural imaginations for the two-and-a-half centuries since Austen’s lifetime, offers that fulfilment in terms of marriage.  On the last pages of novel after novel, the apparently impossible union — whether for emotional, or family, or even more often economic reasons — proves miraculously possible after all.  Jane Eyre and Mr Rochester. Anne Elliott and Captain Wentworth.

The marriage plot’s satisfactions are so potent that readers across those centuries have been outraged when, exceptionally, such human fulfilment is withheld by the author — by Charlotte Bronte in Villette, for example, where the marriage between M. Heger and Lucy Snowe is frustrated by a probably-fatal storm at sea, or in Anthony Trollope’s The Small House at Allington, where Lily’s constancy to her Adolphus survives her discovery that he is selfish and shallow, and brings her to remain single even though she is passionately loved by another decent man she will never accept. In making that choice to be single, Lily allows herself to subsist beyond the fleeting moment of fulfilled desire, beyond that vision of youth and beauty and pleasure, into tiredness, old age and mortality. She stops being a cipher of promise and becomes fully human. Marriage can only be guaranteed to be absolute fulfilment if you stop time on the wedding day.

So it is that marriage is only ever a metaphor — though a powerful one — for fulfilment, pointing beyond itself to a love which is both more elusive and more durable. When Mary stands weeping in the garden she is more like the single Jane, dying in discomfort during a rain-filled summer on the three chairs she allowed herself in order to leave the sofa for her grandmother to lie upon, alone in the contemplation of her mortality and keeping others at a distance with stoical letter-writing. Anne Elliott and Captain Wentworth are pleasant fantasies, not part of the realities of life. It is death, not love, which beckons at the end of the long vista of patient endurance.

That, at any rate, is the human point of view.

But — from now on, we regard no one from a human point of view. We cannot avoid being the one who stands weeping outside the tomb; Christ has died for all; therefore all have died. Mary Magdalene, associated traditionally with all the betrayals and bad faith that go with an over-reliance upon human desire, yearns beyond it to a love which seems extinguished by death. She stands by a tomb puzzlingly empty yet peopled by angels who ask the crazy question, ‘Why are you weeping?’ For Mary, the absence of the beloved body, marred by death and empty of its spirit, is not a sign of resurrection but a final cruelty. She had hoped to care for that body, to wrap it in linen and honour it with spices — not because it would do any good, but because love is like that. ‘They have taken away my Lord and I do not know where they have laid him’.  She has been cheated of any direct encounter, and cannot hope even for a love-letter.

But then she turns around. She turns away from the tomb, and towards a living presence she cannot as yet name, and which has not as yet named her. This is, for a moment, a ‘silent, but very powerful Dialogue’. The person before her asks her the same question as the angels; she gives him the same answer; nothing new has yet happened. The point of recognition is when he calls her by name — and all Suspense & Indecision were over. They were reunited. They were restored to all that had been lost.

Yet this Now, this joy, is also ‘not yet’.  It is not only fulfilment — it is promise, it is something still happening and still growing.  ‘Do not hold on to me’, says the risen Jesus, ‘…go to my brothers and say to them, I am ascending to my Father and your Father, to my God and your God.’  And Mary  Magdalene becomes transformed from weeping woman to messenger and witness: she went and announced to the disciples, ‘I have seen the Lord’.  If anyone is in Christ, there is a new creation; everything old has passed away; see, everything has become new!

In our human point of view, we cannot avoid standing with Mary. Loss is real, and death is the certain vista for every life, the standing condition for every hope.  But look at your life carefully. Study the tomb by which you mourn and wonder why it is empty, full not of corruption but of animated light which asks you the question, why are you weeping? Someone in your life is standing behind you, waiting for you to turn.  When you look away from the tomb and towards the presence, what might happen next?  What could happen? On his side, Supplication, on her’s acceptance.  Somebody is speaking your name.  And you think, amazed: How could it ever have been otherwise?  My life has been a dream until now. How was it that I did not know that you were there all the time?

Amen.

Manger: sermon by Jessica Martin

There is no creature more needy than a human baby.  For those first months, even years, all the nourishment apparently comes from adult to child.  (What comes the other way is more profoundly difficult to quantify, but one name for it is love.)  Luke is offering this child to us – yes, as needy, but even more as a sign of nourishment, newborn to adult.  He lies in a manger; from birth, he offers himself to the world as heavenly food.

Grown-up, and facing his death, this same Jesus breaks bread and offers wine – the staple food of that time and that place – and says ‘This is myself, offered to you for your hunger and your need.  I will fill you, because I am fulfilment.’  It will not be long before his body, broken and bloody, is wrapped in strips of cloth and laid in a rock tomb.  Death and birth echo each other, for the nourishment comes through death as well as through birth; the swaddling strips of cloth speak of Jesus’s shroud as well as his new body of love; the wise men’s gifts – gold, frankincense and myrrh – worship that needy, insecure newborn as an immortal God who must also die and be mourned.

