That Gospel has not been read by chance. It was chosen for this occasion by the much-loved man whose life we are here to be eucharistic about: Fr. Bill Anderson, remembering him, giving thanks for his goodness and commending his soul to the mercy of God.
It’s the Gospel of the good thief. It was the Gospel that featured in the sermon that won him the Times Preacher of the Year Award in 1996, ‘A Humble Heart’. And a Gospel he glossed, in true Fr. Bill fashion, with an anonymous 17th c. poem that might not have been on the tips of our own tongues:
Say bold but blessed thief
That in a trice slipped into paradise
And in plain day stol’st heaven away,
What trick couldst thou invent
To compass thy intent
[And the answer comes:] ‘Love and belief’.
There’s our man, we might say: ‘Love and belief’.
A funeral homily is famously supposed not to be a eulogy. And were one to fall into the trap, one can imagine exactly Bill’s reaction: the cocked head, the pained expression, the pleading: ‘No, bishop, please no.’
But we are more than allowed to stay with this Gospel. ‘It’s a graphic cameo, and it’s profoundly moving’, said our man on that occasion. ‘Our Lord’s sublime forgiveness of him whom tradition calls “the good thief”’. ‘You will remember the Gospel’s words: “And he said, ‘Jesus remember me when you come into your kingdom’. “And he said to him: ‘Truly I say to you: today you will be with me in paradise.’ …our blessed Lord is reacting even here, amid the torture and humiliation of crucifixion, with his characteristic blend of directness and grace that abounds in the pages of the Gospels. “Your faith has made you whole” is as usual underlying his reaction…to a repentant sinner. Only this time, because time is short, there is no need to add, ‘Go and sin no more’. This time, time and eternity are nearly at one’ – a good line too for this morning.
If Fr. Bill saw himself in the good thief, so sublimely forgiven, I wonder if he lingered on a suggestive word that Luke puts on the brigand’s lips: ‘he has done nothing wrong’ the translation goes, in Greek ‘ouden atopon’. The thief here is adding his voice to a counter-chorus in St Luke’s narrative of the Passion. Beyond the jeers and mockery, there is also a quiet, steady, polyphonic underswell of recognition that this man on the Cross is innocent. Of all the things that can be said about Christ on the cross, that he was innocent seems among the less weighty. But is it? And what the thief precisely says is, ‘this man has done nothing out of place’ (atopos), nothing improper, nothing unseemly. Not only is he not a criminal; there has been nothing out of order, out of place, altogether nothing. I wonder if Canon Bill, classicist as he was, so sensitive to words, lingered on this? I wonder if he thought of quasi-parallel texts: the beautiful bene omnia fecit of the Gospel of Mark: ‘he has done all things well, beautifully, nobly’ (Mk 7:37) or, again from St Luke, ‘they were astonished at the gracious words that came from his lips’ (Lk 4:22) or again of the boy Jesus who ‘increased in wisdom, in stature, and in favour (grace) with God and men’ (Lk 2:52). I wonder because here is a cluster of characteristics Bill himself had so visibly absorbed from his Master. Here was a man who did not do things ‘out of place’, who had an innocence about him; not a naivete, but innocence in the Latin sense: a capacity not to do harm. And this is no small thing, especially in a priest. Here was a man of gracious words and who inspired them in others. I don’t think I’ve ever known any priest, any person even, of whom people speak so uniformly well. Here was a man with very little ‘atopos’. He was critical of his own liturgical prowess, but the willowy, bespectacled figure at the lectern, with his Edinburgh accent and his deft choice of words, with his sympathy for the human condition and a radiant love of the Lord, was someone perfectly in his place. There was something more than niceness in this priestly ministry or the mere good breeding of a cultured gentleman. There was a reflection of Christ. There was something imbibed from the Crucified. Canon Bill had learned his ‘arms and charms’ of ‘love and belief’ from the One full of grace and truth. This gracious 86 year old could have echoed the magnificent response of another, St Polycarp of Smyrna, who, when asked to deny Christ, replied: ‘I have served him for 86 years, and he has never done me any harm. So how could I blaspheme my King who saved me?’ That is the Christ before whom Fr Bill built so few barriers, and to whom he turned: ‘Lord, remember me when you come into your kingdom.’
