Preacher: Canon Neil Thompson, Precentor
15 January 2012, 10:30 (Second Sunday of Epiphany)
I would like everyone to shut their eyes and keep them shut until I say open them. Now this isn’t a game. I want you to begin to adjust to being aware of yourself with no visual stimuli.
Nothing has changed – you are here in the cathedral sitting amongst the people you could see a moment ago.
You also know that you can in an instant restore yourself to the visual context of your life.
But how does this really feel? I am sure it isn’t comfortable and you feel much more vulnerable and much less in control.
OK, open your eyes.
On Friday night, the cruise ship Costa Concordia plunged its 4000 passengers and crew into darkness off the Tuscan coast and began to list more and more – almost to 90 degrees. People were thrown around the ship and were struck by objects.
People have died, others are missing: it was a terrifying experience and not only disorientating at the time but also in these ensuing days.
The way that we see this world seems so sure and certain and on it we make our assumptions, predictions and judgements.
It is this human experience and situation that is challenged in this season of Epiphany.
The word epiphany means revelation or showing – and following the birth of Jesus, his meaning and identity, as the Christ, God’s anointed one, is made known more and more widely to the world.
The Bible readings this morning are all about recognition and although Samuel hears the call of God in the night, he does so at a time when the word of the Lord was rare, visions were not widespread.
In the biblical world, ‘seeing’ is much more than the faculty that we exercise with our eyes.
It is the ability to apprehend and be apprehended by the eternal, the divine.
Sometimes it may have a surface shape and form; sometimes it will have a meaning lying below the surface and at other times it comes from beyond the evidence of material and verifiable objects.
In one sense all of our human living is interpretation and is therefore a matter of opinion but it is mediated by thought and language into common concepts that are accepted and often governed by systems and laws.
On Wednesday last I was fortunate enough to see the exhibition of Leonardo da Vinci’s Milanese paintings at the National Gallery.
Lots of you may not regard painting as an important part of your life.
However, in terms of experiencing depth and faith, love and beauty, we can learn much by what an artist shows us and how he or she does it.
The Da Vinci paintings were all painted in those years in which Leonardo left Florence aged 30 to seek the patronage of the Duke of Milan, from about 1482 to 1499 and 1508 to 1513.
During this period he produced most of the few paintings that he ever made yet alone finished. It was working for Ludovico Sforza that his perfectionism was focussed as court artist.
His genius was not confined to art of course but ranged through philosophy, music and science. Leonardo was a true polymath.
In London I was able to encounter these paintings so close as to see them from an inch or so away and to see so, so clearly the texture of the paint and the lines and details of the brush strokes.
Leonardo’s paintings are extraordinary and so different from anything of his contemporaries, for his technique was informed by his mind, his soul and his imagination.
He saw as a scientist, an artist and as one inspired by God.
The way that he drew and used paint represented the natural world with its geology and anatomy as no one had ever painted before.
He used measurement and experiment to compose and add a sense of movement and stasis in the works.
And so the pictures are more than just two dimensional representations – they take in the structures informed by dissection and close observation and an imagination that is lit and apprehended by a sense of awe, wonder, beauty and meaning that come from beyond an anthropocentric, human-centred, world.
When you shut your eyes, your other senses would have begun to grow and then begin to read more keenly and critically the world around you.
Here in church, in the presence of God and through the power of the Holy Spirit, we are invited into a greater reality in which we can see more within ourselves and beyond into the world.
So little Samuel hears God’s call in the night – in a world where the shrine overseen by Eli is dormant and lax in its discipline. Israel has fallen into faithless and selfish habits.
And to this low spiritual point, the young Samuel is called to let God’s glory be known and the nation be given the opportunity for renewal and transformation.
Here is sight born of a vision that sees beyond the horizons of comfort, complacency and compromise.
It is this glory that our second reading glimpses from beyond time as this world and our material universe comes to an end.
Only poetry can carry this light and glory but it makes it no less real.
And this light does not have to be relevant because it predates all that is. It is uncreated, celestial and informs us who we are and what is of value in our human days. We ignore its presence and its power at our peril.
Perhaps we feel like Nathanael in the gospel reading from St John – a sceptical and cynical personality who on seeing Jesus, the Nazarene carpenter’s son, says of him: Can anything good come out of Nazareth?
Yet, Philip had said to him: Come and see ...we have found him about whom Moses in the law and also the prophets wrote.
So why did Nathanael change his mind about Jesus?
Because Jesus could see who Nathanael was – a true and sincere son of Israel, unlike Israel himself, who as Jacob had been a cheat and dissembler. Furthermore, Jesus had seen him sitting under his fig tree – an image of the Messianic age pictured by the prophet Micah.
And then Nathanael really does see: Rabbi, you are the Son of God! You are the King of Israel!
And to this recognition Jesus adds that Nathanael will see so much more: he will see heaven open and the glory of God pour out over the Son and his works.
Nathanael’s boat of security, habit, rivalry and cynicism had capsized: and all the data he read and took in was re-formed and re-orientated: now he could see beyond himself and his limitations into the greater reality of God, his Christ and the glory that transforms the meaning of us and the world.
Leonardo’s paintings do just this: they are lit by a light and glory that comes not from a human source but from heaven itself.
In one of the rooms in the National Gallery were the two versions of the Virgin of the Rocks: the first, normally housed in the Louvre, glows with an inner warmth and light whilst its later counterpart from the National Gallery in London is bathed with a celestial light that seems to come from far beyond the parameters of the painting itself.
It is not the human eye alone that apprehends this truth but the soul and the imagination are met by an intuitive spark of recognition and discernment.
William Blake was a painter and poet who wrote in ‘The Vision of Judgment’:
When the sun rises, do you not see a round disc of fire somewhat like a gold piece? O no, no, I see an innumerable company of the heavenly host crying "Holy, Holy, Holy, is the Lord God Almighty."
The world of political, economic and social power is dominated by many who are blind to this truth and who worship wealth, material power and self.
It is this viewpoint this is marketable and superficially attractive yet flawed and stricken in its morality and truth.
Can you and I see beyond the familiar, the certain and the self-centred?
Dare we look beyond and launch out into the heady heights and solemn depths of a life that is lived connected to eternity and lit by the glory of heaven and the life of Jesus Christ.
The Costa Concordia lies capsized 200 metres off Giglio Island – it may never sail again. Such is the glory and the fate of all our luxuries, recreations, consolations and human joy.
Without God none can ever last.
But all our joys and glories can have value if we dare to go beyond that which our human horizons choose or determine:
George Herbert, priest and poet, wrote:
A man that looks on glass,
On it may stay his eye;
Or it he pleaseth, through it pass,
And then the heav'n espy. (The Elixir)