A homily given at 6pm Night Prayer on Sunday 22nd January 2023, The Third Sunday of Epiphany, by The Rev’d Dr Lynn Arnold AO
THROUGH THE RISEN CHRIST THE SHADOWS WANE
In the first of my four homilies as part of this January Night Prayer series, Serenata of Worship, I started by referring to that line from Genesis 3:8 about God walking in the Garden in the cool of the day where he had asked Adam the existential question – ‘Where are you?’
This series of homilies has been anchored in prayers which I encountered during my participation in the Great Lent of 2012 as I considered whether to proceed towards ordination. Tonight, I have printed the last twelve of the 48 prayers I found back then, the final six originally having been posted during the Holy Week of that Lent. There was no prayer for the 49th day, for that was the day when one phrase said it all:
Christos Anesti – Alethos Anesti [Christ is Risen – He is Risen Indeed!]
Easter Day is a pivotal point of our faith, for it represents our annual acclamation of God’s eternal proclamation of his abiding love for his creation through the resurrection of his Son. So pivotal has it been over the centuries that for a long time all baptisms only took place on Easter Day – a recognition that being baptised is to be born anew in the Risen Christ. Likewise, while funerals could not be saved for Easter Day, traditionally the Easter Candle has been lit and placed before the coffin as a recognition that, through the Risen Christ, the deceased has now encountered his or her own Easter Day.
In the Garden of Eden, God had asked Adam ‘Where are you?’. In John’s Gospel account of the Crucifixion and Resurrection, we are once again taken to a garden where a grieving humanity in the person of Mary Magdalene asked a question of the Son of God whom she has mistaken for a gardener. Listen to these verses from John 20:
Mary turned around and saw Jesus standing there, but she did not realise that it was Jesus. He asked her, ‘Woman, why are you crying? Who is it you are looking for?’ Thinking he was the gardener, she said, ‘Sir, if you have carried him away, tell me where you have put him, and I will get him.’ Jesus said to her, ‘Mary’ [20:14-16]
Essentially, Mary had asked ‘Where is God?’ and God, in the person of His Son had answered by, in effect, saying: ‘Here!’
The journey for humanity from the metaphorical Garden of Eden to the actual Garden of Golgotha had traversed through many dark places, perhaps none darker than encountered by the faithful on that fateful Holy Saturday where the only evidence that day was of a dead Christ, a Christ not yet risen. Given how terrible that day must have been, we can imagine then the depth of pain that must have lain behind Mary’s question to the supposed gardener. In deep despair, she had asked where Jesus was; that Easter morn, she had come to the Garden of Golgotha wanting to believe but, with the evidence of the dead Christ, did not know how she could. If she could but find the body of Jesus, Mary must have thought, maybe then she might have understood how she might believe.
So too, it might sometimes seem to each of us when we find ourselves traversing difficult places in our faith journey; when our praying might become a primal scream of ‘God, where are you?’ At such a time, like Mary Magdalene, we may feel that if we could but know where God has gone that we might be able to continue our journey towards him.
