“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.