When Jesus turned water into wine at Cana, the wine was the very best and there was a great deal of it, between 120 and 150 gallons – just for village wedding.
When he fed the 5000, ‘they all ate and were satisfied. And they took up twelve baskets full of the broken pieces left over’ (Mt 14:20). More extravagance.
Today’s Gospel is from the Sermon on the Mount. The Sermon on the Mount is Jesus giving the definitive law of God to his disciples. It is Jesus as the new and greater Moses. And he says, ‘Unless your virtue goes deeper than that of the Scribes and Pharisees, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven’ Mt 5:20). ‘Goes deeper’ is a good enough translation in its way. We must for example go deeper than ‘not killing’, go to the roots of our anger and try to uproot it. But what Jesus actually says, according to the Gospel, is ‘unless your righteousness – the conformity of your life to the will of God – exceeds, surpasses that of the Scribes and Pharisees, you will never enter into the kingdom of heaven.’ What he says is, unless your righteousness overflows like a river, goes far beyond careful calculation, unless it abounds, spills over, runs over, spreads around – like a swollen river in a flood plain – you will never enter the kingdom of heaven.’ He wants extravagance.
Elsewhere, Jesus says, ‘I have come that they may have life, and have it more abundantly – to the full and over-full’ (Jn 10:10).
I wonder if we associate extravagance, superabundance, overflowing-ness either with God or with our Christian life.
Here we are in Lent. And in Lent, there’s a whole idea of restraint, restriction, renunciation, of simplification, pulling back from excess, eliminating the superfluous, making our life a little lighter, going without, fasting. Today’s Collect talks of ‘bodily discipline’. But all of that is the reverse, the negative, of a positive. The fasting is for the sake of a feast – and I don’t just mean going back to alcohol or chocolate at Easter! It’s rather having a share in the overflow, the excess, the abundance, the extravagance of God. And so the Collect asks that our bodily discipline ‘may bear fruit in the souls of all’. ‘Be fruitful and multiply’, said God in the beginning (Gen 1:28). Be abundant! It’s asking us to imitate the extravagance already in the universe around us – in its size, its complexity, its variety, its intricacy. And in the Sermon on the Mount Jesus is asking us to be overflowing in our living out of God’s will in our lives. To go beyond the measure. He’s asking us to imitate the lavishness of grace (cf Rom 5:15; 2 Cor 9:8; Eph 1:8), of his own love (all the way to the Cross). The God we believe in isn’t a cold isolated unit or just a clockmaker. He’s Father, Son and Holy Spirit, each overflowing into the other. He’s a dance of love.
What does this mean in practice? Well, why shouldn’t husbands and wives love each other overflowingly? Does the flame always have to burn low? Don’t we want to care passionately for our children, even while respecting their freedom? Surely it’s better to have ideals and loves and things to live and die for than to be sad and cynical and withered. St Paul often echoes Jesus’ word about overflowing. He talks of ‘abounding in hope’ (Rom 15:13), ‘abounding in the work of the Lord’ (1 Cor 15:58), ‘in thanksgiving’ (Col 2:7), ‘in love for one another and for everyone’ (1 Thess 3:12). This doesn’t mean we become Catholic dervishes or should live on an emotional born-again high or run around inflicting our good works on others. I’ve known very quiet and tranquil people, the opposite of hyperactive, and yet they radiate. The presence of Christ within them overflows all around them. You come away from them refreshed. St Seraphim of Sarov famously said, ‘Keep yourself at peace, and thousands round you will be saved.’ Canon Duncan Stone, when he got too old to visit, just sat in church and prayed for people. And that he felt did more good. There’s Pope Francis overflowing in the work of the Lord – on one lung and in his late 70s – and behind him is the silent prayer of Pope Emeritus Benedict.
There’s a line in a sermon of the late Fr Ronald Knox which has always stayed with me, ‘Man’s happiness lies in dedicating himself.’ That’s the point. We’ve all been blessed to know so many dedicated people, in all walks of life, in all corners of the Church. Priests and monks, because of the sins of a few, are rather under a cloud these days. But we’ve all known so many who are dedicated men. We’re blessed to have them in our diocese. We could think of St Columba too. The evangelisation of where we are goes back to him and his monks. And his biographer said of him, ‘He could not let even one hour pass that was not given to prayer or reading or writing or some other good work.’ ‘I have come that they may have life and have it in abundance.’ We’re made for dedication. And it’s Christ, the overflowingly dedicated one, who helps us dedicate ourselves rightly, righteously, in accordance with the will of God and after his own pattern. Here he is present among us, present here tonight. He makes himself present. It’s not a bald fact. It’s the sign of an extravagant love. He can’t keep away from us. Here he is transforming bread into his Body in thousands of places all over the world, giving us heavenly food, feeding us with honey from the rock, giving us his whole self. Here he is, going beyond Cana, changing wine into blood. ‘I have come that they may have life and have it in abundance.’ ‘I have come that they may live my Father’s will deeply, fully, in every aspect of their lives.’
So tonight, and this Lent, let’s rekindle the flame. Let’s rededicate ourselves. Let’s ask the Lord to revive every wholesome love in our heart. Lent looks to Easter, and especially to the Easter Vigil. And there we will renew our baptismal promises. There we renounce Satan and sin and promise ‘to serve God faithfully in his holy Catholic Church’. But let’s not just serve him faithfully, but overflowingly!
St Mary’s, Nairn