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


Easter evening
April 9, 2012, 9:41 am
Filed under: Sermons

A sermon preached at All Saints, Clifton, 8th April 2012

Occasions that arouse strong emotions, whether of sorrow or of joy, can leave us drained and exhausted. Even when we are not at the centre of such events, just witnessing them can take its toll. This is especially true of painful experiences- to see someone you care about suffer, or even to hear about it, can be distressing beyond words. So let’s think, for a moment, about those two disciples in today’s Gospel, Cleophas and the other- his wife? A friend? We aren’t told. Clearly, they were followers of Jesus, like Lazarus and his sisters at Bethany, who lived just outside Jerusalem. They must have been in Jerusalem for the festival, and now, with the sabbath rest over, they were making their way home.

What state of mind must they have been in? Their faces were “downcast”, we read- that must be to put it mildly. They had hoped that Jesus was the Messiah, the great Liberator, yet only two days before he had been arrested, tortured, tried and executed. To understand just how traumatic that was, try to imagine just how great their hope must have been, having heard and seen things that convinced them that Jesus was a great prophet, even the Anointed of God; and then seen him treated so barbarously and so finally. Think of something you have set your heart on, really wanted; and imagine your feelings if suddenly and savagely this is torn away from you and destroyed. Bereavement, redundancy, learning you have an incurable illness- such things can knock the bottom out of your world, leaving you helpless, numb, unable to cope with even simple things. In imagining Cleophas and his companion, do not minimise their grief and pain.

When the stranger caught them up, and asked what was the matter- how obvious it must have been that they were in shock and grief- they could hardly take in that he did not know. As they poured out their story, he walked with them, and at first all he did was to suggest another way of looking at it- not a cruel frustration of their hopes, but in fact the logical outcome of everything they had based their hope on. He asked them to re-assess what they should have been hoping for, should have been expecting.

As they realised later, that in itself diverted them from purely negative feelings of gloom and despair. They had to try to make sense of what had happened; they had to dig deeper, to base themselves on the simple faith that, whatever may happen, God is in control– and if that is so, there must always be hope. Faith and hope are, in the last resort, not in this or that particular thing, but simply in God himself.

By evening, they had reached their home. They invited the stranger who had offered them comfort to stay with them. As they shared a simple meal, they suddenly saw who it was- and (as it were with his goal achieved) he vanished. They rushed back to Jerusalem to share their news.

On Good Friday, I was reading from Caryll Houselander, a highly regarded spiritual writer fifty years ago, now mostly forgotten but deserving to be re-discovered. Let me tell you a bit about her.

She was born in Bath, Michaelmas 1901. When she was six, her mother became a Catholic and she in turn was so baptised. Shortly after her ninth birthday, her parents separated and her mother opened a boarding house to support the family, while Caryll was sent away to a convent where she reported her first mystical experience. One day, she entered a room and saw a Bavarian nun sitting by herself, weeping and polishing shoes. At this time, there was much anti-German sentiment owing to the First World War. As she stared, she saw the nun’s head being pressed down by a crown of thorns that she was to interpret as Christ’s suffering in the woman.

In her teens, she lapsed from her Faith, not returning until in her twenties. She suffered from a sense of isolation at times, reflected in panic attacks when entering rooms and meeting strangers, so much so that she was considered neurotic. One night, in July 1918, Caryll was sent by her mother on an errand. On her way to the street vendor, she looked up and saw what she later described as a huge Russian icon spread across the sky. The icon she saw was Christ crucified lifted up, and looking down, brooding over the world. Shortly after, she read in a newspaper article about the assassination of Russian Tsar Nicholas II. She said the face she saw in the newspaper photograph was the face she saw spread out over the sky as the crucified Christ.

A third vision occurred when she was travelling on a busy underground train when she suddenly saw Christ, living and rejoicing, suffering and dying, in each and everyone of the passengers. When she left the train, the mystical experience continued for several days, during which she became persuaded that the unity of life in Christ was the only solution to loneliness and the human condition.

The three mystical experiences she claimed to have experienced convinced her that Christ is to be found in all people, even those whom the world shunned because they did not conform to certain standards of piety. She would write that if people looked for Christ in only the “saints,” they would not find him. She herself smoked and drank and had a sharp tongue. She had an unhappy love-affair.

Caryll Houselander reminds me of the Emmaus disciples. In her loneliness and depression, she suddenly managed to see and recognise Christ, present in each and every person. Christ suffering, Christ rejoicing. Sometimes, in some poor souls, Christ as it were dead- but never absent.

We too are disciples on the road, sometimes sorely tried and tested, and not seeing Christ clearly. But he is with us, inviting us to dig deeper and base our faith simply on the Power, Wisdom and Love of God. Sometimes it is only as darkness falls that we, for an instant, catch a glimpse of his glory. And always, we should ask the grace of seeing and serving him in one another. Christ is risen! May he be risen in each one of us! Like the Emmaus disciples, may we hasten to share that good news with everyone.

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