I came that they may have life, and have it abundantly. (John 10.10)
+In the name of the Father…
When I was first ordained as a Deacon, I remember having to learn the Exsultet, the Easter Song of Praise. As you will be aware, the Exsultet is sung at the Easter Vigil on Easter Eve or early in the morning on Easter Day. It takes some practising. And I remember learning it and singing it again and again during Holy Week, determined to get it right. But I also remember feeling slightly awkward singing these words as we journeyed through Holy Week – surely I should wait until after Good Friday before singing this Easter Song of Praise. ‘Rejoice, heavenly choirs! Sing choirs of angels! Exult all creation around God’s throne! Jesus Christ our King is Risen!’
Surely I needed to enter into the depths of the tragedy and dereliction of Good Friday before rushing too quickly to the resurrection. I needed to stand steadfastly at the foot of the cross. And with the pious intensity of youth, surely what I needed to ensure was that my Holy Week was really grim.
And yet, John the Evangelist subverts all that. Life can be grim enough, and he reminds us that Jesus came so that we may have life, and have it abundantly.
We should not lose sight of the fact that if the gospel is good news, then it is quite simply life-giving. Yes, in the course of ministry we may well find ourselves standing alongside others on Calvary, not because we choose to be there but because God has called us there. The important thing to remember is that God shows in Jesus that he loves us so much that he wants us to rise up and to become fully alive. He calls us out of the tomb we carry within us.
To live life to the full, to share in life abundantly, is not to ignore the reality of human experience and human suffering, but it does mark a refusal to be overwhelmed by suffering and the deadliness of death.
Baron von Hugel, a lay Roman Catholic, had come originally from Austria and lived in London from the end of the nineteenth century onwards. There he developed a ministry as a spiritual director and a great authority on the mystical tradition. If you’ve ever come across his letters to his niece, you will have some inkling of his wisdom and judgement of character, above all his sense of humour.
He met many of the leading theologians of his day, including Cardinal Newman, and Fr Henri Huvelin, one of the great spiritual directors of his day and who exercised a profound influence on Charles de Foucauld. In his little book, The Life of Prayer, he writes this: ‘I used to wonder in my conversation with John Henry Newman, how one so good and who had made so many sacrifices to God, could be so… depressing. And again twenty years later, I used to marvel contrariwise, in my conversation with the Abbé Huvelin, how one more melancholy in natural temperament than even Newman himself, and one physically ill in ways and degrees in which Newman never was, could so radiate spiritual joy and expansion as, in very truth, the Abbé did.’
What does it mean to radiate this kind of spiritual joy?
It is a joy which finds its strength and confidence in the hope of the resurrection. I remember once a priest telling me that Christian ministry demands a very high doctrine of death and resurrection. In other words, the ministry of a priest is shaped by the Easter mystery. These fifty days, which culminate in the outpouring of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost, should be a time when we seek to explore the depths of that mystery.
And I want to suggest to you that the discovery of the kind of spiritual joy that von Hugel describes lies in cultivating two things: and I want to invite you to ponder these two things as we begin a new term.
The first is about grace – and grace is about recognising that everything we are and everything we have and everything we ever will be is simply given to us as a gift. We may think that we can earn status or friendship or love by good works – but the truth is that God acknowledges each of us as a beloved child, as a source of delight to him, and that is not earned but given to us. The whole drama of salvation, everything we have celebrated at Holy Week and Easter, is given freely to us.
And do not underestimate the transforming power of grace. Here we begin to understand the real depths of the generosity of God. Grace is transforming because it presents us with a challenge. And the challenge is whether we can find it in ourselves to be generous in our dealings with one another, just as God is generous to us. I promise you that you will never regret being kind or generous in your dealings with another human being. There is joy in generosity. There is joy in kindness.
The second thing is about prayer – it is no accident that von Hugel offers these reflections about joy in the context of a discussion about prayer.
A few years ago, I found myself in a conversation with a Carthusian monk, who had spent over ten years in silent contemplation at the Grande Chartreuse, high in the Chartreuse Mountains in south-eastern France. This kind and gentle monk had been on quite a journey and he was responding to a call to be a priest in the Church of England. He had been on a series of parish placements to become more familiar with parish life. I was interested to learn something of his impressions of the parish. He spoke animatedly of the role of the laity, of outreach and mission in the local community, and of the sometimes frantic busyness that characterized the parishes he visited, and then he looked a little puzzled and he turned to me and he asked me this profound, unsettling and yet simple question: ‘When do you adore God? When do you adore God?’
|Westcott House Chapel
One of the regular puzzles about life at Westcott is its frantic pace, the busyness of each working day, packing so much in, classes, placements, tutorials, meetings… In some respects it mirrors the busyness of parish life. And yet when the bell rings, everything stops. We are called here to offer prayer and praise to the God of Life.
In these times of prayer, the Risen Christ comes to us, the Risen Christ gives himself to us. We learn to rediscover the reality of his grace and mercy again and again and again. And this is the source of all our joy. Whether we come to the altar tired or doubtful or sad or just messed up, or whether we come to it bursting with laughter and energy, it is the same constant Christ who gives himself into our lives in order that he might draw us more fully into his. And it is here that we discover again and again the One who is our resurrection and our life.