Watery Faith

Sermon preached at the Priory Church of the Holy Trinity, Micklegate, York Epiphany 2 2022

Today we continue in the season of Epiphany – weeks when in the darkness of winter we reflect the light of Christ come into our world. I was going to say, ‘reflect on’ – but the truth of Epiphany is not that we simply contemplate the light shining in the world, but that we invite this light into our lives – to bear something of the brightness of Christ in all that we do, day by day, and among those we meet.

It can feel at the moment, as we listen to the news, that there’s an awful lot of darkness compared with what we may feel to be our faint and flickering lights. Perhaps it was always thus – and our calling to hold our light steady is even more important when the shadows lengthen.

One of my most valuable books is a 1939 edition of William Temple’s commentary on the Gospel of John. Written in nearby Bishopthorpe, when he was Archbishop of York, his reflections on the Gospel are the wise words of both a pastor and a theologian. Yes, it comes bearing the marks of a different era, but many of the points Temple makes are pertinent today. Perhaps even more so in our recent experience because it was written in the upheavals of war. 

The turning of water into wine is the first miracle John describes in what we might call the long epiphany of his Gospel. Out of the four evangelists John is the most consciously theological – he conveys to us what the life of Jesus means for all places; for all times; and for all people. It is magisterial in its scope.

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Wedding_at_Cana#/media/File:Paolo_Veronese_008.jpg

Yet given the scale of what John addresses, his account of Jesus is rooted in the real and the everyday. There was a wedding. Across millennia and across cultures, weddings are profound moments of change. Two people become one. Families are bound together – friends rejoice and dance. If you’ve ever seen the Veronese painting ‘The Wedding at Cana’ you can’t miss the sense of overflowing conviviality on his vast canvas. Everyone is talking, laughing and rejoicing – apart from one figure: in serenity, Jesus gazes out at the viewer, a still point amid the commotion. In this picture the figure of worldly splendour is the groom. Decked out in his wedding finery he holds a champagne coupe, staring at it in perplexity as the chief steward tells his tale. ‘How could this have happened?’

John begins this account with the casual comment that it took place ‘on the third day’. Four words that for any Christian signify not the start of Jesus’ ministry, but its joyful conclusion. Another day of reunions and delight: the day of resurrection.

Christ is not a grim task-master in obedience to whom life becomes gloomy. He compared himself to children playing at weddings.

William Temple, ‘Readings in St John’s Gospel’ 1939, Macmillan

This is a miracle that marks the difference between the ways of men and the ways of God. The steward is bewildered. The organisers of this feast have not done what they were supposed to do: give the guests quality wine at the start, and then they won’t notice when you switch to the cheap stuff later. No. What God is doing in Christ isn’t about what we expect – it’s about what we need.

The 17th century Metaphysical poet Robert Crashaw described it with beautifully economy: ‘the modest water saw its God and blushed’.

Offered to God – brought before Jesus – what we may consider the modest water of our lives can be transformed. Perhaps we think the best years are behind us – that the time we have to offer now is weak and watery compared with our past vigour. Tell it to God.

Water become wine.

Faith is all about offering what we have, not what would be ideal. The disciples weren’t the intellectual stars of their generation. They weren’t conspicuously wealthy or influential, they don’t appear to have been known to the religious authorities. Jesus took what was offered and forged the foundations of the church. Time and again people came to him who had little to give, and he took it and blessed it and broke it – and it was transformed.

We may feel like we hold a flickering light of faith – so fragile a gust of wind might extinguish it. This Gospel says ‘don’t worry’. Bring to God what you have. Share what may seem watered down and weak, and Jesus will use whatever we have, and it will be changed. 

In a world where there is so much darkness God asks us to offer what we have. Because, when we place it into the hands of Jesus, who knows what it will become. Two thousand years ago they brought him water at a wedding: today we share wine that becomes the life-blood of our faith – and we go out refreshed, to be God’s light in our world.

Larkin Around

The Sunday after John Betjeman died Philip Larkin went to church. I was in St Mary’s Cottingham for Evensong when the familiar figure of the university librarian entered – just after the service had started. While Larkin was well known for church going, he preferred to make sure there was ‘nothing going on’ inside before crossing the threshold. I’ve no idea whether or not he stayed to the end, but his silent presence made a poignant homage to the senior poet. In death, Betjeman got Larkin into a church service, which would probably have raised a chuckle from the poet renowned for his passionate interest in all things ecclesiastical.

Like most undergraduates at Hull, I had very little to do with Larkin. He appeared during induction to speak about the library and offered the advice: ‘spending your grant on library fines is a very silly way to part with your money’. Once during a student all night work-in opposing Thatcherite cuts to higher education, Larkin stomped about in the theology and philosophy section, huffing and puffing, until a fellow student – unaware who was creating the noise – expelled a loud ‘sshhh’ in his direction. We were very studious in those days.

Although different poets, Larkin and Betjeman had a respectful and constructive relationship. In 1964 Betjeman interviewed Larkin in a BBC Monitor programme. It begins with an exploration of Larkin’s chosen context, the city of Hull. The isolation and ‘end of England’ ambiance chimed with the poet who felt so suited to its remoteness.

November often brings Betjeman to mind. His poem Winter at Home captures an England long departed. A season of quiet when the appearance of fog is welcomed as it grounds aircraft and adds to the sense of stillness. For Betjeman it is a time for reading long novels, and noting the small changes that mark the slow shift of the seasons. The moment when the Michaelmas daisies are too frost bitten for use in church and dried arrangements are put in place instead. An era when the limited supply of international goods meant people were compelled to work within the limitations – and opportunities – of the season.

