St Michael and All Angels Church, Bedford Park

A Sermon for Candlemas, 30th January 2011
Professor Graham Holderness

Today we celebrate the Feast of the Presentation of Christ in the Temple. At the centre of this observance is the passage in the gospel of Luke which was the Gospel reading at this morning's Mass: in which Joseph and Mary bring the infant Jesus to the temple in Jerusalem for the child to be presented to the Lord:

they brought him to Jerusalem, to present him to the Lord.

As a festival it's as old as the church itself. There's a detailed account in the narrative of the pilgrim Egeria of it's being observed in Jerusalem in the early 4th century:

The fortieth day after the Epiphany is undoubtedly celebrated here with the very highest honour, for on that day there is a procession, in which all take part, in the Anastasis [church of the resurrection], and all things are done in their order with the greatest joy, just as at Easter. All the priests, and after them the bishop, preach, always taking for their subject that part of the Gospel where Joseph and Mary brought the Lord into the Temple on the fortieth day, and Symeon and Anna the prophetess, the daughter of Phanuel, saw Him,-- treating of the words which they spake when they saw the Lord, and of that offering which His parents made. And when everything that is customary has been done in order, the sacrament is celebrated, and the dismissal takes place.

What we observe tonight is what Christians have observed since the very beginnings of Christian worship. As they approach the Temple the Holy Family meet the devout old man Simeon, who acknowledges the baby Jesus as the Messiah:

And, behold, there was a man in Jerusalem, whose name was Simeon; and when the parents brought in the child Jesus, to do for him after the custom of the law,
Then took he him up in his arms, and blessed God, and said, Lord, now lettest thou thy servant depart in peace, according to thy word: For mine eyes have seen thy salvation, Which thou hast prepared before the face of all people; A light to lighten the Gentiles, and the glory of thy people Israel.

At the heart of this passage lie a mystery and a paradox. In one sense Jesus is just an ordinary Jewish baby, just over a month old: tiny, powerless, vulnerable. In Luke's narrative the elderly man easily and naturally takes the baby in his arms. But what he sees in the child is the very reverse of weakness: what he sees is power, greatness, divine majesty. Salvation is coming to humanity through this infant; a great light is dawning to dispel the darkness of ignorance and sin; a new glory shines upon Israel and upon the entire world. The strange combination of the small with the great, of weakness with power, of impotence with omnipotence lies at the core of our religion.

God didn't need to be born as a human child. If you think of Judaism, out of which Christianity grew, or Islam, which is an offshoot of both, the conception of God is quite different. Yahweh and Allah were never babies. In both those world faiths God is immortal, unchangeable, eternal; always powerful, though merciful; creative and destructive; impersonal, though present in ever believer's heart. Gods being born as babies is something that only happens in pagan religions, or in Hinduism which is old enough to retain many traces of very ancient belief-systems.

But the infancy narratives of the bible are there to show the nature of God as we understand it: a God who so loved the world that he gave his only begotten son to save it; a God who chose to join his people in their suffering and their death; a God who laid aside his power in order to embrace the weakness and vulnerability of his creatures.

I had the opportunity of reflecting on this mystery, over Christmas, in Australia, where my son's wife had their first child. However many times it happens, you can't fail to be struck by certain things about a new-born child. The amazing combination of smallness and strength; the extraordinary workmanship that goes into the designing of that little body; and most of all the power that this weak little thing can exercise as soon as it comes into the world. To see new parents, formerly very confident and independent, now absolutely devoted to a newborn baby's every whim; to see the staff of a hospital coming and going in response to the needs of so powerless a creature. A thing that can only move in a very restricted sense, shows itself capable of moving everyone around it with a cry, or a kick, or what might be interpreted as a smile. It reminds you of Lancelot Andrew's paradoxes about the infant Jesus: 'the Word without a word; the eternal Word unable to speak a word'.

