Sunday, 5 February 2017

We are blessed in ordinary time when
we glimpse brief moments of eternity

‘No one after lighting a lamp puts it under the bushel basket’ (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

Patrick Comerford

Sunday, 5 February 2017,

The Fourth Sunday before Lent (the Fifth Sunday in Ordinary Time)

9.45 a.m.:
The Eucharist, Saint Mary’s Church, Askeaton, Co Limerick.

Readings: Isaiah 58: 1-9a (9b-12); Psalm 112; I Corinthians 2: 1-12 (13-16); Matthew 5: 13-20.

You are the salt of the earth; but if salt has lost its taste how can its saltiness be restored?’ (Matthew 5: 13) … bags of salt tablets outside the Ice House Hotel on the Quayside in Ballina, Co Mayo (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

May I speak to you in the name of + the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit. Amen

The Christmas season came to an end on Thursday [2 February 2017] with the Feast of the Presentation of Christ in the Temple, or Candlemas. In a few weeks’ time, the Church Year, the Liturgical Calendar, changes dramatically at Ash Wednesday [1 March 2017], when we begin the Season of Lent.

I hope we can mark Ash Wednesday in this group of parishes this year, and – as I settle into the parish and my teaching responsibilities in Dublin fade away – I hope too that we can find time together in the future to celebrate the great feast days, such as the Presentation or Candlemas.

Candlemas has been an important day in both the church and the social calendar. In a reworking of the canticle Nunc Dimittis, TS Eliot summarises the Biblical story in his poem ‘A Song for Simeon,’ when he writes about the new light seen by the Prophet Simeon at the Presentation of the Christ Child in the Temple in Jerusalem.

Even outside the Church, this day was celebrated for the gift of light returning to the world.

As we say so often at this time of the year, ‘You’d notice there’s a grand stretch in the evening.’ The sun is rising earlier, the evenings are getting longer once again. The children notice it on their way to and from school, we notice it on the roads and in the fields. We get back to ordinary habits and the ordinary ways of life.

In between Candlemas and Ash Wednesday, between the end of the Christmas season and the beginning of Lent, in the Church of Ireland, we are calling these the Sundays before Lent. But in the Church of England and in many other churches, these are as the Sundays in Ordinary Time.

So, while we count today [5 February 2017] as the Fourth Sunday before Lent, in the Church of England and other churches this is the Fifth Sunday in Ordinary Time. And in those churches this season of Ordinary Time returns again after Pentecost.

I find there is something that is not so much quaint as beautiful in calling this Ordinary Time.

What is wrong with being ordinary?

Being ordinary is a quality of the great poets. The mature style of Philip Larkin is said to have blossomed when he started to observe ‘ordinary people doing ordinary things.’ The turning point for John Betjeman was the moment he took account of the harder, unprotected world of ordinary excellence.

For TS Eliot, in his poem ‘Burnt Norton,’ it is in the movement of time, in ordinary time, that we catch brief moments of eternity.

As Saint Paul reminds us this morning, the revelation of God in Christ is the intersection between eternity and time (see I Corinthians 2: 1-5; see Isaiah 58: 8-9).

In our Gospel reading [Matthew 5: 13-20], Christ speaks of the eternal values and truths that the Law and the Prophets point to (verse 17), and points himself to the promise and the coming of the kingdom (verses 18, 19 and 20). Yet he does this while drawing on ordinary, everyday, domestic images: salt and its role in preserving and cooking food; lights and lamps that give light in our houses and homes; bushels and baskets; hillsides and homesteads.

Life and time can be very ordinary – time is ordinary – when things keep going on and on, round and round. But even as we wait for the kingdom, that life and that time, in their ordinary ways, are worth celebrating, time after time, in everyday ordinary life.

In ‘Burnt Norton,’ TS Eliot emphasises our need to focus on the present moment and to know that there is a universal order. By understanding the nature of time and the order of the universe, we are able to recognise God and to find redemption.

The present moment is the only time period that really matters, for the past cannot be changed and the future is unknown. We cannot escape from our own time, even if we waste this ordinary time. As we move on in life, we waste time more and more, as we settle, as we prosper, as we age. Slowly but surely, we slip away from the chores and routines that mark out and make up the rhythms of ordinary life.

