Sermon 28th February 2010 Lent II

Posted on: Sunday 28th February 2010

Sermon for the Second Sunday of Lent (with Baptism), 28th February 2010

Fr Richard Coles

From the letter to the Philippians: for many live as enemies of the cross of Christ.

In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.

A week or two ago on Ash Wednesday we met here in church to mark the beginning of Lent. Before the service we burned last year’s Palm Crosses, distributed and blessed on Palm Sunday, in last year’s Lent, and with the ash the priest made the sign of the cross on our foreheads with the words, remember you are dust and to dust you shall return. We left in silence, out into the street bearing the sign of the cross, turned the corner, wiped the ashy smudge from the foreheads, and went out to dinner.

It is the Anglican way, partly reflecting, I guess, a reluctance to make a show of one’s faith, to look silly, or the odd one out; for many live as enemies of the Cross of Christ.

It is, after all, an instrument of torture and death, and Lent reminds us that on the Cross our Lord and Saviour suffered and died. Do we need reminding? Just look around this church and count how many depictions of the Crucified Christ we offer for your consideration.

And yet, over the centuries, and in the course of our lives, the Cross has become familiar, domesticated; indeed, for many people it’s become a sign of its opposite, something anodyne, even cosy. So to be called to reflect again on its purpose as the instrument of Christ’s death makes us uncomfortable. Especially when we’ve gathered here not only to share the bread and wine of the Eucharist but to welcome India, at the beginning of her life, into the family of the Church?

Well, we don’t often have baptisms in Lent, and perhaps that’s because we sense that the mood of the season is out of tune with the mood of the sacrament; widow’s weeds clash with christening robes. But when we look at the baptism service it seems to have more in common with Ash Wednesday than we might at first expect.

In a moment, as deacon of the mass, I will mark the sign of the cross on India’s forehead, not in ash, but in oil, holy oil, blessed by the bishop in the cathedral on Maundy Thursday, the eve of the commemoration of Christ’s death on the Cross. And I will say Christ claims you for his own, receive the sign of the Cross. Is it, then, a badge, a mark of membership? Yes, but it is more than that, more than a statement of affiliation, like the Tufty Club; or even of belief, like the pound sign for Eurosceptics. It is a sign that we share in Christ’s death.

Uncomfortable again? Is it that same discomfort we’ll feel in a moment when we we’re gathered at the font and the celebrant prays, We thank thee, Father, for the water of baptism. In it we are buried with Christ in his death: a cold wind blows across the water’s surface – Ash Wednesday.

A bit of editing called for perhaps? We’ve edited the marriage service, after all, which used to speak of men’s carnal lusts and appetites, compared the ushers to brute beasts that have no understanding, and recommended itself as a means of avoiding fornication; you could almost see the orange blossom wilting.

In the new, edited, marriage service that’s all gone; instead we’re obliged to speak of ‘the delight and tenderness of sexual union’, which I find no less embarrassing, and usually pretend to cough at that bit and move on.

Well there are worse things than a Curate’s embarrassment – selling a baptism short for example – which we would if we lost sight, at the beginning of our lives, of their end.

Perhaps it is not just the character of the baptismal service, the christening of a child, that makes those reminders of mortality feel so jarring; it is also because as a culture we are no longer on terms with death. Twenty five per cent of my grandmother’s twelve brothers and sisters didn’t make it to adulthood – Spanish flu, ruptured appendix, failure to thrive – and every household in her childhood had a drawer full of black crepe (well-used). Death was not something awaiting us, finally, in the antiseptic impersonal environment of a hospital, but was a regular knocker at the door. She grew up with all the elaborate Victorian paraphernalia of death, full-mourning, half-mourning, black bombazine, weeping willows, and in her lifetime it all but disappeared, in proportion with the rise in life expectancy, enduring today only in Undertakers’ Parlours and the East End of London. Even the word ‘death’ seems to have become unsayable – have you noticed how more and more people prefer the euphemism ‘passed away’, an expression oddly resurrected from Victorian piety for use in world which grows every day more secular.

For us, as individuals and for our culture, death may have been banished to the edges of our experience, but sooner or later, inevitably, we will become expert in it, through the loss of others, and finally the loss of ourselves. If, as Benjamin Franklin observed, it is the only inevitable thing (along with taxes), don’t we, at the very least, need to come to terms with it (for it will certainly come to terms with us)? And I don’t mean by this a sort of golden sunset – angel’s feathers falling to the sound of Dvorak’s New World symphony – or a melodrama – black-cowled figures wielding scythes – or an evasion – I have just gone into the next room. I mean the blunt fact of death, so difficult to face with equanimity, no matter how theologically well-equipped, how pious, how serenely composed we like to think we may be. Not existing is literally unthinkable, and like all living, feeling creatures, we dread extinction; it’s hardwired into our brains, a fundamental strategy for survival, the selfish gene being its selfish self.

And yet this selfish gene, which provides us with our dread of death, is also, paradoxically, death’s executor. Last week there were a number of reports in the papers about breakthroughs in our understanding of how this works, how we age and die. It’s the focus of intense research and debate at the moment, and according to one school of thought, it’s pre-programmed, part of the design.

Today marks the 50th anniversary of the discovery of DNA – hence the cover image on the service booklet this morning – like the cross it is a more than a symbol, for in its double helix our fortune and fate is written. Who we will be, our virtues and vices, the curl of our hair, and the rate of its loss; the loss of our teeth, our marbles, and our lives. It’s a bit like built-in obsolescence in a washing machine, the future failure of the spin cycle engineered in so we’ll have to go and buy replacements and keep the world economy, or at least Peter Jones, in business.

The difference between your Zanussi and your DNA is that no-one knows why our obsolescence is built in. We know how we age, we don’t know why we age, and before we get too beguiled by the promise of the former, maybe we should reflect a bit on the latter.

Gene therapy, we are told, promises greatly extended life-expectancy, already double that of our not too distant ancestors (and not too distant neighbours) thanks to healthier lifestyles and cleverer medicine (for those, of course, who can afford them). You and I may reasonably expect to be playing golf into our nineties – India, however, and her peers, may get well into triple figures before the accumulation of cellular wear and tear annuls their club membership.

The prospect of a hundred and fifty candles on a birthday cake fills some with relief; but others, I suspect, dread it. Not because the thought of getting through more hips than a centipede is unappealing – if these therapies work then our cells will continue to renew themselves – but because the sheer weight of a hundred and fifty years of life could so easily be more burden than bonus. Janacek, the greatest composer of the twentieth century… arguably… Janacek’s opera The Makropoulos Case dramatises such a fate, of a woman, Emilia Marty, living beyond her span thanks to a life-extending potion: but it is a life of dreary uniformity, without risk or savour or pleasure. We love parties, she discovers, because they end.

We know how we die, we don’t know why we die? But our lives are not our own, we are not the authors of our own stories, deciding our beginnings and our ends. What we really are is beyond us utterly, created by God in the fathomless mystery of his image, redeemed in the fathomless grace of his love; our futures and our fates not a matter of genetic snakes and ladders, but signed with his cross, transforming the body of our humiliation that it may be conformed to the body of his glory.