I believe in the Holy Catholic Church (part 3)
SERMON FOR 25.09.11: Marjorie Brown
It is very good to see so many visitors, newcomers and old friends today. We will shortly be celebrating the baptism of Gifford, the reason that has drawn many of you to St Mary’s this morning. I know the family chose this date for other reasons, but it so happens that today, as we all know by now, is national Back to Church Sunday, which is a very fitting occasion for a baptism.
It also comes in the third week of our thinking about believing in the Holy Catholic Church. Two weeks ago I talked about models of the Church, and about the Church being the ek-klesia, those who have been called out by God to form a community of people who live in a mutually forgiving way. Last week we looked at that tricky word Catholic and found in it an emphasis on wholeness and universality. We also considered the Catholic emphasis on God’s solidarity with humankind, shown in Jesus being born as a human being and identifying with the poor. The second reading today from Philippians is an early Christian hymn on this very subject.
The third element to look at, working backwards through the phrase, is holiness. In my childhood, outside of church the chief place I heard the word holy was in the Batman TV programmes. Robin the Boy Wonder would smack his fist into his palm at moments of crisis and cry “Holy catastrophe!” or “Holy levitation!” or even “Holy bargain basement!” My brothers and all their friends wore this gimmick out in the mid-sixties and it took a long time for the word holy to be taken seriously again.
Now perhaps it is taken too seriously, and it rather frightens people off. Who wants to be holy, or part of something that is holy, if it implies moral perfection or being better-than-thou? We can all smell hypocrisy a mile off, especially in the wake of the public scandals of the past few years, and we tend to collapse into the much easier option of being cynical about anything that tries to appear good.
But the word holy doesn’t mean morally good. In English it goes back to an Old English word hālig, from hāl meaning “whole, sound, healthy or complete”. The word health comes from the same root. But the concept of holiness derives from other words in other languages, for instance sanctus in Latin. You will all know that we sing “Holy, holy, holy Lord” in the middle of the eucharistic prayer, and that passage comes from Sanctus, sanctus, sanctus. The word for holy in Greek is hagios, as in the Trisagion we sing on solemn occasions: holy God, holy and strong, holy and immortal, have mercy on us. The idea of holiness goes back even further, though, to the Hebrew word qadosh, which simply means set apart. That which is holy, whether it is a sacrifice, a vessel, a building, or a person, is separated from ordinary use and dedicated to God’s purposes.
Some of you may have always wondered why we use incense in our services. Censing an object like the altar or our offerings of bread and wine or our gifts of money is an act of setting them apart for a holy purpose. But I hope you notice that we cense people too. The thurifer bows to the congregation and swings the incense over you, and that is recognising that all the believers are set apart as the holy people of God, made in God’s image and baptised into the risen life of Christ.
I am sure many of you have visited the British Museum exhibition Treasures of Heaven – if you haven’t you have two weeks left to go, and I hope you will. The curator gave an introductory talk when I was there, explaining that to early and mediaeval Christians holiness was like a contagion, but in a good way. A saint, someone who seemed to be a particularly clear image of God, could pass on a bit of that special quality through their bodily remains or even their clothing or personal possessions. People could access the divine through a material object that had this set-apart quality, which was seen as powerful.
When Thomas Becket was cut down in Canterbury Cathedral, the canny monks quickly collected all his blood and bone fragments because they knew they had an extraordinary source of income in this martyr’s remains. At the exhibition I saw a reliquary with a tiny fragment of bone that is reputed to be from Thomas Becket’s skull, and despite my 21st century sensibility I felt a sort of shiver of awe. This was an object which for centuries people had believed had been touched in a special way by God, and which could pass on that specialness to those who pressed their pilgrim’s medals to it.
So what does it mean to say that the Church is holy? Its holiness derives from Christ who set apart his followers to be his body in the world when he was no longer physically with them. The action that makes us part of this body is baptism. In a few minutes I will say to you all that in baptism the Lord is adding to our number those whom he is calling. So the ek-klesia goes on being called into being by Jesus in our day, with each new member embraced and welcomed by the holy catholic Church.
Gifford’s godparents will commit him with their support to follow in the footsteps of Christ as a faithful disciple. But the action starts with God, not us. When a candidate is anointed, we say “Christ claims you for his own.” Every Christian is made part of a royal priesthood. We are to offer the sacrifice of our own life continually in thanksgiving to God. We are called out, set apart, to be a sign of the divine, a light in the world. Eastern Christians call this being transparent to God: we are to shine so that people can see God shining through us, as Jesus did at his transfiguration.
That is not about being sinless, or there would not be one Christian in the world today. It is about being open to God, being willing to be set apart, made whole and healthy so that the holiness of God becomes catching. Paul says to the Philippians, it is God who is at work in you, enabling you both to will and to work for his good pleasure.
Baptism is entering into the holiness of the Church, which is holy because it is the Body of Christ in the world, called out, set apart, open to all. We rejoice today to welcome another member of that Body and we pray for him and ourselves that we may all become ever clearer and more radiant images of God.