Lenten Programme 1: The Comfortable Words and the Literature of Consolation

The Comfortable Words and the Literature of Consolation I

The “comfy words,” as they are affectionately or pejoratively called, are a peculiar feature of the Prayer Book liturgy however much one might find some precedence in the psalms surrounding the words of absolution in the Liturgy of St. Mark and the Liturgy of St. James in the rites of Eastern Orthodoxy or in sixteenth century Lutheranism such as Hermann of Cologne’s Consultations which is probably the more immediate source. That work places the Comfortable Words before the words of absolution rather than after the absolution. “Here what comfortable words our Saviour Christ saith unto all that truly turn to him,” is what we hear in the Prayer Book Communion Service just after the surpassing comfort of the words of absolution, the words of the forgiveness of our sins pronounced after confession.

What we hear are a selection of Scriptural words that are, well, comforting and powerful. But why? And what do they mean in this context? What is meant by “comfortable”? Even more, do they have any connection to the tradition of Consolation Literature, both non-Christian and Christian? This will be our Lenten consideration: to consider the Comfortable Words in relation to the literature of consolation, attending to one or two works in particular in that extensive tradition.

Our Lenten series cannot pretend to be an exhaustive consideration. The richness and the wealth of the material is just so great and vast, each work worthy of so much more consideration in its own right. It will not even be possible to name all of the works that might be included in the catalogue of the literature of consolation. But in general, the literature of consolation deals with the question about how we face suffering, sorrow, and loss philosophically and religiously. The terms are complementary.

But what about the term “comfortable”? The great mystery writer, Dame P.D. James, in a work which stands outside her oeuvre of mystery novels, The Children of Men, makes the acute observation about contemporary Christianity that “the recognized churches, particularly the Church of England, moved from the theology of sin and redemption to a less uncompromising doctrine: corporate social responsibility coupled with a sentimental humanism”. What this means, the novel suggests is the virtual abolition of “the Second Person of the Trinity together with His cross.” Good-bye Jesus. The cross, traditionally seen as the symbol of comfort and consolation, becomes “the stigma of the barbarism of officialdom and of man’s ineluctable cruelty”. Good-bye redemptive suffering. There is just the sense that for some, particularly unbelievers, the cross “has never been a comfortable symbol.” But in the context of her novel which explores more or less completely the dystopian qualities of contemporary culture, what is more cruel and more barbaric? The cross or “corporate social responsibility” which in the novel includes the Quietus, a euphemism for euthanasia of the elderly and the inconvenient? What is more cruel? The cross or “sentimental humanism” in a world devoid of purpose and meaning? These are not merely rhetorical questions.

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Sermon for the First Sunday in Lent

“And him only shalt thou serve”

The temptations of Christ belong to the logic of redemption, to the Passion of Christ. Christ wills to be tempted for us even as he suffers for us on the Cross. The accounts of the temptation show us the intensity of the encounter. There is a real struggle, a struggle for what is good and right that is greater than anything we can imagine because we have become so used to giving in and going along with the things that draw us away from our true happiness and good which is found in the will of God.

The story of “The Temptations of Christ” is about our temptations as endured and overcome by Christ. As the Fathers so often observe, Christ is our Mediator who not only overcomes our temptations but also gives us an example for doing the same. The temptations belong to the reality of the human condition. They take us back to the Fall and they point us to the Crucifixion. Strange as it may seem to say there is something good and necessary about temptation. Why? Because what is good and true has to be known as good and true and willed as such.

The temptations comprehend all of the temptations known to us. All temptation, in other words, is brought in under the three temptations of Christ as presented by Matthew and Luke, even though the second and third temptations are reversed by them. Luke presents the second temptation of Christ which Matthew presents as the third. Yet whatever the order they are, by all accounts, a summary and comprehensive view of our temptations. They put us to the test about what truly defines us. They do so after the fact of our awareness of our separation from the goodness of God. In a way, the temptations raise the question about what is the good.

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Sermon for Ash Wednesday

“Humble yourself in the sight of the Lord”

“Fire ever doth aspire, / And makes all like it selfe, turnes all to fire,/ But ends in ashes,” the poet, John Donne, notes in a poem celebrating married love. His point about love and about marriage is that it is not wanted that it should end in ashes. God seeks something more for us.

Ash Wednesday marks the beginning of Lent, a beginning not an ending of the pilgrimage of love. We begin with ashes. It is not wanted that we should end in ashes. Ashes are the proverbial and biblical symbol of repentance which is always about how we turned back to God. They are part and parcel of the project of how, through penitence, “new and contrite hearts” are “created and made in us.” It means “the lamenting of our sins and the acknowledging of our wickedness”. How will that be realized except through humility?

We are turned to the dust of creation in the words that belong to the Imposition of Ashes, the words of the Penitential Service. “Remember O Man, that dust thou art and unto dust shalt thou return,” words which are said at The Imposition of Ashes. Note the connection between words and actions. We are reminded of the dust out of which we have been formed, the dust of creation which connects us to every other living thing. And the ashes? They remind us of our sins and follies which in acknowledging signal that we are seeking something more. There is something more than dust and ashes in the mystery of Lent.

