Words on the Word
16. Sunday C
Genesis 18.1-10: Running to the cattle, Abraham took a fine and tender calf.
Colossians 1.24-28: In my body I fulfil what is lacking in Christ’s afflictions for his body.
Luke 10.38-42: Martha was distracted by all the serving.
In the language of theology, we speak of God as eternal, transcendent, impassible. These notions evoke images of perfect stillness, made more intense by what we have heard about the silence of the spheres—for do we not tend to imagine God out there, beyond our perceptible world of complexity and noise? Such ideas shape our thoughts about the spiritual life. The more spiritual we aspire to become, the more acute the conditioning. We associate closeness to God with immobility and quiet. Contemplatives are prone to suffer pangs of guilt for not being sufficiently ethereal.
There is truth in this perception; but not the whole truth. The God in whom we believe is no static principle. We confess him to be in essential movement. The enchanting mystery of the blessed Trinity is this, precisely: that it is a constant flow of life and love, a divine current that has always been, never shall cease, into which we, too, are drawn to be charged and enlivened. It is difficult to speak of these things. They surpass what thought can fathom. We articulate them lumpily.
A surer sense of who God is can be gained from observing the lives of men and women transformed by his grace. Our God is a God who delights in leaving traces of himself. He impresses his likeness on man, made in his image, if only man embraces God’s design. The lives of the saints are mirrored epiphanies.
In the narrative of Scripture, hardly any life is more carefully configured than Abraham’s. The man we meet in today’s reading has been clay in the potter’s hand for a century, his shape nearing perfection. Not that he would have thought of himself in such terms. Outwardly, Abraham’s life seems a failure. Twenty-five years have passed since he left Mesopotamia. He has walked the length and breadth of Canaan, known prosperity and want, peace and conflict, joy and anguish. But he has not been given a child to continue his lineage. To entertain hope, at a hundred years of age, that this impasse might be resolved would surely be laughable? What has been the point of it all, if all he is and has will accrue to Eliezer of Damascus?
The years Abraham thinks barren have been a time during which the Lord has been at work, fashioning his likeness. In the three men of Mamre, the Church sees a symbol of the blessed Trinity, an association immortalised by Rublyov’s remarkable icon which represents, as far as graphically possible, the course of uncreated light.
How does Abraham respond to this Presence, utterly sublime? Not in a mystic trance, but with activity. The passage read to us is full of verbs of movement. Abraham ‘ran’ to meet the three; ‘hastened’ to find Sarah; told her to ‘be quick’ to bake bread; he ‘ran’ to take a calf, which his servant ‘hurried’ to prepare. The fruit of ninety-nine years of waiting on God’s will is not languid otherworldliness but an aptitude for quick response to unexpected encounters. That the Lord takes delight in what Abraham has become is clear from the promise he makes: ‘Next year, Sarah, your wife, will bear a son.’ That which, to a human way of thinking had seemed too late turns out to be, in fact, the fullness of time. Abraham has come, by grace, to be Godlike; he is ready, at last, to pass on what he has received.
The Lord has put each of us on earth to fulfil a providential task. ‘My Father is always at work’, says the Lord. We, too, have work to do, our share in the mission St Paul indicates in words that are mysterious, yet nonetheless comprehensible: you and I are to ‘fulfil in our bodies what is lacking in Christ’s afflictions for his body, the Church’. Our Collect tells us this comes about if we are ‘fervent’, that is ‘simmering’, ‘with faith, hope, and charity’, the pan’s lid shaking from the beneficial pressure.
We must not think that the story of Martha and Mary denigrates the task we are given to perform. There is in Martha something of the generous, responsive, hospitable speed of the aged Abraham. Her fault was lack of focus, not her activity as such. In a poem she once sent to a friend, dismissing it (maybe disingenuously) as doggerel, Dame Felicitas Corrigan, a Benedictine of Stanbrook Abbey, imagines a holy emulation between the sisters, spurring us on to acquire the virtues of both. ‘How wisely Martha saved!’, she writes; then goes on, ‘How magnificently Mary spent!’ This is how the poem ends—very wonderfully, I think: ‘But he said He would be/in bread/as well as wine;/and there was something/else He said:/‘Let your light/shine’ —/homely, votive, midnight,/and when the everyday of every/day, January to December,/acquaints/us with our dim flickerings,/remember:/Martha and Mary,/both were saints.’ Amen