At some lateish point in his life, and filling in some kind of CV, he wrote in the final slot for ‘personal reminiscences / reflections’: “Only this: that I thank God for wonderful parents, great educational opportunities, many good kind friends and relations, and, above all, the gift of the Catholic faith. Ancillary gifts have come in the form of lovely classical music and fine English literature, especially poetry. I am also indebted to my training in the Classics early on. My brother’s companionship and support have been marvelous over the years. What the priesthood has meant is best thought of in terms of joy and service, the power of prayer and the sacraments.’ Edinburgh, Cambridge, Blairs, the BBC, the Scots College, Aberdeen University, retirement in Mannofield and Cults: these were the memorable stations of his life. But they and other postings were not without their griefs. He was a sensitive man, fragile, even frail at some levels and he felt the pain of others. He knew the more desolate passages of Gerald Manley Hopkins, from the inside too. Reprimand and confrontation, intervention and the grasping of nettles were not his favourite sports – except perhaps for the odd flash in the classroom! I think that what we enjoyed about him had not always come easily. Preaching could wrack him, and how much more other things! Pressed grapes lay behind the fine wine he dispensed so liberally. The sign of victory was his humour. Who can pass through the Banffshire hamlet of Maggieknockater without remembering comic verse? (Consult Bishop Peter for the details). I did not know the Fr Bill of Blairs or the Scots College, as so many of you did. But I did know from these last years what a range of folk went to him (and the cats!) for confession and counsel and comfort: old and young, burly Poles and delicate maiden ladies, clergy and laity. One could linger on the word ‘com-passion’. ‘Splendid example of preacher and priest’ as Bishop Peter said in a poem of his own marking one of his friend’s significant birthday. What a good fragrance he has left behind, what an affirmation of priesthood from one who helped form so many priests himself! But perhaps it wasn’t always as painless, effortless as it seemed to be.
No, this is not a eulogy; it’s a Eucharist. And the Eucharist gathers up everything, from the beginning to the end, and offers it to God in the cause of gratitude, transformation and also completion. And when a priest celebrates the Eucharist, he doesn’t stretch out his hands at the epiclesis simply over the gifts but over the whole world. It’s patently a sacrifice, a making sacred, a lifting up ‘through him, with him and in him.’ And we want to join in this with and for Fr. Bill. We want the merciful confessor who absolved so many to receive the great absolution of the welcome of Christ!
‘Today you will be with me in paradise.’ The biblical ‘today’ is an elastic concept. It is ultimately the day, the light, of resurrection. This is what we ask for Canon Bill: ‘Receive his soul’ into that Today, into the place prepared for him from the foundation of the world. He is the first priest of my diocese I have buried, despite more than six years as bishop. But last year I did bury two monastic brethren I had known for 43 years. And they were moments of fullness and peace. We shouldn’t be glib about whatever purifying remains to be done in any of us – the total makeover of grace – but a sense of consummation and journey’s end prevailed. They were joyful occasions. May some of that joy touch us today. Let’s not grieve as the pagans do. Bill had had enough and completed his work. So, forgive me a Benedictine kind of conclusion, with a dash of the liturgical. He died on the eve of his 87th birthday, on the threshold therefore of his real dies natalis, the birth into heavenly life. He died in time for 1st Vespers of the Epiphany. That seems immensely ‘in place’, well-timed. Wasn’t he, a penitent thief and a wise man, someone of ‘love and belief’, who followed the star of faith and became a star to so many? And after they entered the house, there was no more star – just the Child and his mother.
‘There is ultimate consolation to be found, Bill once wrote, in the final lines of Siegfried Sassoon’s poem, Redemption:
I think; if through some chink in me could shine
But once – but one ray
From that all-hallowing and eternal day,
Asking no more of Heaven, I would go hence.’
Yes, go hence Christian soul…go to the place prepared for you from all eternity by the One who did nothing ‘out of place’. Go into his great Day and be with him. Amen.
(St Peter’s, Morningside, Edinburgh, Friday 19 January 2018)