I have noticed in Dublin over the years how, more and more, we hire someone else to clean our house because the time it would take us to do it is ‘worth’ more than this cost. We order in takeaway food rather than cooking for ourselves because it saves ‘valuable’ time. We have our dry cleaning delivered rather than doing our own ordinary errands on an ordinary Saturday morning.

And then, as we try to commodify time and to trade in time, this distortion of our values takes a grip and seeps into our lives. We start evaluating even important relationships in the same way. We miss a child’s ‘Nativity Play’ and think we can make up by buying a new Play Station game. We constantly miss dinner at home, and then think we can make up for a year’s worth of an empty chair at the table by splashing out on expensive Christmas presents.

Gifts and games can be bought. But ordinary time with those we love can never be bought, and still more they can never be bought back.

Time and money cannot be compared. Time cannot be traded on the exchanges or bought in the supermarket. Christ spends time – typified in the time on the side of the mountain during the Sermon on the Mount, which we are reading from these Sundays – Christ spends ordinary time with the disciples, teaching them in ordinary ways about who he is and what the cost of discipleship is, what the cost of following him is. In that ordinary time they spend with him, they come to realise who Christ truly is.

Christ teaches us, time and again, that time spent with friends and family resists commodification. Because ordinary time is an essential part of what makes up our relationships. I cannot buy time, and I cannot buy friendship and love. And the more time I spend with people, paradoxically, the more time they have for God (verse 16).

A close friend is not someone I meet solely at big functions, someone I exchange business cards and email addresses with, someone who occasionally clicks Like or Share on my Facebook postings. A close friend is someone I spend significant time with, both quality time and ordinary time.

Friendships are knit together not only by taking part in shared activities, but by sharing and reflecting on memories of those activities over the course of the years, in ordinary time.

No human time that has its meaning anchored in Christ’s birth, life, death and resurrection can possibly be commodified, reduced to a monetary value or bought and sold to further our selfish desires. The story of the betrayal of Christ by Judas for thirty silver coins testifies to this truth.

The Church calendar helps us to appreciate each moment of salvation history. Time in the church year or the church calendar is not freely exchangeable – it cannot be traded or bought or sold. So, we do not fast at Christmas, nor do we feast on Good Friday.

We cannot make up for ignoring Lent by observing our own private penitential season in the first week of Easter – no more than we can make up for having forgotten a wedding anniversary or a child’s birthday by giving a bigger or more expensive present the next day, the next week or the next year.

The Church fails to grasp the intersection between temporal reality and eternal truth when we miss the opportunity to hear the ordinary concerns of ordinary people in ordinary time.

As the Church, we must guard against losing our saltiness, against hiding our light, against living in the reality of the ordinary time into which Christ is born, that time the Kingdom of God is breaking into.

TS Eliot reminds us, ‘Only through time time is conquered.’ In the economy of salvation, time is imbued with mystery. The fundamental mystery of the universe, the depth of its meaning, is the very reality of God himself. The Kingdom of God is truly but only dimly present in our midst, but will be revealed in God’s own time.

So, may we enjoy being at what he calls ‘the still point of the turning world.’ May we enjoy ordinary time, celebrate ordinary time, enjoy the ordinary things of life. Ordinary time is not a commodity to be traded or exchanged. For we are truly blessed when, in the movement of time, ordinary time, we glimpse brief moments of eternity.

And so, may all we think, say and do be to the praise, honour and glory of God, + the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit. Amen

‘… let your light shine before others, so that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father in heaven’ (Matthew 5: 16) … candles lighting up the chapter and choir stalls in Lichfield Cathedral (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

Matthew 5: 13-20

13 Ὑμεῖς ἐστε τὸ ἅλας τῆς γῆς: ἐὰν δὲ τὸ ἅλας μωρανθῇ, ἐν τίνι ἁλισθήσεται; εἰς οὐδὲν ἰσχύει ἔτι εἰ μὴ βληθὲν ἔξω καταπατεῖσθαι ὑπὸ τῶν ἀνθρώπων.

