The chief commandment is the very heart of our Christian faith. We instinctively accept its authority. Our whole being have the sensation that obeying it brings peace and clarification into our lives. It cuts through the most difficult situation in life and brings us where we should be. Yet, it got so familiar to us that we no longer pay regular attention to it. We don’t use it as our regular prayer. Though, we really should! It should equal the prayer with which we are most familiar with and which we use most often, the Our Father. So today, I would like to invite us to re-engage with this wonderful resource.
Melinda Powell, in her wonderful book on dreams, recalls a dream, which can help us to see our main commandment afresh. (Quote, p.147, in The Hidden Lives of Dreams,What They Can Tell Us and How They Can Change Our World). She investigates the ‘healing presence’ of a dream. How the encounter with this mysterious Presence can bring physical and spiritual healing. She was experiencing a severe sinus infection which incapacitated her for weeks.
‘I stand in the afternoon light. A being who reminds me of the angel Gabriel from a dream I had many years before approaches me and says, “I hear you haven’t been feeling well.” As he speaks, he lifts his right forefinger and touches my sinus areas under each eye. In the dream, I instantly felt better, and I realise that when I wake up, I will begin to get well. As he turns and walks away, I cry out to him, “Can you heal my spirit?” He turns and comes up to me again. He looks at me with a great deal of love as he raises his finger to the point between my eyebrows. His fingertip seems just a hair’s breadth away from me, and I can feel its heat and power. Then suddenly he looks at me very tenderly and with deep regret slowly lowers his hand. It feels as if he suddenly got a message not to heal me this way. We look long at each other, and I realise with disappointment and resignation that whereas the healing of my body would be rapid, the healing of my spirit would take years - at least another seven years, if not longer. And then I wake up.’ Seven years later after this dream, Mrs Powell started training in to be a psychotherapist, specialised on dreams. It was then that her inner healing truly began.
‘You must love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul, and with all your mind. This is the greatest and the first commandment. The second resembles it: You must love your neighbour as yourself. ’Why not to look at these words of Jesus as a Commandment as a personal encounter. As the encounter with the Person of God which brings healing, growth and joy to every situation.
First of all, just like, with interpreting a dream, we have to spend time, prime time, quality time with this Healing Presence. Linking God and our neighbour though love, love produced by own free will, love created by our own self - is a stroke of genius which Jesus shared with us. (We don’t know Jesus’ prayer life, how he gained his insights. May be that the profundity of this idea, this linking the human love with divine love through our neighbour, came to him in a dream? We don’t know.)
What we know, however, is that this commandment has an unexplainable inner light. There is no external light to it, just like in Icons. No shadows appear around this teaching. Illumination, and guidance comes from the mysterious inner light, the persons of the Triune God.
Just like in a dream-analysis, ‘first let us consider how we feel in response to this commandment. Just like in human relationships, the feeling nature of presence holds the key… When two souls touch, something new comes into being in the space between them, a special healing quality of presence that feels different from the more usual exchanges with others we have in everyday life.’ This commandment, because of its roots in the Godhead, in the heart of Jesus, has a soul. As persons, and as a community, nay, as a culture, we so desperately need to experience the Main Commandment as a personal encounter. Our God is there in it, with the love and truth, He offers to us.
‘Now imagine joining [the soul of this Commandment] at their table [our altar-table]. Take a moment to consider how it feels to do so. Does the invitation cause you to feel sceptical, unsure, embarrassed, unworthy, unprepared, timid, impatient, disinterested, curious, confident, joyful, grateful, or something else altogether? Are you open to the possibility or do you contract and withdraw? It doesn’t always feel straightforward to accept an invitation like this and to relate to it in a responsive, friendly way.’ However, ‘when we are able to receive [it] with kindness, we find new life born into our daily living in unexpected ways.’ So let us be kind to God, as God is kind to us; let us be kind to this commandment. .
Yesterday, on BBC2, there was a documentary about this year’s Summer Exhibition at the Royal Academy of Arts. In it, one could follow few artist’s preparation, the excitement of their going through the selection process. It was very emotional, and equally challenging for all of them. This is the dream of life for an artist, established or unknown. Out of eighteen thousand works, a thousand was selected, of which the selection committee choose the best five hundred. A friend of our parish, Garry exhibited his late father’s work. We, his friends, followed his dedication to the cause, and his final success.
