Sermon – Eighth Sunday after Pentecost
Dr. Jonathan White
On the whole, life has dealt me a pretty good hand. Growing up I was given opportunities and support that so many could only dream of, which in turn enabled me to develop skills and talents that have helped me build a life and career of which I can be proud. While I have been blessed in many aspects of life, however, one thing that escaped me in life’s great plan is any knowledge of gardening, or even being able to grow anything to be honest. At my home here in Oxford I am lucky to have a 60-foot garden, an enormous blessing compared with the tiny balcony I have in my apartment in Montreal. However, in spite of my greatest efforts, which probably aren’t all that great if I’m being brutally honest, at the best of times the strip of land could only be described as a semi-tamed wilderness, oscillating between overgrown patches of grass and weeds, and a more tamed, yet still highly unrefined, green block. It’s certainly a far cry from the many beautiful gardens around the world that show the glory of creation in full technicolour, and indeed, within a, COVID-friendly, spitting distance of my current location are many fine Oxford college gardens, as well as the stunning University Botanical Gardens.
Beauty is something that has preoccupied people for thousands of years – probably for as long as humans have existed. For longer than we could ever hope to comprehend, not only has our species delighted in the multiplicity of naturally-occurring beauty around the world, it has also sought to create and re-create beauty in all manner of ways. Beauty delights us. It gives us pleasure, hope, and satisfaction. It reassures us of the inherent goodness of the world around us, and perhaps even its inherent perfection. However, while many of us might acknowledge the existence of some sort of universal and unequivocal beauty, it is also a subjective thing, and what we find beautiful and why we find it beautiful says as much about us as it does the world around us. Among the many definitions for beauty we find ‘perceived physical perfection; exceptional harmony of form’, but what are our reference points for perfection?
For people of almost any faith, beauty and perfection practically go hand-in-hand, not simply because of the way in which they reflect the marvel of creation and a sense of natural goodness of the world which countless religions teach and have taught for thousands of years, but also because of their connection to our attempts to understand the world around us, and especially the nature of eternity. For so many faiths, and especially for many of the ones we know of which fed into the collective consciousness that eventually gave birth to the major Abrahamic religions, understanding not only the here and now and the physical world around us, but the varying notions of eternal and celestial worlds and planes of existence had been a preoccupation for thousands of years. In essence, major religions and their respective followers have attempted to understand what we would call heaven, even if the concept itself is vague at best in the Biblical narratives. However, while understanding the heavens and all that is connected with that – aspects of time and space, creation, the home of the gods, the afterlife, and so on – has fascinated humanity for so long, how we think of and perceive heaven has changed over time, and continues to change to this day. For many ancient faiths, notably the Greco-Roman pagan faiths, heaven was a realm exclusively for the gods and it wasn’t something to which human beings could ever hope to aspire, unless they themselves became a god. However, many of these faiths, including the Judaism of the early Bible, believed in anthropomorphic deities who were capable of appearing, and even living on, earth, whether on remote mountain tops and other natural sacred sites, or appearing in the many grand temples built in their honour. There was, and probably still is for many, a sense that there are points where heaven and earth touch – where the divide between temporal and eternal is separated by a thin veil that reveals to us the full glory and beauty of creator and creation. A brief glimpse of heaven on earth, one might say.
For much of my life I have been fascinated with religious beauty and creativity. As a church musician this is perhaps unsurprising, but music isn’t the only aspect of religious aestheticism that has interested me. As a teenager, my father and I would spend weekend after weekend travelling the length and breadth of the country visiting cathedrals, abbeys and great churches, and my mother still houses boxes upon boxes of hundreds if not thousands of colour slides that I took in an attempt to capture this – and yes, even I am old enough to have used them! I was captivated by the majesty of these buildings, intrigued by their long and complex stories of genesis and development, and overawed by the sheer beauty of these ancient holy places that had inspired thousands upon thousands of worshippers and visitors. I always wondered what it must have been like for medieval pilgrims to have seen these enormous structures appearing on the horizon, incapable of comprehending how it was even possible for such a building to exist. How many of us have entered such a space, and found our eyes drawn up to the ceiling, whether by the intricate and seemingly impossible fan vaulting of the chapel at King’s College, Cambridge, the great mosaic of Christ in St Mark’s Basilica in Venice, or even the tapestry of Christ in Glory in the concrete monolith of Coventry Cathedral. I’m sure we all have our own individual stories and experiences, but I’m equally sure that many of us might have caught our breath and thought ‘I wonder if this is what heaven is like’.
Of course, that was the whole point of so many of these incredible religious buildings, and the artwork and decorations that adorn them. They were supposed to be beautiful, incredible, majestic, and even almost impossibly so. Visions of heaven realised in stone, still some of the most extraordinary things ever built by humankind. While we now live in a world where the democratisation of education and demystification of these illusions of the past means we have a much better understanding of how these edifices came into being, we still cannot help but be moved by them.