14 Ὑμεῖς ἐστε τὸ φῶς τοῦ κόσμου. οὐ δύναται πόλις κρυβῆναι ἐπάνω ὄρους κειμένη: 15 οὐδὲ καίουσιν λύχνον καὶ τιθέασιν αὐτὸν ὑπὸ τὸν μόδιον ἀλλ' ἐπὶ τὴν λυχνίαν, καὶ λάμπει πᾶσιν τοῖς ἐντῇ οἰκίᾳ. 16 οὕτως λαμψάτω τὸ φῶς ὑμῶν ἔμπροσθεν τῶν ἀνθρώπων, ὅπως ἴδωσιν ὑμῶν τὰ καλὰ ἔργα καὶ δοξάσωσιν τὸν πατέρα ὑμῶν τὸν ἐν τοῖς οὐρανοῖς.

17 Μὴ νομίσητε ὅτι ἦλθον καταλῦσαι τὸν νόμον ἢ τοὺς προφήτας: οὐκ ἦλθον καταλῦσαι ἀλλὰ πληρῶσαι. 18 ἀμὴν γὰρ λέγω ὑμῖν, ἕως ἂν παρέλθῃ ὁ οὐρανὸς καὶ ἡ γῆ, ἰῶτα ἓν ἢ μία κεραία οὐ μὴ παρέλθῃ ἀπὸ τοῦ νόμου, ἕως ἂν πάντα γένηται. 19 ὃς ἐὰν οὖν λύσῃ μίαν τῶν ἐντολῶν τούτων τῶν ἐλαχίστων καὶ διδάξῃ οὕτως τοὺς ἀνθρώπους, ἐλάχιστος κληθήσεται ἐν τῇ βασιλείᾳ τῶν οὐρανῶν: ὃς δ' ἂν ποιήσῃ καὶ διδάξῃ, οὗτος μέγας κληθήσεται ἐν τῇ βασιλείᾳ τῶν οὐρανῶν. 20 λέγω γὰρ ὑμῖν ὅτι ἐὰν μὴ περισσεύσῃ ὑμῶν ἡ δικαιοσύνη πλεῖον τῶν γραμματέων καὶ Φαρισαίων, οὐ μὴ εἰσέλθητε εἰς τὴν βασιλείαν τῶν οὐρανῶν.

NRSV translation:

13 [Jesus said] ‘You are the salt of the earth; but if salt has lost its taste, how can its saltiness be restored? It is no longer good for anything, but is thrown out and trampled under foot.

14 ‘You are the light of the world. A city built on a hill cannot be hidden. 15 No one after lighting a lamp puts it under the bushel basket, but on the lampstand, and it gives light to all in the house. 16 In the same way, let your light shine before others, so that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father in heaven.

17 ‘Do not think that I have come to abolish the law or the prophets; I have come not to abolish but to fulfil. 18 For truly I tell you, until heaven and earth pass away, not one letter, not one stroke of a letter, will pass from the law until all is accomplished. 19 Therefore, whoever breaks one of the least of these commandments, and teaches others to do the same, will be called least in the kingdom of heaven; but whoever does them and teaches them will be called great in the kingdom of heaven. 20 For I tell you, unless your righteousness exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven.’

Collect:

O God,
you know us to be set
in the midst of so many and great dangers,
that by reason of the frailty of our nature
we cannot always stand upright:
Grant to us such strength and protection
as may support us in all dangers
and carry us through all temptations;
through Jesus Christ our Lord.

Post Communion Prayer:

God of tender care,
in this Eucharist we celebrate your love for us and for all people.
May we show your love in our lives
and know its fulfilment in your presence.
We ask this in the name of Jesus Christ our Lord.

(Revd Professor) Patrick Comerford is priest-in-charge, Rathkeale and Kilnaughtin (Limerick and Killaloe) and Lecturer in Anglicanism, Liturgy and Church History, the Church of Ireland Theological Institute. This sermon was preached at the Eucharist in Saint Mary’s Church, Askeaton, Co Limerick, on Sunday 5 February 2017.

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