Friday, May 2, 2014

Daring to doubt - powerful words!

Every now and then I share with you a sermon of Father Alexander Tefft, the priest at the Antiochian Orthodox Parish of Saint Botolph, London, U.K., who is also Chaplain and Tutor at the Institute for Orthodox Christian Studies at Cambridge. Here is his sermon from last Sunday. 

When he had said this, he showed them his hands and his side (John 20.20).

Al-Masih qam! Christos anesti! Christos voskrese! Christ is Risen!

You sleep, but your soul wakes. Restlessly twisting, turning in your bed, an egg in a frying pan. Your eye, swirling in its socket. Spinning under its lid. You try to shut it – but cannot. Why are you still awake at this hour? All silent, all dark. Into the black blanket, you stare. Your bloodshot pupils, pressed close against the suffocating weight of the wool. But no blanket covers your face. You are looking out into the room. A bedroom. Yours. No light from the ceiling. No flickering rays from the street lamps, the windows across the way. All is black. Are you asleep? Is it a dream? Another nightmare? Asleep? Awake? Alive – or … Listen to your heartbeat. No sound. Four in the morning, when your soul hangs on a cord between life and … Feel the breath easing in, out of your lungs. No breath. Only a loud, pounding pressure inside your skull. A face, a name, struggling to break out. Who are you? Really? You do not remember. Out there by day, the crowds keep noisy festival. In here by night, only your eye staring into space. A mind, struggling to remember. With a trembling finger, a quivering hand, you probe the black space. For a torch. A bright lantern to show you, to prove that you are still – you. Awake or asleep, alive or – dead – your mind, fettered to fear. Who will break those chains? Your heart, a tomb sealed. A door. Shut. At the black hour, who is able to fling open those doors?

Afraid to sleep, afraid to wake, twisting and turning on that hair-thin cord between life and death, your mind drowns. Under wave upon wave … of doubt.

‘What is there to doubt?’ asks a cheerful voice out there. ‘Have a beer’. Another. A chunk of cheddar, a slice of roast lamb. Forget it. Try a spoonful of sirnaya paskha, or mayeritsa,  or maybe a Cadbury’s chocolate egg. ‘It’s Easter!’ But lurking inside when dark descends, a doubt. A question: is that all there is to this feast? Roses and hyacinths, lilies and tulips. Only thirty-five pounds, at Marks and Spencers. Picture postcard of Jesus, jumping out of a box. Flowers at an empty tomb – but what about the tomb inside you? Do you not feel it, churning, twisting inside? The cruel word. The sting of betrayal. Those unhealed wounds, unmourned in this hour of peace and joy. Face of a loved one, powdery white. Smooth as ice in a pine box. How can you ‘forget’ when, every night, the faces of your long lost dead look in at the window? How can you make believe ‘all’s right with the world’ – when heartache hangs heavy in the air? At the bottom of the bottle the last drop tastes lingers on the lip. The last slice, hard and dry. Let him forget the agony who never looked a loved one, dying, in the eye. Let her forget anguish who never held a sick child to her bosom, keeping it from the blanket of the night. Let them settle for a painted smile, a joy too cheaply bought. Only the soul that bears in its palms the mark of pain, in its side the wound of loss, really understands …

Joy is no real joy, unless risen from despair. Faith is no faith, unless risen from doubt.

Reclining in a leather easy chair overlooking the quaint quadrangle and grassy green, the professor suffers no doubt. Trusting in an occasional port with a Marxist colleague across the hall, he slips unconscious into the cool comfort of unbelief. Blessing insurance offices and yachts, ‘christenings’ with floppy purple hats, and Uncle Stavros, checking his watch, the bishop suffers no doubt. Trusting in a shot of ouzo, he finds means of ‘compromising’ with what business interests demand. Fastening a kerchief around her brain, your granny suffers no doubt. Bells, and smells, and dim flickering candles lull her to sleep.

Only he doubts, who has drunk his fill of deceit. Only he doubts, who thrusts his hand into the dark to draw out Truth. Whatever the cost. Only he doubts, who consciously believes.

When dark descends on the first evening of the week, doubt lingers behind bolted doors. Each disciple, his mind fettered to fear, suffocates under the weight of grief – and guilt. By day, crowds out there keeping the Passover. By night, the disciple in here asking himself: ‘Where were you when he needed you most?’ When the Master hung on the hair-thin cord between life and death – did you look him in the eye? When the black blanket of the night swallowed the sun, did you dare to look upon the ice-cold face … of God? Now he stands here. The dead Child, held tight in his mother’s bosom. The face, the name breaking out of the tomb. ‘Peace be with you’, speaks the icy lip. ‘Is it a dream’, they ask, ‘another nightmare?’ Breathing on them the Spirit of Truth, the Master shows them no lily or tulip, no hyacinth, no rose. Only pierced palms and a gaping side.

When Thomas arrives, he settles for no painted smiles. ‘Unless I see the mark of his pain’, he declares, ‘how do I know that it is he?’ Eight days later, the Master invites: ‘Put out your finger and feel where the nails pierced. Thrust your hand – here, deep into the wound. Long enough you have carried the burden of doubt. You have paid the price for your faith. Now, lay your burden down’. With a trembling finger, a quivering hand, Thomas probes that black space. In a voice, born of anguish equal to joy, of hope equal to despair, he cries out what no disciple dares: ‘My Lord and my God!’

Beloved in Christ: after the first ray of dawn, on the morn of Resurrection, have you felt it? Your soul strangely sink. Your heart, contract. It is not the death of your faith. It is the birth. Up from the cruel word and the sting of betrayal, the unhealed wound and the name of a dead God, half-remembered in your grief, rises a living faith. No sacred rabbit of Eostre, the Easter bunny worthy of the grinning goddess of the spring. We keep no ‘Easter’ here. Only Pascha. Our only true joy. Our Passover. From death … into Life.

She who is drowned and sealed today, dies and rises; she who is born of a mother’s pain and a father’s desperate prayer – what do we pray for her? Not ease, but integrity. A soul, standing firm when the earth quakes and the night swallows up the sun. Not compromise but conviction. A mouth speaking truth. Whatever the cost. Not comfort, but courage. The trembling finger, feeling the mark of the nails. The quivering hand, thrusting into the open wound of Life. A life that breathes in its last hour: I sleep, but my soul wakes.

We wish her a newly-illumined soul, daring to doubt. And therefore, to believe.


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