And that just shows us how right our God was to turn up here in the form of a baby. Not with irresistible power, thunder and lightning, but with weakness and vulnerability. Not with earthquake, wind and fire, but with that still small voice that cries in the night, and makes everyone jump into action. It's the strange power of powerlessness, that is capable of eliciting from us so much care, concern, support, assistance, love. 'My power' said St Paul 'is vested in weakness'. So, I can assure you, is my grandson Dylan's.

This power of the powerless is particularly highlighted by any kind of illness in a baby. Even a minor condition is greatly exaggerated by the difference of scale. My grandson had, within his first few weeks of life, his first experience of pain, an infection that had him back in hospital and on an IV drip. It seems fundamentally unjust that so small thing should have to suffer the kind of pain we could easily bear, if only we could somehow take it away from him. A tiny incision in a baby causes a huge wound in a parent's heart.

In turn this reminded me that, before the Presentation in the Temple, Jesus was circumcised, according to the Law of Moses. Because physical circumcision has no theological significance in Christianity, not much is made of this event. In the past, though, it has been quite a prominent feast, celebrated as a precursor of the Crucifixion. For the first time, the infant Jesus sheds his blood, in a context of sacrifice, as he will later pour his blood into the ultimate sacrifice of the Redemption.

Again, this reinforces the vulnerability of the infant, so easily wounded, and the strength of the love that vulnerability provokes. John Milton wrote a poem On the Circumcision which puts it in exactly these terms. Christ laid aside his power to offer himself as a sacrifice, and embraced the weakness of the human condition that is so clearly revealed by the wound of that initial ritual. Milton deploys this paradox of strength in weakness, power through powerlessness, in a way that links our common experience of holding an actual baby, with the theological mystery of the Incarnation: He who with all Heav'ns heraldry while are
Enter'd the world, now bleeds to give us ease;
Alas, how soon our sin
Sore doth begin
His Infancy to sieze!

O more exceeding love or law more just?
Just law indeed, but more exceeding love!
For we by rightfull doom remediles
Were lost in death, till he that dwelt above High thron'd in secret bliss, for us frail dust Emptied his glory, ev'n to nakednes;
And that great Cov'nant which we still transgress
Intirely satisfi'd,
And the full wrath beside
Of vengeful Justice bore for our excess,
And seals obedience first with wounding smart.


A Sermon for The Trinity, 18th May 2008
Professor Graham Holderness

A character in Graham Greene’s Monsignor Quixote asks a priest to explain the Trinity, as he could never understand it. ‘It always seemed like higher mathematics to me’. The Trinity has often provoked similar reactions: too complicated for the layperson to understand - abstract, rarefied, disconnected from practical reality. Yet the Trinity lies at the heart of Christian doctrine.

The Catholic Faith is this:
That we worship one God in Trinity, and Trinity in Unity, neither confounding the Persons, nor dividing the Substance.
That is of course the Athanasian Creed. God is three persons, all equal, co-eternal, omnipotent.
The Father eternal, the Son eternal, and the Holy Ghost eternal.
The Father uncreate, the Son uncreate, and the Holy Ghost uncreate.

The Athanasian Creed is full of fine distinctions. Although the Son was ‘begotten’, this does not mean He was made by the Father. ‘Not made, not created, but begotten’. And although we talk of the Holy Spirit as ‘Proceeding from the Father and the Son’ (or if we were Greek or Russian Orthodox, we’d say ‘from the father’ alone), this doesn’t mean the Spirit was created. ‘Not made, nor created, nor begotten, but proceeding’. Most people have stopped listening by now. Clearly all these qualifications belong to a period of great theological controversy and doctrinal dispute. The Athanasian
Creed is almost more concerned with what Christians should not think, than with what they should. Because at the time so many people were thinking other things, and the Church wanted to put them straight. And this is the period in which the doctrine of the Trinity was formed; there is very little about it in the scriptures.

