Monday, 22 November 2010

Saint Cecilia -- 22 November 2010

This homily was given during Evensong at Magdalen College, Cambridge, for the feast of Saint Cecilia. The readings were Wisdom 4:10-15 and 2 Corinthians 4:7-16.

How few sermons or homilies we remember! It is salutary for the preacher to recall this from time to time. One sermon that has always stayed strong in my memory is part of a sermon given by Bishop Fulton Sheen which I heard in a church in Dublin sometime in the summer of 1967 or 1968. He was giving a mission in the city and I was working as a messenger boy for a 'gentleman's outfitters', as they were called at the time. Sent on an errand which took me past the church where he was speaking, I was able to pop in for a couple of minutes to see and hear the famous preacher. I have always remembered what he was saying during those few minutes. If an instrument in an orchestra hits a bum note, he said, there is no way that the note can be unplayed. It has forever been sounded (especially if it has come from a trombone or a double bass) and it reverberates across the concert hall, across the city, across the country, across the universe ... the only possible way of rectifying the situation - and it is a radical one - is to get the composer to take that bum note and make it the first note in a new work. Fulton Sheen applied this to Adam and Eve, and to humanity's fall, and God's response to that fall, taking the bum note of sin and making it the first note in the great new symphony of redemption.

It is a useful musical analogy and quite appropriate for St Cecilia's Day. For many people music itself is a kind of 'spirituality', perhaps even the height of spirituality, for its power to express, to stimulate, and to reconcile so much of human experience.

But the distinctive doctrines of the Christian faith can also be meditated on from this perspective. I have recalled Fulton Sheen's musical analogy. The Divine Composer will achieve the work he has conceived, weaving into it the discordant notes, the mistakes, the silences, and the wrong turnings, which the human interpreters of that work inevitably introduce into its performance. Not only can he work those things into his composition, he can use those things to illustrate even more powerfully the beauty of his work.

We can say this not just about the history of salvation in general, but about each individual history of salvation. For example, St Paul, in our second reading, describes his experience in phrases that are wonderfully musical: troubled, but not distressed; perplexed, but not in despair; persecuted, but not forsaken; cast down, but not destroyed. It continues into the climax of that passage,

bearing in the body the dying of the Lord Jesus,
that the life also of Jesus might be made manifest in our body.

This is the distinctive Christian chord, the phrase at the heart of our faith, the melody of our life's song - so we profess in our baptism and seek to live out from day to day - dying with Christ, to sin, so as to live with him, by grace, and for you.

Some translations of 'the grace', or blessing, with which 2 Corinthians ends refer to 'the harmony of the Holy Spirit' where we are more accustomed to 'fellowship' or 'communion' (koinonia). There are many images and metaphors for the Spirit in the Christian tradition - other beautiful ones such as the kiss, or laughter - but let us stay with harmony for now, because it is St Cecilia's Day.

Some recent theology - I am thinking particularly of Hans Urs von Balthasar - speak in terms of Father and Son being 'stretched' by the work of revelation and salvation, the Son travelling into a far country to rescue the lost, putting the relationship of Father and Son itself under strain as the Son descends even into hell. The just man to whom the first reading refers, taken away from 'the bewitching of naughtiness and the wandering of concupiscence', the Son, the Word, became flesh and entered fully into that place of naughtiness and concupiscence so as to heal and strengthen it from within.

Did this journey of the Son threaten the harmony between Father and Son? Is this what those harsh cries in Gethsemane and Golgotha mean? The creation that is in travail, groaning in its one great act of giving birth, witnesses to its own transformation in the body of the Incarnate Son. The great symphony of creation and redemption is centred on that moment of silence in which he breathed forth his Spirit, the harmony, the love of Father and Son, and of God for the world, which endures this greatest dissonance and, from the far side of it, initiates the radically new movement of the resurrection, a new creation.

We believe that God opened his heart and revealed his life in that moment of deepest silence. What is revealed is the life of love that God is and far from being a threat to the harmony of those relations the blood of Jesus seals a new and eternal covenant. This moment did not threaten the harmony of Father and Son. It was, rather, the moment when all humanity, and creation itself, were incorporated into the harmony of the divine symphony which is the life of the Blessed Trinity. God is a complex note, or a chord, or a phrase, that expresses power and wisdom and love, taking in and reconciling and bringing into a higher, enduring harmony, the troubled, distressed, perplexed, persecuted, and cast down world.

We celebrate our faith in this mysstery not just by singing a new song in the choir but by singing  a new song in our lives.  Lovers sing, St Augustine reminds us, and the bearers of a new love must sing a new song.

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