John Betjeman’s devotion to the Church of England and the unique and prevailing Anglican temper of his character and imagination have been amply explored…

Gardner, K. J. (2014). Strange deliberations: John Betjeman and protestant nonconformity. Christianity & Literature63(2), 225-256.

When it came to Christianity and Church Larkin and Betjeman could not have been more different, yet the Monitor interview suggests that there were spiritual touching points despite the outward differences. Sitting with Betjeman in an overgrown cemetery, Larkin muses that ‘everything I write… has the consciousness of approaching death’. While having a very limited knowledge of churches, Larkin says that he developed a habit of visiting them (when empty). He comments: ‘I always welcomed the feeling I had going into a church’. There is a deep interest here in the liminal, the mortal, and the endless.

I am not sure whether Larkin’s silent Evensong tribute to Betjeman is recorded anywhere. Eighteen months later Larkin himself died, and two of England’s most significant post-world war poets were gone. A tribute by the English department took place the day before I left Hull for good. It was a highlight of my three years in the university city, with Larkin’s ‘loaf-haired secretary’ present along with others who were, in one way of another, caught up in his poems.

Writing about a theological approach to Larkin, Theo Hobson makes a persuasive case that the poet’s attention to the realities of life challenge a complacent secularism. At the same time, “his pursuit of ‘undeceived’ honesty… becomes a personal myth”. This leads Larkin to flirt with nihilism but not to succumb to it. For the complacent secularist as much as for those developing a deceptive ‘sub-theological gospel’, Larkin crafts poetry that disturbs seemingly self-evident narratives.

I wonder if anything in Evensong struck a chord with Larkin’s thoughts that evening? Was there the slightest lifting of an eyebrow as the words of the Magnificat cut through the blent air: ‘He hath scattered the proud in the imagination of their hearts’.

Remembering the Absence

Increasingly, I think of my grandfather on Remembrance Sunday. I can imagine that his arrival in the world would have attracted some kind and amusing comments. Thomas was a ‘Valentine’ baby – born on 14 February. So far so good, but unbeknown to his parents and family he was born in a fateful year: 1896. This meant that his eighteenth birthday fell in February 1914, and in the summer of that year he signed up for active service,

I know almost nothing about his military service. Sadly, we only overlapped in life for 11 months. I was born in the January and he died in December. I know that he enlisted with the Loyal North Lancashire Regiment and, because of the Battalion in which he served, he spent most of WWI in Gallipoli, the Middle East and West Africa. It appears that he continued to be in the army as a Private until 1920. As he had nothing that drew him into official records (such as injury) there is very little left to show for his six years of service. Like most other troops, he was awarded the British War Medal and Victory Medal.

I would love to have talked with him about those years. With an upbringing in a Lancashire market town, and a family trade of weaving, Tom probably never imagined that he would travel so widely or find himself in such danger. The Regiment he joined would have been full of people he knew, perhaps even distant relatives or school friends. Those years away from home probably had a number of consequences, not least marriage at the then relatively late age of 28. Equally, I have no idea either whether this experience contributed to his death aged 69. My non-combatant maternal grandparents lived into their 80s.

Across the twentieth century, and even today, people will be thinking about absent family members and friends. War has led to so many untimely deaths, and continues to do so. Given that peaceful co-existence is so clearly in the interests of humanity it seems remarkable that it is so elusive. Human greed and fear appear to be the characteristics that fuel conflict and despite all we have learned we find it impossible to resolve these feelings and live peacefully with one another. The astonishing development of technology and science is unmatched by any noticeable change in human maturity, wisdom or insight.

The father of the poet Ted Hughes served with the Lancashire Fusiliers during WWI. At Gallipoli he was one of only 17 men to survive from his battalion, giving some idea of the harrowing circumstances in which these young men found themselves. As so many of the troops were serving in the same units the consequent loss of life within the mill towns of Lancashire was devastating. As Hughes put it, ‘We are the children of ghosts / And these are the towns of ghosts’.

Hi father’s war stories were so vivid, his psychological wound so palpable that Hughes felt he himself had witnessed the apocalyptic carnage. 

Meyers, J. (2013). Ted Hughes: War Poet. The Antioch Review71(1), 30-39.

Only recently has some kind of understanding emerged about the enduring scars of conflict. The growing study and use of the concept of moral injury reflects an awareness of suffering that continues. Alongside PTSD there is recognition that terrible events in conflict reverberate down the decade and – as the quote above illustrates – even be passed across generations. When the cost of a war is estimated these kinds of injury appear to be omitted from the calculations. The lack of peace in our world comes at a terrible price.

The soldier and war poet Siegfried Sassoon imagines in one of his compositions that the devil visits a cenotaph. The prayer of the prince of darkness is that humanity will forget the damage done by war, and that human folly will be repeated. It feels that our task is the exact opposite – to remind any war-hungry politician that conflicts seldom end in less than a century, and that the greatest price is paid by ordinary men and women long after the guns fall silent. The absence of an estimate of emotional damage does not mean the damage doesn’t exist. There is no lack of testimony, like that of Hughes, showing the lasting trauma both in field participants and in the communities from which so many young people suddenly became absent.

We will remember them – and must never forget that hell on earth reaches far and wide.