HOMILY at the 9h and 10h30 MASSES for the SEVENTH SUNDAY after TRINITY (A) 2017
The way things work out this year for the next three Sundays is that we shall spend quite a lot of time thinking about Glory. Next Sunday is the Feast of the Transfiguration of the Lord, and the Sunday following that is the one that we keep as the Feast of the Blessed Virgin Mary, or more commonly in the worldwide Church, the feast of her Assumption into glory.
So this week, as an introduction, I thought it might be helpful to think together a little about this rather elusive subject – glory.
It is a word that we use frequently. We sing it at the beginning of the Eucharist – Glory to God in the highest. We sing it at the end of the psalms in the daily office – Glory be to the Father and to the Son and to the Holy Spirit. We sing about heaven and earth being full of God’s glory in the Sanctus, before adding (sometimes) the words glory be to thee, O Lord Most High.
Sometimes, too, we speak about God’s glory in a different way – when hardly anyone turns up to Choral Evensong (which happens rather too often in fact) we speak about the worship being offered first and foremost to the glory of God. Which of course it is.
But there are other contexts in which we use the word glory. In this 500th anniversary year of Luther’s theses, we might well remember that Martin Luther argued strongly against the theologia gloriae with which he saw Church life infected in the 16th century. He spoke of the centrality of a theologia crucis. A theology of the cross over against a theology of glory.
Well I have never been one to ignore such a giant of theology as Luther, though certainly without following him, but in fact here he was arguing about something rather different. He saw the theologia gloriae as being some kind of human self-aggrandisement, a product of mortal hubris purporting to define and delimit God’s own being. In fact however, a true theology of glory is inseparable from the manifestation of glory in the passion, dying and rising of Jesus Christ.
So let’s take the risk of looking at this idea of glory and seeing where it may take us before next Sunday and the following Sunday we think about ways in which it is manifested in human lives.
In the Old Testament, the expression the glory of God is in effect the term used to express that which human beings may apprehend, may discern of God’s presence on earth. The Hebrew word kabod was suggestive of weight and substance. So an important man of wealth was a man of kabod whose dignity compelled respect and honour from his fellows. But, in particular, the prophet Ezekiel, added another dimension to the understanding of kabod – the dimension of brightness. And God’s glory was described by the Priestly writer of the early part of the OT as like a devouring fire on the top of the mount in the eyes of the children of Israel. Later on that same appearance was transferred to the worship of the sanctuary. God’s glory appeared at the birth of Christ to the shepherds around Bethlehem. The right response to God’s glory is the response of awe and wonder. We’ll come back to that in a moment.
Later still, in the New Testament, we see this concept of glory (the Greek doxa) taking on the character of the goal of creation – the situation where God reigns, where God’s presence shines out and is recognised – an element of the new Messianic Age. In the person of Jesus Christ, this is both realised now and hoped for in a future totally renewed by and open to the purposes of God in Christ. Time and again we read – not least in S. John’s Gospel – how God’s glory is made visible in the incarnation of Christ, and in his dying and rising. Glory thus becomes inseparable from what we describe as eschatology – the understanding that we have of the goal of all creation when God reigns supremely in all and through all.
But life at present seems far from glorious. It is difficult for us to discern the presence of God in much that surrounds us, let alone catch a glimpse of God’s beauty, God’s glory.
Discerning that presence of God is indeed no easy task. But we are helped in several ways.
First, by what we are engaged in now. The Eucharist is one of those thin moments in life where heaven and earth, full of God’s glory, are wonderfully close. We speak of the Eucharist as an anticipation of God’s Kingdom, God’s reign amongst us. And so ordinary things – like Bread and Wine, words and music, a handclasp or kiss, an action of the body – ordinary things have an added significance about them. A transparency, a thin-ness, to God’s presence. Bread and Wine become transparent to glory. Though as in the New Testament, this doxa this glory is only seen by those with hearts and minds open to do so. And these moments of glory are only that – foretastes of a future glory.
To discern these moments, we need to approach the Eucharist with awe. Interestingly enough, there is this week in the New Scientist an article about how the experience of awe changes us profoundly. Awe is so powerful it alters your sense of self, connects you with humanity and boosts your mind and body, the author of this article writes – having lamented the abuse of the word awesome which has become a throwaway comment on anything and everything amongst some. The researcher spoke less of specifically religious moments of awe, but more of those associated with a great landscape or some other natural phenomenon. But awe is appropriate for us in approaching God’s glory in the Eucharist. And awe will change us, change our perspective, and even boost our mind and body, make us more aware, more open to God and those around us.
And, of course, this should not surprise us! To discern God’s glory, to be faced with God’s presence, is indeed a transformative moment – we shall be thinking much more about this next week on the Feast of the Transfiguration of the Lord. But it is also a moment of truth – a moment when we come closer to what we are intended by God to be ultimately. People in whom the beauty, the truth and the goodness of God shine out.
Now I know for my part that there is a very long way to go before that could be any like a reality. But for each of us, there are moments – perhaps all too short – when in awe and wonder we catch a glimpse of our lives, the whole of creation, shot through with God’s glory, God’s transforming presence. A vision of complete harmony where we are able to discern and enjoy God’s beauty, truth and goodness.
A heavenly vision – but that is what awaits us. In the words of the Westminster confession (seeing we are being so Reformed this Sunday!) the enjoyment of God for ever. An awesome thought on which to end!