Such primal praying appeared in the prayer for Day 47 from the C18 Quaker John Woolman:
O Lord, my God! The amazing horrors of darkness were gathered round me, and covered me all over and I saw no way forth … I stretched out my arm, but there was none to help me …
But in the storms of that moment in his life, Woolman must have heard God speaking, for his prayer continued:
I looked round about, and was amazed. In the depths of misery, O Lord, I remembered that thou art omnipotent; that I had called thee Father; and I felt that I loved thee, and I was made quiet in my will, and I waited for deliverance
Woolman, in the storms of his distress from which he had cried out, had been ‘made quiet in (his) will’. In our final hymn tonight – Dear Lord and Father of Mankind, written by another Quaker, John Greenleaf Whitter, we will sing these words:
Breathe through the heats of our desire, thy coolness and thy balm; let sense be dumb, let flesh retire; speak through the earthquake, wind and fire, O still small voice of calm, [v5]
So too might we find, amidst all the clamour of our troublesome lives, that same small voice of calm. Our reading from Habakkuk tonight, gave the same assurance:
But the Lord is in his holy temple; let all the earth keep silence before him. [2:29]
In my second homily in this series, I spoke of the speculation in the Judaic Genesis Rabbah about the terror which the metaphorical Adam and Eve must have felt at the first night fall. The shadows around them grew as the sun set, until darkness had surrounded them. As the sun set on the scene of the Crucifixion, not only the physical shadows grew so too did the shadows of spiritual despair. That first nightfall Adam and Eve had not known about the dawn that would come. That Holy Saturday, the followers of Jesus did not yet know that a transcendent dawn was about to happen. St Augustine, in his Harmony of the Gospels, wrote:
When the sun is very close to rising … the remaining shadows of darkness diminish only in proportion to the sun’s rising … the end of the whole night is the light. [3.65]
From the Song of Solomon, we have that beautiful line:
Until the day breaks and the shadows flee away … [2:17]
In darkness of the Crucifixion, Mary Magdalene had asked where God was; and the transcendent dawn answered her question in the form of the light of Jesus. Mary had stayed the course, but so many of the other disciples had not; they had had to be gathered together after the discovery of the Resurrection by the women at the tomb. They would then be reminded that God had always been there for them, to guide them back to him.
We too need to be reminded to keep our eyes on God that he may guide us, even though the temptations of circumstance may distract us. My selected prayer from Day 37 was from St Basil of Caesarea:
Steer the ship of my life, good Lord, to your quiet harbour, where I can be safe from the storms of sin and conflict … Renew in me the gift of discernment, so that I can always see the right direction.
In the hymn we will sing shortly – Great Shepherd of thy people, hear – we will be reminded of how we might find He who is there to steer our ship of life. In the first verse, we will sing:
As thou hast given a place for prayer, so give us hearts to pray.
The result being that, when we pray, as the second verse puts it:
Here give the troubled conscience ease, the wounded spirit heal.
In my third homily in this series, I asked us each to reflect on our personal Adam and Eve stories in our own lives. I quoted a portion of Adam’s conversation to Dante from Enrico Mercuri’s translation of the Divine Comedy:
I see (things) in the mirror of truth that refracts everything from within it, but cannot be refracted by anything other.
Dante thought that Adam, after all his journeying from the Garden of Eden, through God’s grace could now see clearly using divine light not worldly. In our first hymn this evening we sang these words from verse 3:
The world has waited long, has travailed long in pain; to heal its ancient wrong. [v3]
Our reading from Romans tonight contained this verse:
Claiming to be wise; they became fools, and exchanged the glory of the immortal God for images. [22-23]
This is the alternative, worldly view which beckons us as we live our lives. In his reflection which I posted for Day 46, Peter Hitchens had written:
If we love the thing that God commands and desire the things He promises, then we too can live outside time.
To live outside time, is to have overcome death. The great Jewish scholar, Maimonides, also known as the Rambam, had written about God’s imposition of death upon his creation:
If Man kept the capacity to live forever, he might well spend all his days pursuing gratification and cast away intellectual growth and good deeds. He would fail to attain the spiritual bliss that God intended for him. If so, Man had to be banished from Eden so that he would not be able to eat from the Tree of Life and live forever.
Jesus did not remove death; as Paul put it, he removed its sting, allowing us ‘through this transitory life’ in the words of our liturgy, to aspire to be with his risen self in eternity.
At the end of my previous homilies, I have asked you to reflect on particular thoughts. But tonight, as our organist Coby Mellor accompanies our reflections, may I suggest that these words from verse 14 of Psalm 27 guide you:
Wait for the Lord; be strong, and let your heart take courage; wait for the Lord!
And in the words from our Habakkuk reading:
The Lord is in his holy temple; let all the earth keep silence before him.
So, let us now keep silence before Him, so that the shadows of our lives may wane before His Light.