Much as I love raking over 4th century theological controversies, we have to ask what the Trinity really means to Christian believers today. Many modern theologians have suggested that it’s not a lot. Karl Rahner in his book on the Trinity said that most Christians are in practice almost monotheists. They believe in God, and they believe that God became man; but they don’t really believe in a Trinity. (Rahner, p. 10) ‘In practice’ says Jurgen Moltmann in The Crucified God, ‘the religious conceptions of many Christians prove to be a weakly Christianized monotheism’. (p. 244)

To illustrate this consider a well-known Trinitarian hymn, ‘Holy holy holy’. Though it praises the ‘blessed Trinity’ there is nothing in it of the Son or of the Holy Ghost. It celebrates the Father, the Creator, the Son of Man from Revelation, the figure of majesty and power seen in the visions of Ezekiel and Isaiah. There’s nothing in it that couldn’t be shared by a Jew or a Muslim - except the word Trinity.

Now the pressure on Christian belief, from secularism and from other powerful world faiths, is to back off from the Trinity towards the monotheism that represents a kind of neutral common ground among all faiths and none. Muslims worship the one true and indivisible God. They acknowledge Jesus as a true prophet, but not as the Son of God. When in Asia Minor they turned churches into mosques, they put up signs saying ‘God is not begotten, and does not beget’. Jews share the same paternal deity, God the Father. They see Jesus as a charismatic preacher, but not as the Son of God.
Agnostics don’t mind God, but pour scorn on the idea that God could have a Son, that a human being could be divine, and that there is something around like oxygen called the Holy Spirit.

If as a Christian you insist that God has three persons, you’re made to feel part of a kind of awkward squad, standing in the way of universal reconciliation.
Now if we could just ditch the Holy Ghost, and downgrade our claims about Jesus from divine to divinely-inspired, then all these people would agree with us, and the world would be a much better place. Absurd as this may sound there’s actually something in it. The Incarnation and the Trinity are what separates Christian belief from Islam and Judaism, and it does make us more vulnerable to attacks from atheists and agnostics. So we need to be sure that the Trinity is worth having if we want to keep it: that it’s a true doctrine that really does tell us about the nature of God.

In the reading from St John’s Gospel prescribed for Trinity Sunday (16.4-16) Jesus speaks of the Trinity (indeed this passage is an important source for the doctrine). He, the Son, is returning to the Father, and in his absence he will send a third person, a ‘Spirit of Truth’ who will speak what he himself does not have time to say. Father, Son and Spirit are unified in mind: they speak the same thing, they are the same thing. The Spirit is not an independent power: he speaks for God. The Son is not separate from the father: he possesses all the Father’s power. The Spirit will glorify both the Father and the Son.

Here then the Trinity is very tightly knit. This is consistent with those doctrinal formulae that speak of One God in three persons, equal, co-eternal, omniscient and all-powerful. And yet reading such a passage is not at all the same as reading the Athanasian Creed, though they seem to be saying the same things. Why should that be so?

To start with, the terms that are used as metaphors for these concepts – Father, Son, Spirit – are terms that carry their own associations. We understand what Jesus is saying because we know about fathers and sons. But these terms suggest difference as much as they suggest kinship. A father and a son will have things in common: they are to some degree of the same substance, they may look alike. But they are also quite different people. The Holy Spirit is invoked here by the Greek word ‘paraclete’, translated in many different ways – helper, counsellor, advocate, comforter – in itself suggesting some doubt about its meaning.

But a spirit is normally understood in terms of its difference from something else – body as distinct from spirit, the material versus the spiritual. Father and Son, the body of Jesus and the spirit of truth, seem in this imagery to be discrete and even incongruous ‘persons’. In addition the three persons of the Trinity are here performing different functions, and seem to be separate in space and time. Jesus will return to the Father, suggesting that the Father is somewhere else. The Holy Spirit will come when He is gone, so they don’t occupy the same space. Everything in the narrative and symbolism suggests the difference, rather than the identity, of the three persons.

