Homily preached by Father Richard Peers SMMS at All Saints'.
“It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity, it was the season of Light, it was the season of Darkness, it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair, we had everything before us, we had nothing before us …”
It is, supposedly, the most famous opening to any book in the English language. Well, I have spent most of life as a teacher so I will ask you a question: can anyone name the book?
Yes, of course, Dickens’ ‘A Tale of Two Cities’. “The best of times, the worst of times” seems to describe today’s readings. The account of the Transfiguration, the disciples see Jesus in glory, flanked by the Law and the prophets, represented by Moses and Elijah. The best of times. And the worst of times: Abraham taking his son out to the mountain top to offer him as a burnt sacrifice.
I must admit to a great deal of fondness for Isaac, and not a little sympathy. I can just imagine the safeguarding forms that would need to be filled in now if a child came into school and described how his dad had taken him for a walk, gathered a fire, raised a knife over his head – and then sacrificed a handy goat instead! But safeguarding aside, imagine the trauma: your father is willing to offer you as a sacrifice, and not just offer, you but do the job himself, knife in hand, at the ready. Well, I suspect the account was never meant to be read quite so literally. But Isaac doesn’t interest me simply because of this bizarre incident in his childhood. Three other elements of this person who lived so long ago draw me to him. First of all, his name, Isaac. In Hebrew, literally ‘He who laughs’. I will come back to that later. Secondly, his faithfulness to his wife Rebecca. Isaac is the only one of the Patriarchs Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, not to have multiple wives. He lives a life much closer to Christian marriage than is common in the Hebrew Scriptures. I like that. In a time like ours that can seem to be the worst of times, when Christian marriage can appear to be threatened on every side and so many marriages end in divorce this is an important witness.
Finally, there is one verse in Genesis 24:63 that makes Isaac significant for me.
The translation is somewhat disputed but in the translation I like it reads:
“And Isaac went out to meditate in the field toward evening.”
What a wonderful image. This man, who has experienced the trauma of near-sacrifice at the hands of his father, whose name means to laugh, who is faithfully married to Rebecca: walking among his fields in the cool warmth of the evening, meditating. It is an image that reminds me of the first of the Psalms. Psalm 1 paints a picture of what makes for happiness:
“Happy indeed is the man…
Whose delight is in the law of the Lord
And who ponders his law day and night.
He is like a tree that is planted
Beside the flowing waters,
That yields its fruition due season
and whose leaves shall never fade.”
I hope that Isaac, who experienced that trauma, has found happiness, that as he walks in fields and meditates, he has deep joy and contentment. We all want to be happy. We want the people we love to be happy. “Life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness” is even built into the American constitution. But whatever happiness and contentment Isaac felt as he strolled in that field so many centuries ago, would be complex.
Whether it is meditating as you walk in the evening, sitting in the lotus position, reflecting, on the law of the Lord, or practising mindfulness of breathing; I am a huge fan of meditation. Spending time in silence is essential, I believe to a healthy life, to good mental health. When we meditate, when we still our minds, our inner states, as the inner waters clear all sorts of things float to the surface. In my experience and in the experience of most meditators there are two overwhelming sensations in this state. One meditation teacher (Chogyam Trungpa) calls it “the genuine heart of sadness”. We touch within ourselves a great tenderness. Not just in the sense of compassion but of sensitivities, our heart, our inner being is tender meat. It begins with ourselves, tenderness for and because of all that we have experienced, all the griefs and losses of every life. But soon we find our hearts expanding, tenderness for everyone that is alive because they too have experienced loss and grief. And in that knowledge, that we are all fellow-sufferers we can find forgiveness. We can forgive those who have hurt or damaged us because we can feel tenderness for them, our heart is big enough, open enough to do so. The only alternative to feeling sadness is not to feel, to harden our hearts, to narrow our hearts.
Lent is a time for repentance and forgiveness. To turn away from sin. All repentance involves grief. The loss of something, the regret at things said or done, or unsaid and not done. All grief involves repentance. And all grief is permanent. All of us who have experienced profound grief at the loss of one close to us know that it has seared our souls, we move on, but it never leaves us.
As Isaac walked in the field I hope that he felt that genuine heart of sadness, not paralysing grief but the positive sadness that is necessary for life and for forgiveness but also the others experience that is common to those who meditate: great and profound joy, a sense of belovedness, I hope that Isaac knew that Abraham had loved him and that he was beloved of God. That he heard, too the voice of the Lord. Just as on the mountain Abraham had heard it and on the mountain the disciples hear it.
With God on our side who can be against us? St. Paul reminds us in the second reading. That sense of sadness and joy, which are inseparable is what can make us fearless, setting us free from anything that traps us and narrows our hearts. Our hearts are open, they are enlarged and tender when we are fearless, and we are fearless when we are in touch with sadness and joy. The spiritual writer Chogyam Trungpa writes:
“this experience of sad and tender heart is what gives birth to fearlessness. .. Real fearlessness is the product of tenderness. It comes from letting the world tickle your heart, your raw and beautiful heart. You are willing to open up, without resistance or shyness, and face the world. You are willing to share your heart with others.”
My prayer, dear friends, this Lent, is that each of us will open our hearts. That we meditate, like Isaac, and remember our griefs and touch our genuine heart of sadness in repentance and forgiveness, and that we will also touch the place of deep joy, of Transfiguration where each one of us, you and me, every one of us, will hear the voice of the Lord saying “You are my Beloved.”
The best of times, the worst of times. To live a happy life is to hold those two things and not despair. This is the meaning of the cross, the fearlessness that Jesus has won for us because the crucified one is also the transfigured one. To know, as Jesus did on the mount of Transfiguration, that he was to die and suffer and be betrayed by the very people he loved, and still to stand. It is to be, like Isaac, the one who laughs, freely and fearlessly.