Sermon given at the Sung Eucharist on the Third Sunday before Lent 2022
“What will you be satisfied with?”
The Reverend Dr James Hawkey Canon Theologian and Almoner
Sunday, 13th February 2022 at 11.15 AM
Last year was the 700th anniversary of the death of the great Florentine poet Dante Alighieri. Hi Divina Commedia – the Divine Comedy – is one of the most exceptional and insightful works of literature of the last millennium. In a message released in 2015 to celebrate the 750th anniversary of Dante’s birth, Pope Francis described the Divine Comedy, its movement through the infernal levels of hell, its movement through purgatory, and its ultimate ascent through paradise until the poet’s encounter with “the love which moves the sun and the other stars” as “an epic journey, indeed, a true pilgrimage, personal and interior, yet also communal, ecclesial, social and historical”, inasmuch as “it represents the paradigm for every authentic journey whereby mankind is called to leave behind what the poet calls ‘the threshing-floor that maketh us so proud’ (Par. XXII, 151), in order to attain a new state of harmony, peace and happiness.” So much of the Comedy is a forensically detailed exploration of the human condition, its longings and its fears, its traps and its potential when seen in the light of Christian calling and vocation. Before you move towards paradise, though, you need to work your way through the preludes of hell and its nine circles. In the third canto of the Inferno, Dante passes through a gate with its famous inscription, “Abandon all hope, ye who enter here” and finds himself in the first circle of hell. Defining this hell, who and what is in it, is the task of the poet for the next 34 cantos, before he moves into purgatory. This literature provided an awesome and terrifying series of images for the pictorial artists of the late medieval and early renaissance periods, as Dante’s imagination was so frequently depicted in paint and stone. There are so many images of hell at work here. But one of the most psychologically perceptive, outlined by the commentator Mark Vernon in a new volume, is that hell is a state of permanent tunnel vision. It is, he says, “the reality you see when your inner eye, your imagination, has grown cloudy or myopic.” Those in hell can’t see where else they might go. There is a perhaps unlikely parallel here with Martin Luther’s masterful definition of sin as “incurvatus in se est.” That literally translates as a double-turning-in-on-oneself; so bent over that one cannot see anything but oneself and one’s own state. Permanent tunnel vision, but focussed only on me, and only ever seeing what we are currently capable of seeing. Dante’s journey is the opposite of this kind of locked-in existence. But he’s realistic. It starts at the bottom.
In this morning’s Gospel, Jesus outlines four beatitudes: blessed are the poor, the hungry, the weeping, the hated. But he then flips this familiar teaching on its head, and utters four woes, each a shadow side of the blessings. Woe to those who are rich, full, laughing, now. Woe to those who are spoken well of. Why woes for these people? Those blessed – the poor, hungry, weeping, and persecuted – have a future perspective. Their canvas is enlarging. But on the other hand, the rich and satisfied, have none of this. They have the kind of trudging tunnel vision which settles in, luxuriates in, the status quo. They are literally hopeless. Remember the inscription above Dante’s gate of hell, “Abandon all hope, ye who enter here.” In our gospel this morning, Jesus is not fetishising poverty or distress, he is opening our eyes to the quality and justice of the Kingdom of God. The consolation of the rich is their wealth, whereas the consolation of the poor is the Kingdom. It is as if Jesus asks us, “What will you be satisfied with?” Transient wealth, happiness, joy, popularity, risk shutting down our capacity to see beyond, to hope, to imagine what God’s future is really like. “Aim at heaven” wrote CS Lewis, “and you will get earth thrown in. Aim at earth and you will get neither.”
We must take care over how we receive this morning’s gospel. The risk is that we end up binarising heaven and earth, now and then, church and world, even. But that would be to underestimate what God is doing in and through the ministry of Jesus. We hear in the early verses of today’s Gospel about the fundamental attractiveness of Jesus. Not only do the sick come to him looking for healing, but Luke tells us that all in the crowd are trying to touch him, to enter his circle. Being in the proximity of Jesus leads to a new kind of life, when frail, hurting, wounded human minds and bodies become infused with fresh hope, a fundamental change in quality and direction. This is the turning point, through relationship with Jesus, who encourages us to see the big picture, the whole story, the eternal context, breaking in now.
In 1 Corinthians 15, St Paul sets out of the teaching he has received about the resurrection of Christ. In the portion we heard read as our second lesson today, he is insistent that without this resurrection, in actual, historical, factual terms, our faith is in vain, essentially meaningless. This is the context of all Christian discipleship. Christ is raised from the dead, and he is the first-fruits of those who have died. Christ’s resurrection shows us the vocation of humanity and the ultimate destiny of the cosmos. It is not as if Christ achieves this for himself, like an Olympic medallist satisfied with a personal best – rather, the resurrection is corporate, shared, communal for his followers. We can rejoice in our poverty now, our hunger now, even our persecution now, because the canvas of Christian hope is spread wider than we can perceive. If our hunger and our joy are entirely fulfilled now – woe to us, because we have not yet entered the circle of Jesus: still stuck with our tunnel vision, imprisoned in the moment, unable to seek, unable to articulate our need. It is in knowing our need of God, to heal us, to encourage us to see afresh, that we enter the Kingdom and the community which is Christ’s own risen life.
In a few moments time, the celebrant will pray at the end of the Eucharistic Prayer, as he offers the sanctified gifts and everything they symbolise to the glory of the Father, “through Christ, with Christ and in Christ.” This is the eternally new song for an old and tired world. Through Christ, with Christ, in Christ, we know our own poverty transformed. Yes, a promise for the future, but one which can be activated now through faith. So much of our life is fed by memory, by what we remember from our past. And yet, to be fully alive in Christ, we must allow our senses to be activated by hope in what is not yet seen. The hope of the Risen One, the First Fruit, into which we are grafted. This is the hope we taste in this and every Eucharist, as we come to know our poverty, our hunger, our sorrow, redeemed by a hope which is beyond anything we could achieve ourselves, and transformed by a love which has trampled down death.