Lastly, the Gospels convey theological ideas through dramatic dialogue. The reader listens to the voices of Jesus and those of his disciples. We naturally position ourselves as readers alongside the disciples rather than with Jesus, except in the rare occasions where he is represented as alone (e.g. Gethsemane). So our subjective experience of the Trinity is that although we are assured the three persons are aspects of one God, we get them separately like a three course meal. In the narrative we hear about the Father from the Son whom we know; and we are promised the coming of the Spirit.

Theologians have projected this separation into a historical timescale: the time of the Father, before the Incarnation; the time of Christ himself; and the post-Resurrection time of the Holy Spirit. But why are these different times, if God is indivisibly One?
It looks as if the Trinity may actually break down our monotheism into separate forces, related but almost independent of one another. But let’s focus on what Jesus says there about the promise of the Holy Spirit. He must go away, and that grieves his followers. But it is to their advantage that he goes, since then the Holy Spirit can replace Him. But remember that Jesus is not just catching a bus back, or beaming up to his home planet. The return to the Father is through the suffering and death
of the Crucifixion.

The Gospel begins with the Baptism in the Jordan, where the Trinity interacts as a united family. ‘And when Jesus was baptized, just as he came up from the water, suddenly the heavens were opened to him and he saw the spirit of God descending like a dove and alighting on him. And a voice from heaven said, "This is my Son, the beloved, with whom I am well pleased."’ (NRSV, Matt. 3.17-18) It ends however with the Son crying out in agony from the Cross in bitter reproach against the Father who has forsaken Him. ‘”Eli, eli, lema sabachthani” that is, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?”’ (Matt. 27.47) And for those terrible hours the Holy Spirit seems utterly
absent from the world.

It is only through the Trinity that we can fully understand what is happening here, something that no other religion can comprehend. God is killing God. The Father abandons the Son to suffering and death. But both are God, so God is abandoning God. Father and Son do not experience the death of the Cross in the same way.

Moltmann puts it like this: The Son suffers in his love being forsaken by the father as he dies. The Father suffers in his love the grief of the death of the Son. In that case, whatever proceeds from the event between the Father and the Son must be understood as the spirit of the surrender of the father and the Son, as the spirit which creates love for forsaken men, as the spirit which brings the dead alive. It is the unconditional and therefore boundless love which proceeds from the grief of the Father and the dying of the son and reaches forsaken men in order to create in them the possibility and the force of a new life. (p. 253)

This view is quite different from the Athanasian Creed. If the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit all existed from eternity, then nothing much was changed by the Passion. But everything was changed, and changed because (1 John 4.9) ‘God is love’. It is because ‘God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish’. (John 3.16) What Moltmann calls the ‘event of the cross’ is Trinitarian, ‘an event concerned with a relationship between persons’
who ‘constitute themselves in a relationship with each other’. (p. 256)

The event of the cross brings all this into being and alters everything. God suffers, God allows himself to be crucified and is crucified, and in this consummates his unconditional love that is so full of hope. But that means that in the cross he becomes himself the condition of his love. The loving Father has a parallel in the loving Son and in the Spirit creates similar patterns of love in man. (Moltmann, p. 257)

So let’s keep the Trinity, whatever anyone else says. Because the Trinity is the event of the Cross. ‘The Father who abandons him and delivers him up suffers the death of the Son in the infinite grief of love’. (Moltmann p. 251) The Holy Spirit is love, and hope. The Son is love, and hope. God is love. God is hope. God in three persons. Blessed Trinity.

Works Cited
Moltmann, Jurgen. The Crucified God: the Cross of Christ as the Foundation and Criticism of Christian Theology. Translated R.A. Wilson and John Bowden. London: SCM Press, 1974.
Rahner, Karl. The Trinity, Translated Joseph Donceel. London: Burns and Oates, 1970.