SMC – 10th February
If I’m entirely honest with you, brothers and sisters – and of course, I am! – I have to admit that I don’t particularly care for Christingles. I’ve never been able to get excited by candles shoved into oranges. I don’t even really like the sweeties round the side.
I understand what they’re trying to do, I suppose. This piece of mutilated fruit is trying to tell us something about God. So, the orange is meant to be the world, and the sweets the fruits of the earth, which sounds very much to me like a good excuse for children to eat sweet things rather than thinking about the Lord, but what do I know?
Now, originally, for the Protestants who invented them, Christingles were just candles, with a red ribbon round the outside. The candle stood for Jesus, Light of the World, as John records Jesus saying. The red ribbon was His Precious Blood, shed for us on the Cross. So the Christingle, this bizarre alien looking thing, is really trying to tell us that God is the Light of the World, that is, that without Him, we are blind; and that He loved us so much that He sent His Son to die for us, shedding His Blood.
One of the problems I have with the Christingle is that the thing doesn’t quite fit the message it’s trying to proclaim. This feeble little fruit can’t really tell us very much about God that we didn’t already know. It’s like trying to teach rocket science with a fuzzy felt alphabet.
But let’s forget the Christingles. For all that I don’t like them, it isn’t their fault that they teach us about God so imperfectly. We have to face the difficult truth: it’s hard to talk about God. We see the prophet Isaiah struggling with it in our first reading this evening.
“In the year king Uzziah died I saw the Lord seated on a throne high and lifted up; and His train filled the temple.” This doesn’t seem very much like our poor Christingle, I know, but really it’s trying to do the same sort of thing: Isaiah has had an overwhelming experience of the living God, and is trying desperately to find words to convey what he has seen.
The Lord God, of course, does not sit down. He has no body with which to sit, and no throne could ever contain Him, nor any Temple. As Solomon says when his Temple is dedicated, “Even heaven and the highest heaven cannot contain You, much less this house that I have built!” (1 Kings 8:27). But what Isaiah is trying to tell us, and what God was trying to tell Isaiah, is that He is a great king high and lifted up, Who sits in judgement upon His throne, dwelling in a mystical way in His holy Temple.
For who sits in a throne but a king, a bishop, an emperor, a pope? The Lord God possesses, Isaiah is telling us, majesty and power which is something like theirs, but so much greater, being more “high and lifted up.” Really, a king is about as much like God as an orange is like the world, but the image helps us to catch just the smallest glimpse of the Majesty of God.
Likewise, God we know has no ‘train’ of any size, for God does not wear clothes. Isaiah telling us that His train “filled the Temple” tells us instead about His importance. You see, in the ancient world, the longer the train you had carried after you, the more important you were. Those of you old enough to remember Her Majesty’s coronation might remember all twenty-one feet of her train being carried by seven impeccably noble ladies. Even today, foolish brides sometimes obsess about the length of the trains of their wedding dresses. Even bishops, vain precious things they sometimes are, are sternly admonished that they may only have one person to carry their trains, in case they get big-headed!
Trains make people seem important, of course. But the train of God fills the Temple; it is the biggest and the best, and He, therefore, the most important Being there could be, higher than any king or emperor, and therefore ruling over all earthly kings and princes, and indeed over all of us.
But my favourite part of Isaiah’s vision is the Seraphim, the high angelic beings who surround the Lord of Hosts. “Above Him stood the seraphim; each had six wings.” For some reason the incompetent translation we use at Mass misses out the next bit, “with two he covered his face, with two he covered his feet, and with two he flew.” These are strange and marvellous creatures indeed, with power and majesty of their own. They are near the throne of God, eternally in His blessed Presence. And yet: they cover their face before the Vision of God, as though they could not bear the splendour of the divine radiance.
Next time it’s sunny, come to church and go up into the quire, behind me, and look up at the windows in the chancel. If you look closely at the south window in the east end, you will see the Seraphim there, like flames of fire, each flame a wind, as they might have appeared to Isaiah. They’re very beautiful. And the best thing is, that if it’s really bright outside, eventually the seraphim dissolve in the sunlight, and you can’t see them anymore. Instead, all you can see is light, a light so bright it’s almost painful to look at.
If the glass weren’t there, we wouldn’t be able to look at that light without being blinded. Like the Seraphim, we’d have to veil our eyes. But with the glass, and all its seraphs, we can learn a little – a very little – of what it might be like to look at God, and see His light shining through them, as it shines through all creation, as the sunlight shines through the stained glass.
That’s what all of these ways of thinking about God are like, brothers and sisters, whether they are silly oranges stuck about with sweets, or the glorious vision of Isaiah. They let us catch a glimpse, and only a glimpse, of something we couldn’t otherwise see. “No one has ever seen God” S John reminds us; Isaiah, looking on his vision, is terrified: “I am lost, for I am a man of unclean lips […] and my eyes have looked at the King, the Lord of hosts!”
We should remember to be like this, before the face of Almighty God, Who comes to us in our worship. Confessing our faults, humbling ourselves, let us be like the Seraphim, who worship Him for ever, crying out, as we shall in a few minutes’ time, “Holy! Holy! Holy! Is the Lord of Hosts; His glory fills the whole earth!”