As man-made structures, religious buildings reflect our notions of beauty, perfection, and even heaven. They seek to provide a physical representation of the transcendental. However, they go beyond this. In his recent monograph Liturgy and Architecture: From the Early Church to the Middle Ages, Allan Doig, my former college chaplain who trained as an architect and is now a leading scholar in the field of sacred space, has observed that all liturgy requires time and space, and not only that, but time and space that is appropriate to that liturgy. He remarks that while the private communion Dietrich Bonhoeffer experienced while awaiting his execution in a Nazi prison has similarities with a great eucharistic celebration in a huge medieval cathedral, one could not be transferred to the other. As with so much in life, context and nature profoundly affect something’s appropriateness to its setting. Likewise, even while the overall shape of liturgy over the centuries became more rigid, and concepts of sacred space became standardised, individual liturgies and the settings in which they were conceived became what he describes as ‘powerful engines of change’. He goes on to say ‘The theological vision and imaginative world expressed in the liturgy … in its context brings the kingdom of God ‘very near’. The liturgy seeks to join our worship with the heavenly worship, to bring us beyond imagery to reality itself in the presence of God… Building the architecture of the church and edifying the Church by bringing its members closer to God through the liturgy became more than just parallel activities; one was a figure for the other … The great work of building the city of God was on the one hand architectural, because it was a physical interpretation of the theological and biblical vision, while on the other, the liturgical rehearsal and enactment of the biblical record of the events of salvation history brought the people into the very presence of those events in the dramatic presentation of the liturgy, and in the very presence of the Saviour himself through the transformative power of the sacrament.’
It is surely in no small part because of this that so many Christians around the world have really struggled with the inability to meet and worship physically during our current pandemic. While our own Christ Church Cathedral wasn’t built to reimagine a new liturgical practice or context, it still reflects in physical materials Anglican values, and its layout and our use of its space reflects our own theological values and priorities. Furthermore, even though the bedrock of our Anglican faith, the Book of Common Prayer, makes explicit that the word alone is all that is required for full salvation, the reality is that as aesthetic beings the physical manifestation of that word in act and liturgy is central to our religious life. Gesture, speech and language, movement, music, silence, poetry, and physical presence have all evolved together, separate and individual yet intertwining threads of a complex liturgical tapestry that form part of a diverse yet symbiotic whole. The heaven on earth we were used to experience was instantly eviscerated at the tap of an ‘enter meeting’ button on our computer screen.
While as a liturgical team we have, I believe, poured considerable creativity, time, and thought into producing liturgies to sustain us all in this long period of social distancing, the reality is that Christianity as a wider whole is yet to recognise the true longevity of this new modus operandi, and this new digital realm as an emerging liturgical context in which, contrary to all of our experiences with this bizarre ethereal realm of Zoom, it is possible to find a way of reflecting the same glory, majesty and beauty that churches around the world have for centuries.
Writing at the end of the eighteenth century, Immanuel Kant observed that if God is truly transcendental then any attempt to make intelligible on an empirical earth celestial concepts was self-contradictory. If, on the other hand, God could be thus reflected, his transcendentalism is clearly a fiction, and therefore is not deserving of any reverence. Of course, Kant was, along with many other thinkers of his time, part of the wider Enlightenment movement that sought to demystify religion and neuter its grip on European and wider Western society. However, he influenced a generation of thinkers and philosophers who, while themselves broadly non-religious, explored the transcendental powers of art, creation, and beauty. Among these Arthur Schopenhauer stands out as one of the greatest exponents of the, albeit temporal, power of art and the creative genius to separate humanity from the destructiveness of the human will that drives, in his opinion, our existence. The creative genius of God himself provides us with that momentary escape from life that so many of us need in the liturgy that has sustained and supported us week-by-week for so much of life pre-COVID-19.
Although Christianity makes much of heaven, and in turn its counterpart hell, the Bible is at best pretty vague about the nature of the afterlife, and even among the Jewish faith at the time there were conflicting opinions upon which we could expect Jesus’ followers to be building when hearing his teachings. Our gospel passages is one of those enigmatic stories where Jesus doesn’t really say anything that is particularly meaningful. It clearly represents an attempt to explain something so utterly profound and vast that his flock of illiterate and uneducated followers who probably knew little to nothing about their own faith at that point could never really hope to understand. And yet, I do find it curious that, when explaining what the Kingdom of Heaven is like, he makes references to so many everyday things. The yeast that gives life to the bread that was at the core of the peasant diet of the time, the fish in the sea, and the tiny mustard seed that grows into an enormous plant. Even while few if any of his followers likely owned pearls or fields in which they could find buried treasure, they were probably still concepts and references that had contemporary currency. As Deborah remarked last week, yeast, while life-giving in so many ways, is ultimately an omnipresent contagion capable of destroying food, life, and flesh, and the mustard tree, virulent though it was, was considered a weed. The Kingdom of Heaven, while an eternal concept, could still be found in the temporal present, and in the everyday. The beauty that we have bestowed upon buildings, liturgy, art, and music, all in the glorification of God, is also all around us: in the socially distant conversation you can have with your friends and families, in the phone call you receive from someone just wanting to make sure you’re ok, those seemingly untameable triffids in my back garden, and even in the remote liturgical space of a Zoom meeting. We all exist in beautiful sacred spaces that God has created for us. We will return to those sacred spaces that have such fundamental significance for us all, but we can also open our eyes to all the beauty and heaven that is there for us wherever we are and however we are worshipping. As the psalmist says: ‘When thy word goeth forth : it giveth light and understanding unto the simple.’ Let us all see that light, that beauty, and that heaven in all our lives, and let us shine that light upon those who need it most.