Lent 4, 14th March 2021
You may have memories of what past Mothering Sundays looked like: last year when the Government had closed churches; the year before that maybe; or maybe even as a child. One of the things a priest usually has to sacrifice is spending too much of Mothering Sunday with his family but I do have memories of such occasions at my dad’s parent’s house where eleven or more of us would would be crammed on about three small oval dinning tables pushed together. There weren’t enough chairs so we were sitting on stools as well and whoever drew the short straw had the piano stool. Goodness knows how my grandmother managed to cook for all of us but we’d always eat at lunchtime and we’d all been to Mass that morning too.
Nostalgia is a hankering after the past, which is a common feature among humans and often especially among Christians but we are to be wary of it. The past wasn’t necessarily better than the present. This is important for us to remember as we begin to emerge - we hope! - out of lockdown. I’d like to encourage you not to use the word “normal” about what the future looks like because the only thing you can say about normal really is that it was what was happening in the past. The post-lockdown age is surely better labelled as one of freedom, this is what distinguishes it from what we’re experiencing now when we’re still unable to do so many things because of Government restrictions in the face of the pandemic.
Jesus speaks the words in today’s Gospel, words to slip easily from our lips: “God loved the world so much that He gave His only Son, so that everyone who believes in Him may not be lost but may have eternal life.” What words of comfort for us to take to heart! They’re introduced with an image from the Old Testament: “The Son of Man must be lifted up as Moses lifted up the serpent in the desert.” The reference back to the past is not a reminiscing: “Oh, wouldn’t it be lovely if Moses was still around to lift up serpents in the desert.” Rather, it’s saying those significant moments in the past described in the Old Testament were simply pointing us to the here and now, to the fulfilment we see in Jesus. God was preparing the world for the moment of the Cross by placing signs pointing to it in the life of the people of God for centuries beforehand.
This approach to Scripture is called typological, in other words a theme or an episode from the Old Testament is given its full and always intended meaning in the New. At St Mary’s this way of reading the Bible is impressed upon us in the Wall Paintings in the Nave, which have on your right hand side the Old Testament prefiguring of Christ and on your left hand side the Old Testament revelations of who He is. At the Easter Vigil on Holy Saturday, we’ll hear of the sacrifice of Isaac from Genesis 22. The key significance of this passage is that it prepares God’s people for the Father’s love revealed by sacrificing His Only Son. The lamb, the Lamb of God, provided on the altar of the Cross is there on our behalf, just as the Angel provides Abraham with the ram to offer in place of Isaac. It’s typology.
The lifting up of the serpent in the desert comes from an otherwise slightly random passage in the book of Numbers. The people of God are grumbling as they travel on - no surprise there! - and God in His wisdom and mercy does not instantly resolve the problems this time. No, this time God sends poisonous snakes and if you were bitten by the snake you died. Moses had previously been the recipient of a lot of criticism but the people came and asked him for help when they needed it. God tells Moses what needs to be done: make a bronze serpent and place it upon a pole and everyone who looks upon it shall live.
This event is fulfilled in the Cross. The pole becomes the Cross; the bronze serpent becomes our Saviour. By hanging there Jesus is cancelling out the disobedience inspired by the serpent who tempts mankind in the garden of Eden to do that which they have been expressly told not to do. Later in St John’s Gospel, Jesus will say, “When I am lifted up I shall draw all people to myself,” (St John 12:32). The Cross was deliberately raised up by the Romans so that those who might be tempted to commit crime in the future were dissuaded from doing so. The Cross of Christ is raised up so that from it blood may flow out on all the nations of the world, that all might see, believe and be forgiven. Our churches are to tower about the rest of the community not just because we have big spires but because of the love and service and sacrifice that is to be the hallmark of our shared life.
The old normal might not have been all that good anyway. Another reason we mustn’t simply commit to returning to it. Time and time again in the Scriptures the gilding of the past means actually straying from God’s ways. Once the people have left Egypt and the slavery under Pharaoh, they want to go straight back to it because they come to the misguided conclusion it wasn’t that bad after all. When the people of Jerusalem were about to be destroyed during the days of the prophet Jeremiah, they briefly think they ought to do something virtuous in the time they have before the end comes and they set the slaves free. Briefly the danger subsides and so they all just go back to normal and re-imprison the slaves. In both cases they go back to “normal” and this is the wrong decision.
This will be true in the life of our parish, I hope and pray, and now is the time for us to start pondering what our newly restored freedom will look like. At the PCC Meeting on Zoom on Thursday evening we’ll be discussing something I’ve called “phone pastors” for now, which will I hope encourage volunteers to ring individuals up within the congregation and support them, letting the clergy know how they’re doing afterwards. A further sphere for exploration is our online activities. We’ve tiptoed more out into the internet during the Pandemic and while that can never be a worthy substitute to worship offered in sacred space with others physically next to us, we are to ask ourselves how we can sustain and grow our presence in the online world.
At St Mary’s, I’m desperate finally to sort this Rood Screen out and details of those plans have been on the piano by the Sacred Heart for folk to see for months - we just need to find some money to do it with. Here, we’ll also have to make a decision about whether we want to stay having Sunday Masses at 10am and 12noon or go back to one at 10am. I’d be interested in your views. At the Good Shepherd we have an opportunity to think afresh of how we want to use our building as the groups that were previously hiring Church from us in the week will not be returning. How can it be of service to our community? How can the worship of God be furthered?
Our Lord’s words in the Gospel continued: “On these grounds is sentenced pronounced: that though the light has come in to the world men have shown they prefer darkness to the light because their deeds were evil.” Light reveals fresh insight to us. I was listening to a Nigerian born priest speaking recently about his experiences of racism and he wisely notes that you can’t fight evil with darkness, only with light. Our spiritual journey is to be given new direction in this knowledge, discovering new depths of the God who has called us by name and made us His own. Another reason for us not to go back to the normal of the past is God’s desire to do something new: “See I am doing a new thing,” He says (Isaiah 43:19). May His Light shine brightly that we may perceive this.
With this fresh wisdom we can discern what to do with our lives: how we use our time, with our money, with our gifts, and how we interact with others. May it give us hearts that are quicker to forgive. May it give us mouths that are quicker to praise the Lord our God. May it give us lives with more space for God to come and reign. One of the worst things about the old normal that we can all seek to shed is the language of excuses, reasons we’ve invented for why we can’t possibly do what God expects us to do. When doing what is right is difficult there will undoubtedly be greater virtue to be acquired in doing it. Think of the Cross. May its light guide us to the path of eternal life as we ponder what our lives will look like as we acquire greater freedom again. Amen.