Jesus is born to die, and born to bring life; he comes into the world desperately needy, and he is the world’s nourishment; he is defeated, and in that defeat he brings God’s victory over all that destroys body and soul.  That is the sign of the swaddled baby in the manger: his need feeds us in our deepest hunger; his death brings to us abundant life; in all things, his poverty is our riches.  Thanks be to God.

— via Unapologetic

We honour today those whose readiness to respond to the human duty to serve others became, because of the times they lived in, choices unto death. We, living in peace and plenty, are the generation they could not imagine. We are the recipients of the gift of life which springs out of the deaths of our forebears, and for that reason we honour them. God knows the value of each individual gift, and understands the compromises and cruelties of violent times. But every life offered for the sake of others is not wasted but given, and the life which springs from that gift is one we have received. We thank them, and we thank God, who redeems every human gift through the sinless gift of his Son, our Saviour Jesus Christ, who died at the hands of the violent and rose again to proclaim the peace of God’s kingdom upon this troubled earth. May that kingdom come.

Amen.

Jessica Martin, sermon for Remembrance Sunday

Meditations for the three hours, Good Friday 2015

Luke’s Saviour meets us eagerly with that forgiveness in two episodes unique to his Gospel.  Jesus speaks from the cross: ‘Father, forgive them, for know not what they do’. The word He uses for ‘know’, oidasin, is actually a verb of beholding: eidō. We cannot see, Jesus says; we lack recognition; that is not a matter for condemnation but a demonstration of our need.  The episode is balanced by a startling act of true seeing: the repentant thief who addresses Jesus familiarly by his name (an unprecedented intimacy, the only time in the Gospel that this happens). He rebukes the man hanging on the other side and asks to be remembered in Jesus’ kingdom.  We deserve our judgment, our krima (the word means both crime and sentence) he explains to the other malefactor, ‘but this man has done nothing atopos’ – nothing ‘out of order’.  This is a supreme moment of recognition: this man has seen and known; he has been seen and known.  Out of his own extremity, Jesus still offers him absolution and sustenance.  Beholding, seeing, if we can bear it, may yet transform our rational despair.

I spoke, in the first hour, of the wordless prayer which is expressed by the body: in tears and in cries; in suffering; in blood and tears and sweat. Luke’s dying Lord makes that suffering a prayer, articulated in his words of forgiveness and promise, trust and final committal: ‘Lord, into thy hands I commend my spirit’; enacted in the endurance of his slow death.  At the end of everything we come to a cry.  ‘In the days of his flesh, when he had offered up prayers and supplications with strong crying and tears unto him that was able to save him from death, and was heard in that he feared; though he were a Son, yet learned he obedience by the things which he suffered.’  Jesus cried ‘with a loud voice’, megalē phonē; in this cry, and in the words of committal, we learn that he ‘gave up the ghost’.  The Greek word is stilly unemphatic: exepneusen: ‘he breathed out’.  That last breath is a gift in its finality, a breath which breathes into the world the life it gives away.

Jessica Martin

During the day to come, Christmas Day, some time, someone will show themselves undefended, helpless, awkward, clumsy, unapt, undignified, undone. That person is Christ to you. Keep the flame of the Word in the world by your gentleness, your love and your care for someone helpless this Christmas day. You will see the fulfilment of God’s promise, ‘The Lord is with you’. You will be part of the glory which brings heaven and earth together. You will shelter the flame which shines in the darkness, and the darkness will not overcome it.

Jessica Martin

It is not given to us to be as close to those we love as God is. We are always a little separate from one another, always something of a mystery. That is the wonder of loving someone else – that you never know them through and through. Only God knows each of us in the blood and the bone and the heartbeat, in the millions of passing thoughts which make up each individual life, the great multitude of actions small and large – brushing teeth, or running a marathon, or bearing a child – which become someone’s personal history. We are allowed to see some of them, and we celebrate what we know and what we never quite understood, both together, when we give thanks for the people we love and now see no longer….

But in God’s sight every moment and every thought of every person’s life is so soaked through with the light of God’s own seeing that it simply is. Nothing is lost, or hidden, or forgotten. Where God is, there is no room for the darkness of death, because in him is no darkness at all. In God the dead live; in the bed of the grave the light of life springs upwards, though we cannot yet see it. The great cloud of witnesses are shot through with light perpetual.

Our seeing is only partial. Saint Paul said that, ‘we see in part’, and he compared to it a reflection in a dark room: ‘through a glass, darkly’. ‘But,’ he says, ‘one day I shall see face to face: I shall know, even as I shall be fully known.’ Those we name today know more than we do now, and see further than we can; but we are joined with them through love, which lights up the darkness like a candle flame and springs out of bare ground like new shoots in spring. So tonight we express our love through candle flames and in the sprigs of rosemary, the herb of memory, and we name those we love and cannot see, trusting that in God’s sight their lives and selves are full of unimaginable and everlasting light, and that one day, by the grace of God, we shall be like them.

Sermon for All Souls’ Day, by Jessica Martin. My beloved father-in-law was buried on All Souls’ Day, and in light of that I can’t tell you how much these words mean to me.

