Lenten Meditation 4: Redire ad Principia: Lenten Sermons of Lancelot Andrewes

“Turn unto the Lord your God”

The words of the prophet Joel caught the imagination of the poetic preacher of the courts of Elizabeth and James, Lancelot Andrewes. His Ash-Wednesday sermon of 1619 preached before King James takes as its text the passage from The Book of Joel read on Ash Wednesday, then as the Epistle, now as the designated lesson at the Penitential Office, at least in our Canadian Prayer Book. “Rend your hearts and not your garments and turn unto the Lord your God”, Joel exhorts us, before going on to use humanum dictum, human speech, to speak about God in relation to us, “for he is gracious and merciful, slow to anger, and of great kindness, and repenteth him of the evil.” This as Andrewes implies is to speak of God in terms of kataphatic or positive theology rather than apophatic or negative theology, God spoken in terms of a likeness to human emotions and impulses rather than more properly as completely separate and distinct from all things created. All for us, Andrewes would say, but having nothing to do with God himself. It is, however, this sermon which gives us the characteristic feature of Andrewes’ mystical theology. ”Repentance itself is nothing else but redire ad principia, ‘a kind of circling’, to return to Him by repentance from Whom by sin we have turned away”. This expresses a fundamental feature of Andrewes’ thinking, the compelling idea of a return to a principle upon which all depends. This is God.

Tonight we commemorate Ambrose, the earliest of the four Doctors of the Western Church. Along with Jerome, Augustine and Gregory, he has had a profound influence on the shaping of the theology of the Church, not the least because of his role in the conversion of Augustine. Not to mention, too, his role in the shaping of the liturgy and music of the Western Church. Gregorian chant, which has as its predecessor Ambrosian chant, was so powerful that it moved Augustine to ponder whether it was the words or the music that moved and mattered most. A perennial concern. The answer is that the music must serve the words, the meaning. This is not to take away anything from the power of music to move the soul. It is hard to think of anything much more moving than the Miserere Mei of Allegri or the Stabat Mater of Pergolesi, but let’s admit it, those are acquired tastes and hardly common to rural experiences or to the majority of those in urban ghettoes either. Yet that does not take away from their intrinsic value and worth.

Ambrose begins his treatise on Repentance, one which was most likely known to Andrewes, with the idea of gentleness. The context of his two books on Repentance is the heresy of the Novatians who refused to admit to communion those who had sinned by betraying the Gospel under constraint to hostile forces; in short, persecution. The situation parallels Augustine’s debate with the Donatists. It is really about the nature of repentance with respect to the authority of the Church. The dangers are perennial. God seeks to move our hearts not by coercion but by moving our hearts and minds to his truth and goodness. That alone is counter-culture almost in every age. Repentance is above all an inward movement of the heart and soul. It is not easily reduced to outward words and deeds and certainly not to force and the arbitrary exercise of authority.

The commemoration of St. Ambrose complements our Lenten series on Repentance. Gentleness, as Ambrose carefully shows, relates entirely to the way in which God deals with our fallen, wayward, and broken humanity. “God is not to be judged by the statements of others but by his own words.” In the end, it is a question of what we are turned to see and contemplate because of God’s turning to us and seeing us. This, in a way, is the project of Holy Week. It is all about the turning. The opposite of this is the way of heresy as Ambrose notes, and in a way that will be echoed by Richard Hooker and Lancelot Andrewes. As Ambrose puts it, “heresy is on the one side cruel, and on the other disobedient.” This is a profound insight into the nature of all heresy. Fundamentally, it denies the power of the love of God in himself and towards us. Heresy is cruel and disobedient. This observation offers a wonderful insight into the necessary interplay between the mind and the will, between the heart and the intellect, when we turn away rather than turn towards the truth.

Andrewes, in his sermons on Lent and in that more focussed part of Lent known as Passiontide, and in that even more concentrated truth of Lent which confronts us in the Triduum Sacrum, and most intensely on Good Friday, pays close attention to theme of turning and looking, our turning and looking upon Christ and upon him crucified. In one of the Lenten sermons he discourses eloquently upon the symbolic significance of the woman who breaks the alabaster jar full of precious ointment and wipes the feet of Jesus with her hair. Andrewes, following Augustine, notes that her action is unique and singular. “She was the only sinner that for sin only, and for no bodily grief or malady of all, sued and sought him.” It is this which makes her action of such importance. It is an act of love in repentance. Christ deals with her in the most remarkable kind of gentleness and in complete opposition to the hostility and cruelty of those who witnessed the deed. Our turning depends utterly upon the turning of divine compassion towards us.

Gentleness towards the sinner rather than hardness and condemnation is a distinct feature of Andrewes’ theology. It is biblically and Patristically based and counters all of our attempts to conform the gospel to the ideologies of our world and day. Heresy is cruel; heresy is disobedient to the wisdom of the Word. In a way, it is all about how we turn and look on things. The looking is but an extension to the turning.

Holy Week makes this ever so graphically clear. One thinks of the power of Christ’s look upon Peter as described by Luke in the scene of Christ’s captivity and Peter’s threefold betrayal. It is a look that moves him to tears because it convicts his own conscience of his own betrayal of Christ. That is the kind of look we all need to move us out of our self-complacency and indifference to all things spiritual and ethical.

The theme of turning in Andrewes’ sermons reaches a kind of crescendo in the Good Friday Sermon of 1605 on the text from Hebrews about “looking unto Jesus, the author and finisher of our faith.” The sermon is a tour-de-force of theological reasoning and especially in the dialectic of our turning and God’s turning to us which underlies the ways in which we are turned, effected, and changed by what we see in contemplating the crucified Christ. This is, of course the whole intent of the mystical theology of Andrewes. It is the way in which we are drawn into the mystery of God with us in Jesus Christ. It makes, shall we say, all the difference.

Yet it is, perhaps, the first sermon on the Passion preached in 1597 which captures best the theme of turning and looking. The text is from Zechariah about “looking upon him whom they have pierced.” Andrewes sees in the text a clear way of talking about the crucifixion especially since that text has been used in the Gospel of John about the passion of Christ. We look upon him who is pierced and crucified for us and so should be pierced in our hearts and minds and souls. He is pierced for us and we are pierced in our looking upon him whom we have turned to behold, pierced in different ways, but pierced nonetheless, pierced because we are being turned unto the Lord our God, as Joel puts it. We confront all the follies of ourselves only to discover that greater power of God’s turning to us to convict our hearts and to convert our minds and souls. It is all in the turning.

Holy week concentrates the theme of God’s turning to us and our turning to Him. Such turnings awaken in us faith, and hope, and love out of a profounder sense of God’s goodness and truth in the face of all our failings. The words of Joel ring in our ears.

“Turn unto the Lord your God”

Fr. David Curry
Redire ad principia: Lenten Sermons of Lancelot Andrewes
Meditation # 4
April 4th, 2017

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