Both, the way the artists brought their life-time effort to fruition, and the moving story of Garry’s father, is highly expressive of how and what we celebrate at Harvest Festival. Which feast, this year, is combined with the ‘harvest of our parish’, the feast of its Dedication, the 93rd year anniversary of its existence.
When we bring the fruits of the summer it is about far more than beautifully decorating our church. Every year, these fruits also represent us. Their colour and taste is an expression of our efforts to become better persons year by year.
Dedication, sheds a further light on today’s thanksgiving. Harvest is about the encounter between God, the Creator, and us, his creatures. Let us imagine Him, as he is indeed, our powerful King. Kings have many places in their palaces. It is their custom, that in order not to overwhelm their subjects and courtiers with their majesty, they withdraw to their inner chambers. During the year, leading up to ‘harvest time’, kind of this is the case. God’s glory is not that obvious; he hides himself, as it were, while we work. However, there are special moments, when the King chooses to be revealed. This happens among us on Sundays. He vests himself in the words of our liturgy, in the words of our prayers. Today, on the Feast of Dedication, we are expressly called to ‘look at his Church’, which he chooses to reveal his Glory. In the Eucharist, in the Holy Communion, the King summons us and shows himself to our senses. When he blesses our Harvest, he also calls for our full attention and thanksgiving.
So, harvest festival is a bit like realising where we are, in whose palace, in whose chamber of throne we are. Today we understand, that the great King, in the person of Our Lord, in his words, speaks to us. Face to face, directly to us, individually and as a community. In these moments, in the presence of the king, when he is talking to us, it would be an unimaginable offense to turn to our neighbour or friend, and start a private conversation. Harvest festival and Dedication are great reminders of the nature of our worship, how special it is to come to church and worship our God. What a privilege it is.
And just as in the case of the exhibiting artists at the RA, or in our own case when we bring our own life efforts before our Lord, God also brings to us his whole life, his self-offering for us, self-emptying for us, which has been going on from all eternity. Harvest festival, as it was mentioned, about this two-fold encounter.
If we mirror God’s openness, and kenosis, the real significance of Harvest Festival, and Dedication is revealed. Something new can begin. Our inner renewal can take place. A positive turning point in our local life, nay, in world history can begin. And we so desperately need this beginning anew in these challenging times.
To conclude, there is this underlying practical message of our feast. What will be our offering for the coming harvest in the present circumstances? How, in what ways can we continue our worship and Christian way of life, in the coming months marked by the presence of Covid 19? How do you keep engaging with your local church community, and its worship? How do we witness that Covid 19 does not break us? We must give our answers in thought, payer, and deed.
The stake is joyful, the stake is high. We, Christians must recognize that the main danger is the break-down of the desire to worship God in community. The cycle of imitating Christ, offering our hearts as a harvest week in and week out, is a visible witness. It socializes others, our youth picks up this cycle of faithfulness without words. Our lives these months is a form of martyrdom. Let us recognize these challenging times as such a call for love and faithfulness.
In these months of the global pandemic, we are pining for festive meals and joy with family and friends. We are waiting for our churches to be full again with chanting voices. That’s why, the words of Isaiah, just enhance this intensity of this yearning. ‘The Lord of hosts will prepare a banquet of rich food, a banquet of fine wines, a food rich and juicy, of fine strained wines.’ Are the words of Revelation in this passage out of joint? No, they have not lost their timeliness. Feasting and pure joy is not a nostalgia. The happiness it promises is not a utopia either which we will never be able to reach again. On the contrary, God is so realistic. He is fully aware that we need healing first. As our text continues, ‘On this mountain he will remove the mourning veil covering all peoples, and the should enwrapping all nations, he will destroy Death for ever. The Lord will wipe away the tears from very cheek.’