In the beginning was the Word. But now the Word can say nothing; not a syllable of meaning. He who was with God before the beginning of the earth, whose speech made the light, is helpless and half-blind; blurred and bound and held in the warm dark. He made all things, and without him nothing could ever have been made; but now he can only grasp a finger and search for kindly human eyes, asking for protection in the big world. God is newborn, newly breathing, a baby; and in him the makings of the universe are only seeds and memories. God the Creator needs love. Breast milk, covering, a cradling arm.

What is his birthright? What will he inherit? The heavenly messenger Gabriel called him the Son of the Most High. He has no palace; not even a bed to call his own. He sleeps in a feeding trough, hastily lined with straw. His mother is poor, and people laugh about his father. He will bring his mother the sorrow of unspeakable loss when he is old enough. Through this child God blesses the weak, the helpless, the poor and the very young. Through him the meek inherit the earth. Through him the light shines in dark places and is not overcome: — because the darker the night, the brighter shines this light, the Light of the world. The weak tonight become the sons and daughters of God. If today you are strong, then reserve your greatest tenderness and your greatest respect for the weakest among you. And if today you are weak, the light is already shining through you, shining now.

That light is the light of all humanity, which God this night made holy through his Son our Saviour named Jesus: poor woman’s son, and the child of the Most High. Thanks be to God.

“now the Word can say nothing”

In the beginning was the Word. But now the Word can say nothing; not a syllable of meaning. He who was with God before the beginning of the earth, whose speech made the light, is helpless and half-blind; blurred and bound and held in the warm dark. He made all things, and without him nothing could ever have been made; but now he can only grasp a finger and search for kindly human eyes, asking for protection in the big world. God is newborn, newly breathing, a baby; and in him the makings of the universe are only seeds and memories. God the Creator needs love. Breast milk, covering, a cradling arm.

What is his birthright? What will he inherit? The heavenly messenger Gabriel called him the Son of the Most High. He has no palace; not even a bed to call his own. He sleeps in a feeding trough, hastily lined with straw. His mother is poor, and people laugh about his father. He will bring his mother the sorrow of unspeakable loss when he is old enough. Through this child God blesses the weak, the helpless, the poor and the very young.

Through him the meek inherit the earth. Through him the light shines in dark places and is not overcome: — because the darker the night, the brighter shines this light, the Light of the world. The weak tonight become the sons and daughters of God. If today you are strong, then reserve your greatest tenderness and your greatest respect for the weakest among you. And if today you are weak, the light is already shining through you, shining now.

That light is the light of all humanity, which God this night made holy through his Son our Saviour named Jesus: poor woman’s son, and the child of the Most High. Thanks be to God.

Unapologetic: Advent calendar 24: midnight sermon by Jessica Martin

Jessica Martin on Paradise Lost

Regular readers of this tumblelog will know that I’ve linked to several recent essays in the Guardian of London about Milton’s Paradise Lost. The essays, by Jessica Martin, are little marvels of insight, and genuinely illuminate the experience of encountering a poem that many know about, some study, but very few actually read.

So I am especially pleased to see that those essays have been collected as a brief Kindle book called How to Read Paradise Lost. If you’re in the U.S., you may get the book here; in the U.K., here. You should buy it; it’s great.

By the time Milton reaches Book VII he has come to a kind of accord with his own frustration. All right, he says: I can’t get up to heaven, and if I try I “fall/Erroneous”. Writing purely about God, he comments, is like being an amateur rider on a particularly frisky winged horse. Humanity is the proper perspective for poetic endeavour; so he asks the Christian muse, Urania, to carry him downwards and deposit him safe in his “Native Element”. He will write now about the earth: about its nature, its making; about its creatures; about relationships and sex and intellectual curiosity and mistakes and sorrow and “the human face divine”.

This is most deeply God’s place to speak through his poet, he points out; singing amid violence; taking love into hell; readying himself for sacrifice, to be destroyed by the blind desires of an angry mob. The figure with whom he identifies in connection with this role is Orpheus, the prototype poet of myth. But, of course, he is thinking about Christ too, who in Christian theology is God suffering all that humans inflict on each other. There won’t be much explicit scope for Christ in Paradise Lost. But Milton sees his own position – surrounded by rabid Royalists, “fall’n on evil dayes”, slandered by “evil tongues” – as Christlike. In the face of violence, Milton too will sing.

To [Milton’s Satan] belongs the journeys, the politics, the battles, a growing insupportable self-knowledge that will, eventually, diminish him to almost nothing. He travels to encounter and corrupt his opposite numbers, the counter-heroes Adam and Eve – united where he is solitary, ignorant where he is knowing, happy where he is miserable. Their meeting will result in the poem’s second and very different fall, raising Adam and Eve separately and for different reasons to tragic stature. Out of its disaster, as out of Troy’s burning, we see them at the beginning of an odyssey. Their final “wandering steps and slow” will walk them out of the poem and into history, an untold journey leading humanity – eventually, eventually – into the embrace of a lost beloved.

John Milton, part 2: marrying the epic with the sacred. The second of what’s shaping up to be a fantastic series of essays about Paradise Lost, by Jessica Martin.