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A Divine Love Song

Easter Day: 31st March, 2013
Rev'd Dr Hugh Kempster, Vicar of St Peter's, Eastern Hill

"Incredible wealth" and "breathless pace" — these are two of the most prominent features of Western societies according to the Croatian theologian, Miroslav Volf, "breathless pace for all, and incredible wealth only for some" (Against the Tide, p. 12). Most of us in this society are like a hamster in a cage running on its wheel, trying to catch up with its own efforts:

We work in order to spend and we spend in order to work; the faster we work the more we spend, and the more we spend the faster we must work. 'If you want to have more cake tomorrow, you have to eat more today.' This counterintuitive wisdom of today's economic life has become a basic rule for the way we live. And if anyone asks, 'Why would one want to eat so much cake in the first place?' we give her a look of surprised incomprehension.

Of course we Christians are not like that; we can get off the hamster's wheel any time we want ... can't we? Christian leaders, priests, bishops are surely shining examples of those who fight against the tide? Well, perhaps not. You could talk to my wife or daughter about one workaholic priest in this parish; not wealthy, but certainly running around his Easter prayer wheel at a frenetic pace.

I have been blessed to be part of a study group that has met at the Vicarage over Lent. We've been slowly and reflectively reading through Jane Shaw's book A Practical Christianity. In it she tells the story of Isobel Knox, a diligent and hard working priest:

[O]rdered in everything she does ... and irritatingly self-righteous. She rarely takes time off and when she does, it is to do something useful and worthy. Every minute of every day is accounted for. She has not changed much since the days of her school report, which read: "Isobel is helpful and has a keen sense of responsibility. She is always eager to advise other pupils and contribute to class discussion. She is diligent and her work is neat and of a high standard. Her sense of superiority is mellowing and I am sure she will continue to do well when she goes to grammar school in September."

This orderliness, and her attempts to get everything right for God, to win God's love, mean that she is harsh and unforgiving on those who fail — most especially herself. So when suppressed memories of unhappy events in her teenage years begin to resurface, and she falls in love with a married priest ... everything collapses — symbolized by her loss of voice. She is literally unable to speak for several months. She cannot work as a priest, she cannot live alone in her home. She collapses.

So in the end it is Isobel's failure that teaches her about God's love. Not her success ... strange to find relief in failure. She'd been like a tightrope artist terrified of falling: but she had fallen, and found that there was a safety net after all.

This is the message of Holy Week and Easter in a nut-shell: it is in failure, in letting go, in the humiliation of the cross, in the emptiness of the tomb, in the impossibility of resurrection; that God's love is so often found.

One of the greatest Christian mystics and spiritual writers, St John of the Cross, similarly discovered the profound beauty of resurrection love in a place of profound emptiness and humiliation. Juan de Yepes was born in 1542 and became an influential Carmelite friar and priest, working with Teresa of Avila towards reform of the order. Not everyone shared their passion for change, however, and one night in December 1577 a group of anti-reform Carmelites broke into John's monastery in Avila, and took him prisoner. He was tried and convicted before a court of friars, and imprisoned in a monastery at Toledo. He was kept in a tiny cell and brought out only for the humiliating weekly public whipping he had to endure in front of the community. The only light he had in the cell came through a small hole that went through to the adjoining room.

In the midst of this deprivation and humiliation a resurrection miracle took place. It was not so much a miracle of healing or of supernatural intervention. It was a miracle of love and revelation. A gardener was at work outside the cell, singing a secular love song. In his stinking dark cell John heard the singing and it became for him God's love song. God was singing to his faithful servant and divine lover. John was profoundly moved by the experience and was inspired to write one of his most beautiful theological works:

In the inner wine cellar
I drank of my beloved, and when I went abroad
Through all this valley
I no longer knew anything,
And lost the herd that I was following.

There he gave me his breast;
There he taught me a sweet and living knowledge;
And I gave myself to him,
Keeping nothing back;
There I promised to be his bride.

Now I occupy my soul
And all my energy in his service;
I no longer tend the herd
Nor have I any other work
Now that my every act is love.

This Easter is an opportunity to realign ourselves; to resist the insane draw of the hamster wheel; to remind ourselves of the grace of God; to be open to the Divine love-song coming to us from the most unexpected of places.

Christ is risen — he is risen indeed — Alleluia.


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