We are the dust into which God has breathed his spirit. The dignified dust of our humanity is about who we truly are in the sight of God. The ashes remind us of our sinfulness, to be sure, no way around that necessary but saving truth, but even more they remind us of the possibilities and the necessities of repentance. “Turn thou us, O good Lord, and so shall we be turned.” That is the Scriptural basis for the prayer for grace “to decline from sin, and incline to virtue; That we may walk with a perfect heart before thee.”

Ash Wednesday launches us upon an upward journey that seeks the attainment of virtue that belongs to who we are in the sight of God and speaks to our care and service of one another. It can only happen by recalling us to our creaturely origins and to our Fall from grace into a world of dust and death, of suffering and sorrow. The only antidote and the one which is prescribed on this day is humility: ashes in the form of the Cross upon our foreheads. Love recreates us in love and for love.

It is not about boasting of our humility, the kind of Uriah Heep humility which is really self-promotion (there is no one so humble as I!). No. It is about the real humility which on the very ground of creation does not presuppose or presume any standing with God and knows instead its own failings and misery. Humility looks to God. That is the point really of the words of The Epistle from St. James. Humility not presumption is the key to the journey of Lent.

“Humble yourselves in the sight of the Lord”

Fr. David Curry,
Ash Wednesday, Feb. 14th, 2018

Sermon for Quinquagesima Sunday

“And now abideth faith, hope, charity, these three:
but the greatest of these is charity.”

These wonderful words we hear on Quinquagesima Sunday, Love Sunday as it is sometimes called because of these words. They are words which catapult us into Lent and which capture the real vocation and character of our life together. Our churches are to be communities of love, the places where we participate in nothing less than the divine love shown to us so paradoxically and profoundly in the way of the Cross, in the pilgrimage of Lent. Charity means love. Lent is really nothing more than the concentration of the Christian life as the pilgrimage of love.

Paradoxically and yet providentially, Ash Wednesday this year falls on February 14th. Whatever one makes of Valentine’s day – and there are a number of different accounts – it has entered into the imaginary of the Western Church and extends into the secular world where it now dominates; in part, as an economic generator for chocolatiers, vintners, florists, and various aspects of the silk industry. It speaks to modern romanticism and eroticism.

These, too, are forms of love which ultimately belong to the deeper and profounder forms of love highlighted in Paul’s great hymn to love from 1st Corinthians 13 and signaled in the great Gospel story from St. Luke about our “going up to Jerusalem” with Jesus. That journey instructs us in the lessons of love about which we are blind, like the disciples who hear what Jesus says about the meaning of the journey explicitly in terms of his passion and death but “understood none of these things,” and like the blind man “sitting by the way-side begging” and incessantly calling out to Jesus. What does he want? “Lord, that I may receive my sight.” To know our blindness is the necessary condition for our coming to see. In a way, what drives the Lenten journey, here imaged as “going up to Jerusalem” is desire, itself a kind of love. The point is about our seeking what God seeks for us with all our heart, mind, soul and strength; in short, love.

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Sermon for Sexagesima

“Now the parable is this: The seed is the word of God.”

“He spake by a parable: A sower went out to sow his seed.” Matthew, Mark, and Luke all tell us this parable but only Luke explains that “the parable is this.” In other words, Luke provides us with a deeper understanding of the meaning of this parable and, by extension, all the parables. Parables are stories with meanings, usually of a moral sort. They all work by way of analogy, making a likeness between one thing and another. They only work because we sense or grasp the analogy and its application to our lives.

But there is a paradox about the parables, it seems to me. Far from being easy and self-evident, they require considerable reflection and even explanation. We don’t always get the message. This parable reveals wonderfully that paradox in the realization that something is being made known that not all will understand. “Unto you it is given to know the mysteries of the kingdom of God,” Jesus says to the disciples (literally, the learners) only to go on to say “but to others in parables; that seeing they might not see, and hearing they might not understand,” a point which both Matthew and Mark also make. In Matthew’s case, it refers to a passage from Isaiah about hearing and not understanding because “this people’s heart has grown dull,” “their ears heavy of hearing,” and “their eyes closed.” But only Luke gives this fuller explanation of the parable, making explicit what we might say is at least implicit in the other Gospels.

It is his directness of expression that is noteworthy. It conveys the idea that perhaps in the explanation of the parable we just might hear and understand rather than be left in our ignorance and indifference. In other words, this parable in Luke’s telling suggests a kind of necessary interchange between story and meaning, between parable and instruction. That is the challenge to us. It speaks to our desire to learn which Luke here somehow wants to encourage and promote. Those that “are the good ground” as Luke alone explains “are they which in an honest and good heart, having heard the word, keep it, and bring forth fruit with patience.”

While his treatment of the parable of the sower and the seed has its parallels with Matthew and Mark, the emphasis is significantly different. It emphasises explicitly the meaning of the seed. Matthew later explains that the seed is “the Son of Man.” Luke here says “the seed is the word of God” and further provides a fuller explanation of the analogy between ground and soul: “they which in an honest and good heart”.

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