A SERENATA OF WORSHIP
Night Prayer, January 2023
Part 4 – January 22
This year, as I lead us through the next four Sunday sessions of Night Prayer, I will be reflecting back on the time leading to my own decision to proceed along the path towards ordination back in 2012. A key part of the process of personal discernment was the following a strict Lenten practice according to the Orthodox traditions along with a daily search during the Great Lent for suitable prayers that seemed to echo my feelings along the journey. I encountered over forty such prayers which were significant to me on that pilgrimage; over these four weeks, I will be sharing some of those as well as making some commentary about their spiritual import. Each evening, our organist will guide our worship through reflective playing and accompanying us in the singing of hymns to enable our worship to reach that space where we may feel a union with God. There will also be periods of silent worship where we will wait upon the ‘still small voice of God’ amidst the busyness of our lives. I pray that this series of Night Prayer might nourish each of us.
May God bless and keep you always, Rev Dr Lynn Arnold AO
Here follow the first twelve prayers I encountered on the first twelve days of my Lenten Fast in 2012:
A prayer from St Basil of Caesarea:
Steer the ship of my life, good Lord, to your quiet harbour, where I can be safe from the storms of sin and conflict. Show me the course I should take. Renew in me the gift of discernment, so that I can always see the right direction in which I should go. And give me the strength and the courage to choose the right course, even when the sea is rough and the waves are high, knowing that through enduring hardship and danger we shall find comfort and peace.
A prayer from David Adams which was based upon a line from the Lord’s Prayer – ‘Thy Kingdom come’ but also clearly echoes the Inasmuch Sermon [Matthew 25:31-44]:
You are the caller; you are the poor; you are the stranger at my door. You are the wanderer, the unfed; you are the homeless, with no bed. You are the man driven insane; you are the child crying in pain. You are the other who comes to me. If I open to another, you are born in me. Amen.
A reflection about uncertain times by a third cousin of mine, the late James Douglas Blair, who was Anglican Bishop of Dhaka, BanglaDesh from 1955-75; he wrote this in the aftermath of the devastating civil war of 1971 and of a terrible cyclone:
It is not hard to realise that there have been many hesitations and uncertainties in the course of the past few years; moreover, I think it is true to say that at the present time we are faced with many uncertainties which keep us from the more stable certainties we might wish for. But we have been led through them in the past and we shall be led still into the future, if our ‘hearts stand fast and believe in the Lord’ [Ps 112:7]. So the prayer point for tonight is that we might stand fast and believe in the Lord.
A prayer from Creighton U on-line ministries:
Loving God, I am just beginning to realise how much you love me. Your son, Jesus, was humble and obedient. He fulfilled your will for him by becoming human and suffering with us. I ask you for the desire to become more humble so that my own life might also bear witness to you. I want to use the small sufferings I have in this world to give you glory. Please, Lord, guide my mind with your truth. Strengthen my life by the example of Jesus. Help me to be with Jesus this week as he demonstrates again his total love for me. He died so that I would no longer be separated from you. Help me to feel how close you are and live in union with you. May the Lord bless us, protect us from all evil and bring us to everlasting life. Amen.
A prayer from Blaise Pascal:
I won’t ask You for health, nor disease, nor life, nor death. I ask of You to use my health and my illness, my life and my death for Your glory. Only You know what’s best for me. You are the Master, do with me what You will. Give to me, take from me, only make my will the same as Yours. The only thing I know, my Lord, is that it’s good to follow You and it’s bad to hurt Your feelings. I don’t know what’s best for me, health or illness, wealth of poverty, nor anything in this world. Telling these things one from the other is beyond the power of man or of angels and is hidden in the mystery of Your Providence, which I adore, but I try not to reveal it.
