Easter 7, 16 May 21
Dorothy has finally arrived to see the Wizard. Despite all the Wicked Witch has thrown at her, and aided by Lion, Scarecrow, Tin Man and Toto the dog, she’s there, in the Emerald City. “If ever, oh ever, a Wizz there was, the Wizard of Oz is one because, because, because, because of the wonderful things he does.” Surely he’ll be able to get her back home to Kansas?! As they engage in dialogue they get a shock and the Wizard refuses to help. Toto the dog however runs off behind the curtain and there secretly operating the screen of the great and powerful Oz, is he discovers a little, rather unimpressive man. Is this really the Wizard of Oz?
Looking behind the screen can be an uncomfortable situation to find ourselves in. Other similar situations might be when we start getting more involved in the Church or when we become a teacher, or a police officer, or a nurse, we learn that there is a professional life but also that these people are human beings like you or indeed me. Ditto if we meet a celebrity for the first time we discover they’re just as boring or emotional or human as everyone else we’ve ever met.
With Christ’s Ascension, which we celebrated on Thursday we’re taken beyond the vale which normally separates this world and Heaven. The vale is very real. Those who die do not return to this world, just as water bugs once they’ve left the pond and are on the lilly leaf never return for they become dragon flies. St Philip asks to see beyond the veil and to see the Father and our Lord reproaches him for not having realised that to see Him is to have seen God (St John 14:8-9). God coming to show Himself this side of the veil is the same movement we see in the angels. For sometimes these messengers are given permission to come to earth: we see this in Gabriel and Raphael, for example: two of the archangels mentioned in the Bible. Gabriel comes to tell Mary that she is to conceive (St Luke 1.26-38). Raphael draws Tobias and Sarah together in marriage and secures the healing of Tobit (Tobit 6:1, 8:2).
At Mass the curtain twitches, we can get closer so as to be able to see beyond the net curtains, yes, that’s what Heaven looks like. It’s a world that looks noticeably different, but a world in which we are destined to join our Ascended Lord. At Mass we take the things of this earth - bread and wine - and they become the things of the world to come. So also with Baptism, Confirmation, Confession, Marriage, Ordination and Anointing, the other Sacraments: the reality of Heaven becomes touchable - by God’s grace - to us on earth. Jesus promises to Mary Magdalane in the Garden on Easter morning that she will be able to cling to Him once He has ascended to the Father, through the Sacraments (St John 20:17).
It’s a great gift. But it can disturb us, even subconsciously. Our familiarity can sometimes breed contempt, as the saying goes. We think that whatever we see all the time cannot possibly be special. How can Christ’s Body and Blood be so readily available? It can’t be true?! A bit of advice given to priests about how to say Mass is that they should offer the Mass as if it’s their first and their last. It should be like the priest’s first, as he should be full of nerves and awe and apprehension as he touches the sacred species. It should be like his last, because he knows what he’s doing, he’s done it all before, it is professional. These are wise words for us all, each Mass we should attend should be like our first and our last.
We see this lesson being lived out in a perhaps not-much-talked-about part of the Old Testament in the second book of Samuel. The Ark of the Covenant was the means of God communicating His presence to His people, as at the time which God told Moses to build it (Exodus 25). When it was in the process of being transported back to Jerusalem, the Ark shook and was about to fall and Uzzah reached out to stop it and so touched it (II Samuel 6:6-7). This was not permitted though, despite his good intentions, because God had said only Levites could touch it (Exodus 25:12-14). This over-familiarity with the holy things of God’s religion cost Uzzah his life and the sight of Uzzah being struck down did not fill David with much comfort as the Ark of the Covenant was now his responsibility: what might happen to him if he got something wrong? There is reassurance though because the Ark then resided temporarily in the house of Obed-Edom and was a source of great blessing (II Samuel 6:10-12). Everyone could breathe a sigh of relief!
This is why preparing for Mass, arriving in good time, and making clear our intention to worship the Lord in our hearts is so important. God will not be more or less real or more or less present because of our intention but it will mean the power of His presence will be to us a greater blessing if our intentions are more clearly aligned with the Lord. God’s grace perfects whatever it finds in our heart, it does not override it.
We see the benefits of familiarity in our first reading too. The disciples are wondering whom to choose to succeed Judas, who has committed suicide after betraying the Lord. The two candidates they wittle it down to are two men who have “been with us the whole time that the Lord Jesus was travelling round.” In other words someone who was familiar with our Lord and with the way that His apostles lived together in community. St Matthias, whom we celebrated on Friday, was chosen. Our familiarity with the Church and with Christ’s ways, will lead us to be entrusted with greater responsibilities within the family of the Church and do feel free to have a chat with me if you feel you are familiar enough now with what happens that you can serve Christ in new ways. I’m always happy to have that conversation.
This familiarity is part of the unity which is at the heart of God, who is Father, Son and Holy Spirit. It is a familiarity and unity we are to have as those saved by Christ and through His Resurrection. There can be a great temptation that because we live in the world we end up with worldly priorities, as our Lord prays in today’s Gospel to the Father for us: “I passed your word on to them, and the world hated them, because they belong to the world no more than I belong to the world … protect them from the world … consecrate them in the truth … As you sent me in to the world, I have sent them in to the world.”
Part of our prayer then as we gather for Mass should always be, “Lord, make me holy,” that we might now experience this consecration. While we come here to learn and to pray and to receive, we also come here so as to be changed, to be sanctified. In the Creed shortly we will say we believe in the Communion of Saints, which means that we are a holy people and here to handle holy things. We’re kidding ourselves if we think we’re perfect already, but we’re also kidding ourselves if we don’t hear afresh each day the call to be holy.
What is holiness? Well, it has a sense of being entire, whole, but also of being set apart for a particular purpose. It’s the language St Peter uses in that gorgeous passage in his first letter, “you are a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, God’s own people,” (I Peter 2:9). The things we do in life we do still with the tag around our neck, which reveals us to be Christ’s. We are chosen.
Two thoughts to conclude on what holiness looks like. First, adoration. Our time at Mass is to be a time when we adore the Lord. Adoring Him is loving Him. Adoring Him is looking intently and without distraction. Imagine straightening the hairs on the head of a loved one. With care and love in that moment that is the most amazing thing we can do. So it is as we kneel in the presence of the Lord: that’s all that matters. This is how the Wise Men felt as they knelt before the manger (St Matthew 2:12); how Peter feels as he falls at the Lord’s feet admitting his sinfulness (St Luke 5:8) and how the unnamed woman feels as she uses her own hair to wash the Lord’s feet (St Luke 7:36-50). The tenderness of adoration is mocked cruelly and grotesquely as the soldiers also kneel while they mock Him and spit at Him (St Mark 15:19). In the words of the Christmas hymn, “O come let us adore Him.”
A second thought on what holiness looks like: love for the unlovable. St Therese of Lisieux wrote in her autobiography how she should seek out the sister in the convent who was least agreeable to her and love her. Seek her out, note! She was pondering those words of our Lord when He says, “When you give a banquet invite the poor, the crippled, the lame and the blind,” (St Luke 14:13). She reflects how one of the sisters, presumably a bit of an old battle axe, needed help getting from the Chapel to the Refectory. Every offer of help was wrong and St Therese was scolded for not doing it properly. St Therese knew she could only give banquets of the soul, adorned with acts of charity. She knew she had to smile genuinely at the end of all this too. That’s what holiness looks like.
Let’s then my friends, look beyond the veil and, being familiar with the Lord, live up to our vocation to be holy. God wants us to adore Him and to love the unlovable, for this we have been consecrated and left in the world. Amen.