Sermon for 4th Sunday of Lent

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Bishop Hugh Gilbert at St Joseph’s Church, Aberdeen

 

“If I should walk in the valley of darkness, no evil would I fear. You are there.” Familiar, famous words.

“The Lord is my shepherd”: today’s Responsorial Psalm.
“If I should walk in the valley of darkness, no evil would I fear. You are there.”

Here are two other translations:

“Though I should walk in the valley of the shadow of death, no evil would I fear, for you are with me” (RGP).
“Even though I walk in a dark ravine, I do not fear evil for you are with me” (Bruce K. Waltke and James M. Houston).

Apart from this once, I won’t use the C word, either of them. Let me just take on one consequence, the consequence which touches us as people of faith, our fellow-Christians, Muslims, Jews and others: the suspension of our public worship. This has been done, following government advice, to help delay the spread of the virus. It is a service to the common good, but a decision the bishops took with heavy hearts. It means that, at this most liturgically intense and beautiful time of the year, with Easter approaching, we will be fasting from our common worship. Our churches will remain open, but for private prayer, rather than congregational gatherings.

Let’s hear that Psalm-verse again, in two other translations:

“Dark be the valley about my path, hurt I fear none while he is with me” (Knox).
“Even if I go through the deepest darkness, I will not be afraid, Lord, for you are with me” (GNB).

In all of today’s readings, with the man born blind in the forefront, there is a movement from darkness to light. Samuel passes from seeing as man sees to seeing as God sees, recognizing Israel’s future king, the great David, in the most unlikely of Jesse’s sons. “You were darkness once, but now you are light in the Lord”, St Paul says to his new Christians. He is talking of the light of faith that is lit at baptism. In the Gospel, thanks to the touch of Jesus and the water of the Pool of Siloam, the man born blind moves from physical darkness to recovered sight, and then further still to the recognition of Jesus. “‘Do you believe in the Son of man?’ asks Jesus. ‘Sir,’ the man replied, ‘tell me who he is so that I may believe in him.’ Jesus said, ‘You are looking at him…’ The man said, ‘Lord, I believe,’ and worshipped him.” Meanwhile, the Pharisees become ever more entrenched in their own darkness.

“If I should walk in the valley of darkness, no evil would I fear. For you are there.”

The light into which these readings take us is what St Benedict calls the “deifying light”. It is the light lit in us at baptism, the light of faith, the light that helps us see things not as man sees but as God sees. It is the light of the risen Christ. “Fear not. It is I.” Everything we are passing through at the moment, even, as it were, the snuffing out of the candles of public prayer – like at the old Office of Tenebrae – everything can be a passage out of darkness into this light.

“Those who believe, see, said Pope Francis in his first Encyclical; they see with a light that illumines their entire journey; for it comes from the risen Christ, the morning star which never sets” (Lumen Fidei 1). It is “not a light’, he explains, “which scatters all our darkness, but a lamp which guides our steps in the night and suffices for our journey. To those who suffer, God does not provide arguments which explain everything; rather, his response is that of an accompanying presence, a history of goodness which touches every story of suffering and opens up a ray of light.”

Back to the Psalm: “If I should walk in the valley of darkness, no evil would I fear. For you are there” – an accompanying presence

And then the Pope says a beautiful thing: “In Christ, God himself wishes…to offer us his gaze so that we might see the light within in” (LF 57). That’s what Jesus did to the blind man. That’s what our faith offers us now.

Does this Psalm have anything specific in mind when it speaks of the “valley of darkness”? There may be an answer in one of the darkest episodes of Israel’s history: the 70-year exile in Babylon in the 6th century before Christ. Jerusalem their hilltop city had been devastated, the Temple that crowned it destroyed, the people led away – led away to the river valleys of Mesopotamia. All gone into the dark. The Temple, with its Presence and its worship, was the light of their eyes, and that light went dark.

But then in that historical dark ravine, Israel made its discovery: “no evil will I fear, for you are there.” The seventy years of Exile, of forced isolation, of distancing from what they held dear was perhaps the most creative of Israel’s history. The prophet Ezekiel taught them that the divine Presence had gone into Exile with them: “You are there”. The story-tellers, the chroniclers, the scribes began to reflect on the whole history of Israel’s walk with God and collated the old traditions. It was during the Exile that what we call the Old Testament – the books of Moses, the books of history, the sayings of the earlier prophets – began to take its present shape. This was a time when synagogues began to appear so that people could listen to and learn the Word of God. It was a time of repentance, of examination of what had been done and left undone; a time of conversion; a time when Israel began to realise who she really was in the sight of God and in her darkness was being mysteriously prepared for the coming of Christ, the light of the world.

Hopefully for our whole society, and for us – the Church in this place – this dark ravine too can turn into something very positive. There really could be a New Normal. Despite the disarray, I pick much positivity from the faithful and the clergy. There is a creativity and initiative in the air. It is, though, about more than the use of technology. Perhaps, taking the language of St Thomas Aquinas, it’s a precious moment to pass from the sacrament (sacramentum), the sacred sign, to the res, the divine thing, the reality it signifies and conveys. And what is that? If we are speaking of the Eucharist, it is the mutual love that forms the Body of Christ. It is the grace of becoming what we receive, the Body of Christ, where each member carries each other, and the love of Christ really circulates among us. Psalm 23 speaks of water and oil, a banquet and a cup, of the sacraments that make the Church and make us Christians. This is a moment for their truth and grace, their power and reality, to pass, at last, into the fibre, the hard drive, of our lives. The grace of the liturgy lives beyond the liturgy. This can be the moment for that truth to be felt. And then he, the shepherd and host of the Psalm, will truly Easter in us.

“If I should walk in the valley of darkness, no evil would I fear. You are there.”

(Livestreamed, St Joseph’s church, Aberdeen)