A prayer from the Coptic Agpeya:
Let us give thanks to the beneficent and merciful God, the Father of our Lord, God and Saviour, Jesus Christ, for He has covered us, helped us, guarded us, accepted us unto Him, spared us, supported us, and brought us to this hour. Let us also ask Him, the Lord our God, the Almighty, to guard us in all peace this holy day and all the days of our life. O Master, Lord, God the Almighty, the Father of our Lord, God and Saviour, Jesus Christ, we thank You for every condition, concerning every condition, and in every condition, for You have covered us, helped us, guarded us, accepted us unto You, spared us, supported us, and brought us to this hour. Therefore, we ask and entreat Your goodness, O Lover of mankind, to grant us to complete this holy day, and all the days of our life, in all peace with Your fear. All envy, all temptation, all the work of Satan, the counsel of wicked men, and the rising up of enemies, hidden and manifest, take them away from us, and from all Your people, and from this holy place that is Yours. But those things which are good and profitable do provide for us; for it is You who have given us the authority to tread on serpents and scorpions, and upon all the power of the enemy. And lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from evil, by the grace, compassion and love of mankind, of Your only-begotten Son, our Lord, God and Saviour, Jesus Christ, through Whom the glory, the honour, the dominion, and the adoration are due unto You, with Him, and the Holy Spirit, the Life-Giver, Who is of one essence with You, now and at all times, and unto the ages of all ages. Amen.
The ‘Hymn of Light’, a prayer used on Orthodox Palm Sunday:
I see Thy bridal chamber adorned, O my Saviour, and I have no wedding garment that I may enter therein; O giver of Light, make radiant the venture of my soul and save me.
A prayer from Aelred of Rievaulx [1109-67]:
Thou knowest my heart, Lord, that whatsoever Thou hast given to Thy servant, I desire to spend wholly on Your people and to consume it all in their service. Grant unto me then, O Lord my God, that thine eyes may be opened upon them day and night. Tenderly spread Thy care to protect them. Pour into their hearts Thy Holy Spirit who may abide with them while they pray, to refresh them with devotion and penitence, to stimulate them with hope, to make them humble with fear, and to inflame them with charity. May He, the kind Consoler, succour them in temptation and strengthen them in all the tribulations of life.
Extract from the Orthodox liturgy for Holy Tuesday:
When the woman who was a sinner was offering the myrrh (and washing Jesus’ feet with her tears), then the disciple was making terms with the lawless men; she rejoiced in emptying out that which was all precious; he hastened to sell Him, Who was above all price; she recognised the Master, he severed himself from the Master; she was set free, and Judas became the slave of the enemy.
Not a prayer but a reflection by Peter Hitchens [from his book ‘The Rage against God: how atheism led me to faith’]:
Where had I been when I was needed?
And now an extract from his book:
Edmund Burke once said that one who truly feared God, feared nothing and nobody else … According to the believer, God’s commandments and requirements exist outside time and cannot be amended … If we love the thing that God commands and desire the things He promises, then we too can live outside time and beyond the reach of Stalin, Kim, Mao, Pol Pot, Hitler ….
A prayer from John Woolman, a Quaker:
O Lord, my God! The amazing horrors of darkness were gathered round me, and covered me all over and I saw no way to go forth; I felt the depth and extent of the misery of my fellow-creatures separated from the harmony, and it was heavier than I could bear, and I was crushed down under it; I lifted up my hand, I stretched out my arm, but there was none to help me; I looked round about, and was amazed. In the depths of misery, O Lord, I remembered that thou art omnipotent; that I had called thee Father; and I felt that I loved thee, and I was made quiet in my will, and I waited for deliverance from thee. Thou hadst pity upon me, when no man could help me; I saw that meekness under suffering was showed to us in the most affecting example of thy Son, and thou taughtest me to follow him, and I said: ‘Thy will, O Father, be done!’
A prayer from Dionysius of Alexandria [190-265CE]:
O God of peace, good beyond all that is good, in whom is calmness and concord. Do thou make up the dissensions which divide us from one another, and bring us into the unity of life in thee, through Jesus Christ our Lord.