Plunging into the heart: Sermon for the Presentation of the Lord, Christ Church Cathedral

Sermon

Presentation of the Lord

Christ Church Cathedral 31 01 21

It feels endless now. 

The lockdown. 

We are weary. Fed up of it.  We’ve had enough.

It is dreary. The same, few places, the same few people – no matter how much we love them. 

The endless Zoom calls and tedious Teams meetings.

In 1902 the central European poet Rainer Maria Rilke visited the small zoo in the botanic garden, Jardin des Plantes in Paris.

One of the animals pacing in the cages there was a Panther. 

It inspired one of Rilke’s most famous poems. Here is the translation by Stephen Mitchell:

The Panther

His vision, from the constantly passing bars,

has grown so weary that it cannot hold

anything else. It seems to him there are

a thousand bars; and behind the bars, no world.

As he paces in cramped circles, over and over,

the movement of his powerful soft strides

is like a ritual dance around a centre

in which a mighty will stands paralysed.

Only at times, the curtain of the pupils

lifts, quietly —.  An image enters in,

rushes down through the tensed, arrested muscles,

plunges into the heart and is gone.

We are not caged by bars. But our lives are caged. The same, few, places, the same few people – no matter how much we love them. The endless Zoom calls and tedious Teams meetings.

But there is hope. Images can enter between the bars. there can be moments of revelation.

Moments of revelation like those experienced by the prophets, like Malachi in the first reading; like the prophet Anna in the Gospel. 

By our baptism we are all called to be prophets, priests and kings. You and I are called to be prophets just as much as Malachi or Anna or Simeon.

Malachi is the last of the prophets in the Hebrew Scriptures. The final book of the Old Testament in Christian bibles. But he is firmly in Israel’s prophetic tradition. He is the successor of Isaiah and Jeremiah, of Ezekiel and Haggai.

Lots of Christians are disappointed in their prayer lives because they think there is something extraordinary about mystical experiences, about the spiritual gifts, including prophecy. As if these gifts were something strange, something reserved to the famous prophets, to times past.

But just look at what the prophets do. Like the Panther pacing in his cage they get a glimpse of what lies between the bars. They see the world, the actual world, and they read it theologically. They understand it in the context of faith and speak of it with the language of believing. 

For Jeremiah it is the boiling pot, for Hosea it is his failing marriage his unfaithful wife (who some of us have been hearing about at Morning Prayer this week). For Malachi it is the refiner purifying gold and silver.

To be the prophets of our own lives is to take the ordinary stuff of our day to day existence and to understand it theologically, to describe it in the language of faith.

So what is the stuff of your life?

How do you spend money?

Who have you fallen out with?

What do you resent?

Who annoys you?

What are the unexpected things in your life?

I heard the Archbishop of York say to a group of priests earlier this year that the most useful thing our Spiritual Directors could see was our bank statements.

Don’t ask God to appear in a blaze of light, ask God what he is telling you in your diary, your emails, how you spend your money.

Over the last few months I have been re-reading Susan Howatch’s novels about the Church of England. They are not especially fashionable at the moment but I recommend looking at them again or for the first time if you don’t know them. They are written in blockbuster novel style and are an easy read, and they are significant. 

Howatch is brilliant at showing how impossible it is to understand the reality and complexity of human life in only one way, only one dimension. We need a variety of narratives if we are to avoid self delusion and grow in maturity. 

Howatch shows how our personal narratives can be unpeeled like an onion, how our own accounts of ourselves need balancing with other people’s realities. She is superb at illustrating how psychological narratives are profoundly helpful in dissecting our self-delusions and self-centredness. But she also shows the limits of our ability to understand things only rationally and the necessity for religious language and experience. She never says this narrative is true and the other isn’t. For her spiritual realities are deeply true, and so are other narratives. And she is brilliant at exposing power and the shadow that lies behind glamour. For her there are many powers, not all of them good.

On Friday I was the speaker at the school assembly for our Cathedral school – on Zoom, inevitably – and I showed the pupils this statue which I have in the Oratory in the cellar of the Sub Deanery. The Oratory is dedicated to St Joseph and this is a statue of a Sleeping St Joseph. Clearly it is St Joseph asleep, but I prefer to call it the Dreaming St Joseph. In the first two chapters of Matthew’s gospel Joseph has four dreams, take a look, most people can’t list all four.

I encouraged our pupils to enjoy their dreams and pay attention to them. 

Anna and Simeon were dreamers. They had dreamed the dream of a Messiah. 

Like all dreamers they were ready for the unexpected. They had eyes that could see when Jesus was brought into the temple. They had beginner’s mind. They were open to possibilities.

To be a dreamer is to be open to our imaginations, to be those who trust the many layered nature of reality, the multiple narratives we need to make sense of our lives; to allow ourselves to be changed and transformed. 

To be a dreamer is also to be open to the horror of life. When Simeon looks through the bars he sees the sword that will pierce Mary’s heart.

If your prayer seems dry, if you are not glimpsing the world beyond the bars; use your imagination. Don’t worry so much about whether it is just your imagination; ‘just’ is such a poisonous word; allow God to speak to you through that imagination. Imagine God speaking to you.

Like Susan Howatch allow yourself the possibility that there are many ways of describing the reality of your life.  reflect on your life prophetically.   Abandon the lie that events are random and meaningless and imagine that all the events of your life reflect spiritual realities. 

Anna and Simeon were ready and prepared. It can’t simply be that they had not thought of the presence of God in their lives until this day in their old age when ker-pow the messiah appears. They were ready for the Messiah, ready to meet Jesus, ready to recognise him immediately because they had been looking for God in every event of their lives. Every encounter, looking for him, finding him and seeing him.

To live without this spiritual muscle, is to see only the bars of our cages. Not just the cages of lockdown but the cages that diminish and hinder our lives at all times. It is as if our mighty wills are paralysed. Our powers bound.

Dear friends, my prayer for you this week, for all of us is that we will dream dreams; that in our prayer our imaginations will run wild.  And that in the cage of this lockdown the images you see between the bars will plunge into your hearts.

The Panther

Rainer Maria Rilke

Tr Stephen Mitchell

His vision, from the constantly passing bars,

has grown so weary that it cannot hold

anything else. It seems to him there are

a thousand bars; and behind the bars, no world.

As he paces in cramped circles, over and over,

the movement of his powerful soft strides

is like a ritual dance around a centre

in which a mighty will stands paralysed.

Only at times, the curtain of the pupils

lifts, quietly —.  An image enters in,

rushes down through the tensed, arrested muscles,

plunges into the heart and is gone.