Field of Dreams: if you build it, they will come!

Augustine on the psalms (4)
August 30, 2010, 8:26 am
Filed under: Sermons | Tags: , , , ,

A sermon preached at All Saints, Clifton, 29th August 2010

Yesterday was the feast of St Augustine of Hippo, who has been our guide these last few Sundays in our meditations on the Psalms. Friday was the feast-day of his mother, St Monica. I mention this because Father Richard has pointed out to me that, in his “Confessions”, the story of his early life, Augustine relates very movingly the last days of his mother, at the Roman port of Ostia, as they were on their way home to Africa, and the grief he felt at her death. “Water could not wash away the bitter grief from my heart,” he says. “Then I went to sleep and woke up to find that the rest had brought me some relief from sorrow. As I lay in bed, I remembered the verses of your servant Ambrose and realised the truth of them:

Creator of the earth and sky,

Ruling the firmament on high,

Clothing the day with robes of light,

Blessing with gracious sleep the night,

That rest may comfort weary men,

And brace to useful toil again,

And soothe awhile the harassed mind,

And sorrow’s heavy load unbind.”

I am sure you recognise those words: we sang them at the beginning of our Evening Prayer tonight. In choosing this hymn, Father Richard says that he had in mind particularly the fact that it is associated with the death of Monica, and her great son’s sorrow for it. Sixteen centuries on, the words of Ambrose are still remembered, still sung in Christian worship. This is a wonderful reminder of our solidarity with the Age of the Fathers.

My soul hath longed for thy salvation. Augustine says that this prayer belongs to the whole Church, the People God has chosen from the beginning of the world. “From the dawn of humanity until the end of the world, in all who at any time have lived, are alive now, or will live, this people longs for Christ.” Before Christ was born, the People of God longed and prayed for his coming. We heard an echo of that longing in the Song of Simeon, the Nunc Dimittis. As he held the Holy Child, and recognised him as the Saviour, Simeon could say, “Now you can let your servant go in peace, because my eyes have seen your salvation.” Now that Christ has been born, we still long for his return.  And I have a good hope because of thy word. Our longing is not empty or in vain, because we rely on God’s promises, and that is the basis for our hope.

But immediately the Psalmist expresses his frustration. Yes, he knows he can rely on God’s promises, but it seems such a long wait for God to fulfil them. Mine eyes long sore for thy word: saying, O when wilt thou comfort me? He feels like an old leather wine-skin hanging by the hearth, all dried up in the smoke. What is more- and this is also true of the Church in every age- he is beset by enemies who mock his faith and persecute him in various ways.

In the second section of the Psalm as we sang it, the Psalmist renews his faith: O Lord, thy word endureth for ever in heaven. Thy truth also remaineth from one generation to another: thou hast laid the foundations of the earth, and it abideth. The human race- even the Church, the People of God- may be in disarray, but the Universe continues its harmonious way. The movements of the stars in the sky, the steady rhythm of the seasons on earth, all this proceeds according to the laws God has established. We need to take our eyes off the hurly-burly of human life, and contemplate the Eternal. That will put everything in proportion.

Finally, the Psalmist returns to his constant theme, the beautiful Law of God, the Torah: If my delight had not been in thy law: I should have perished… I will never forget thy commandments… I am thine, O save me. For the Christian, the Law, the Living Word of God, is to be identified with Christ the Saviour, for whom we long as we sang at the beginning. Jesus in his own Person, by his life, death and resurrection, has shown us how to live, and given us grounds for hope in eternal life.

In the year 387, Augustine was mourning his mother, who had spent so much of her life worrying about him. She died at peace, because he was finally a Catholic Christian. The words of what was then a modern hymn came to his mind, composed by the great Bishop Ambrose who had been instrumental in his own conversion. The theme was much the same as that of the Psalm we have been considering: the eternity of God, the creator and ruler of the universe, together with his loving care for weak and sinful human beings. We are beset by many trials and troubles, now as then, and we grow weary. Every evening is as it were a rehearsal for the time when we shall finally lay down our burdens and sleep, to awake in the bright light of eternity.

Day sinks; we thank thee for thy gift;

Night comes; and once again we lift

Our prayer and vows and hymns that we

Against all ills may shielded by.

That when black darkness closes day,

And shadows thicken round our way,

Faith may no darkness know, and night

From faith’s clear beam may borrow light.

In a few moments we shall receive our Lord’s sacramental blessing. As we do so, let us remember that the delight and comfort the Psalmist of old derived from his contemplation of the Law is now to be found by us in the contemplation of Jesus Christ, especially in his Real Presence among us on the altar. Through him and from him shines the eternal light of God. “Sweet light, so shine on us , we pray, that earthly joys may fade away: sweet Sacrament divine.”


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