St Bride's: Sermons

The Mystic Lamb

The Mystic Lamb

The cathedral of Saint Bavo in the Belgian city of Ghent contains a great treasure. It is a painting by Jan and Hubert van Eyck.
Given to the cathedral in 1432 it's had many adventures:

Philip the second of Spain wanted take possession of it; protestants wanted to burn it in 1566; Emperor Joseph II had the paintings of Adam and Eve removed as he found them shocking; and the French Directoire had it sent to Paris where it remained until 1815.
It then lost several of its panels which were exhibited in the Museum of Berlin.It was put back together again in 1920, but the panel of the righteous judges was stolen in 1934; it has been replaced by a copy since 1941.

The polyptych was first entrusted to the French during the Second World War, but the German authorities transferred it to Austria, where American troops found it in 1945 in a Styrian salt mine. The work took its place once more in the chapel chosen by the original donor but was moved again in 1986 to a more secure location where viewing it would be easier.

The painting, the Adoration of the Mystic Lamb, has at its centre a depiction of the very scene described in today's first reading:
John's vision of a great multitude that no one could count, from every nation, from all tribes and peoples and languages, standing before the throne and before the Lamb.

Christ himself, depicted as the Lamb of God on the altar, blood flowing from his heart into a chalice, is worshipped by the multitudes of christian believers, represented by the righteous judges, pilgrims and hermits, the virgins, martyrs and confessors.
And despite its adventures the painting shines with pristine beauty, the depth of colour and the fineness of the detail undimmed by the passing of the years.

When I saw the painting I was struck by the message it conveyed. Despite its medieval dress the picture encouraged me. John's writing in Revelation was meant to encourage those who heard it.A great persecution was expected to break out against the Church in about AD 96 and so John sets before his hearers in symbolic language the triumphant state that awaits the persecuted and puts in their mouths a song of triumph: Salvation belongs to our God who is seated on the throne, and to the Lamb!

For John this threatened persecution was the prelude to the End, when God's victory over sin and death would be complete.
Subsequent events have proved John's confident optimism about the End to have been misguided. But it is true that crises in the Church's history have always confronted it with issues of life and death and brought it face to face with the reality of the ultimate triumph of God's love.

As the Adoration of the Mystic Lamb has survived its violent history with the heart of its message unscathed, so the Church has managed, in every age, to return to the vision proclaimed by John. So today, as always at the eucharist, we celebrate that victory in the company of all God's faithful people, who through the ages have witnessed to the love of God made manifest and available in Christ, the Word made flesh.

To celebrate All Saints' Day is to focus with even greater joy on the heroic faith of those who have gone before us and who now share completely in the victory of the Lamb, and from whose eyes the tears are for ever wiped away. We need this festival because we need encouragement. Being the Church can be a pretty discouraging thing.

Yes, we all know that we are saints, holy people, called by God and incorporated into Christ through baptism but there is sometimes little sign of the holiness and purity found in those saints who have been canonised and have found their place in the calendar. Holy people? But surely in reality a backsliding, perverse rabble. Bitter, divided, complaining, intolerant, reactionary, bigoted? Mean, humourless? Yes, all of that. And how depressing it can be.

Has belonging to the Church made any difference to us? Would we be better if we didn't belong? Yes, I've seen it often and I expect you have too.

People with a lifetime in the Church and apparently untouched by it all. But you have to remember that we are forgiven sinners.
That although we are made objectively holy by baptism, the grace and love of God still have to triumph in our lives. It is discouraging to think that our efforts cannot bring us more into favour with God than we already are.

But the heart of the christian enterprise is not the achievement of uprightness in the sight of God. The heart of it is becoming, through the grace of God, what we already are; that the ideals of holiness and oneness with God and with each other which are the signs of true christianity should be manifest in us and in the particular community to which we belong.

The saints are significant not because they have made it into favour with God by lives of virtue but because they have allowed God, through grace, to have his way with them. They have allowed God to make his transforming love a reality in their lives.
For much of its history the Church has chosen to recognise people for whom this was true, who manifested in this life the holiness for which we all have the potential.

Many of them were outstanding in virtue, whose holiness had led them to perfection. But many of them were marked simply by complete trust in God.People for whom the need to put God at the root of their lives took on a glorious reality without obscuring their humanity.

We've all met them. They won't ever be canonised. But they are saints nevertheless and they stun us by their holiness.

This ordinary holiness really is the lifeblood of the Church, because it reminds us that in all of us, in all God's holy people there is the potential for change and growth into communion with the love of God.

It is a Godsend that the Church has never failed to proclaim this truth, not in the great pronouncements, but through the life of its people, who Sunday by Sunday gather around the Lamb on the altar and allow the warmth of his love to flow through them.
And to sustain us in this we have the great company of God's ordinary, holy people who have trodden this path before us.
We have them not just as a memory but as a present reality, because every time we proclaim the mystery of God's love and sing his praise we do so with angels and archangels and with all the company of heaven.

It is as true of the Church as it is of the polyptych of the adoration of the mystic Lamb, that the troubles of the world, the turbulence of history cannot cancel out the heart of the Gospel. We are sustained, as Christians through the ages have been, by the realisation that in countless ways and through the life of the Church God's purposes of love are being achieved.

At the end of time, what we can glimpse through these sacred mysteries we shall see in reality, as we stand before the Lamb, made perfect by his love, all tears wiped away.

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