On a personal level, the words of a famous Jewish payer are echoing. ‘Who will live, and who will die?... Who by plague?... Who will be brought low, and who will be raised up?’ We feel the devastating effects of the pandemic all around us. Many of us, on top of our fears, have relatives or friends hospitalised, because of illness or accident. And this can easily lead us to dispair. That’s why, our inner compass should be the emphasis of Isaiah: ‘See, this is our God in whom we hoped for salvation; the Lord is the one in whom we hoped.’ This emphasis is so profoundly healing when said in the present tense: ‘look, thisis our God in whom we hope for salvation, the Lord is the one in whom we hope!’ This, and the prayer I quoted, also urges us to summon our better selves through taking action: repentance, prayer, and righteousness.
This tripartite call only culminates in the Gospel. The same choice is laid before us. Should we turn down our invitation to ‘the king’s feast’? Should we give up our previous, pre-pandemic enthusiasm, and commitment? Because of the pandemic, should we give up our religious practice and belonging to our local church? Or, shall we overcome our fears, and renew our covenant with God and our faith in Him?
Reaching that tipping point of returning from our exiles is the crucial moment. Maimonides, in a similarly difficult period, felt similarly. And this is the testimony of many saints throughout the centuries. Saint Francis, Saint Theresa of Lisieaux, Saint Maximilian Kolbe could have said the same. ‘Every person is capable of improving the whole world through performing even one good deed.’ (Mishnah Torah, Laws of Repentance, 3:4) By wearing a mask, feeding the hungry, calling our friends, or promoting justice in our communities. Each of us has the potential to tip the scales just enough to transform the world for God. As a community of faith, we Christians together have the potential to transform our Covid-19 stricken world. We can sow the seed of the joy of the kingdom of heave, that of ‘king who gave a feast for his son’s wedding’, Jesus said.
May this joy indeed come to pass, and may we see the day soon when we all join together in community to mark our feasts, and Eucharists, which we can celebrate, hopefully, soon, in full numbers. So let us work, and live, our days, as our Lord intended us to live. Let us learn to pray and live the underlying request of our Lord’s Prayer. ‘Give us with our daily bread our daily joy!’ And let in this joy the healing that our world needs come! Amen.
In the Jewish calendar there is a feast, of which symbol, the tent, made of fresh branches, resonates well with the theme of Christian ‘baptism’. It was a feast, as we know from Nehemiah (8:14-18), when they Jews returned from their exile. Moses instructed this feast. ‘Go out to the hills and bring branches of olive, wild olive, myrtle, palm, and other leafy trees to make booths, as it is written.” So, the people went out and brought them and made booths for themselves, each on his roof, and in their courts and in the courts of the house of God, and in the square at the Water Gate and in the square at the Gate of Ephraim. And all the assembly of those who had returned from the captivity made booths and lived in the booths.’
Sukkoth is celebrated not in the actual time of the Exodus, when spring comes with warm wind and the sun is promising the beauty of summer but when cold winds begin to blow and drizzling rains sudden the autumn.
The birth and bringing up of a child, is the fruit of their parents’ hard work. Baptising the child, is a reminder that it is an ongoing journey. In a sense, baptism is a reminder of the fact that life is fragile, it needs support, extra care. In the Christian baptism we confess, that we need God’s help. Today we are standing in front of God, like the Jews when they built their fragile tents. This feast falls on the autumn. To dwell in booths in the spring was no trial of their belief in providence. To do so at the approach of winter is to proclaim to the world that the chosen people were prepared to face hardship for their covenant with God.
The Bible does not give a detailed direction for the building of the Sukkoth-tent. Neither does it define what constitutes ‘dwelling’ in it. It is a bit like with parenting and baptism, the covenantal journey of the parents itself. The actual erection of the booth was an adventure in which young and old used to participate with enthusiasm. Surrounding themselves with life’s necessities in this imperfect temporary abode, the Jews were further reminded of their uncertain lease of life and of the need at all times to cast their eyes heavenward. They re-lived the experiences of their ancestors, how joyful it was to be liberated by God and return to the promised land. They remembered the sufferings and hardships of their forefather. They gave wholeheartedly thanks for their liberation and God’s grace.
Baptism within the liturgy shows us in a similar position. We know that God will richly bless this child, and her family, but we have to be ready to work for the child’s future. There will be hardships in this new Christian life, which is about to begin soon. But we know that God will give, can give, her a safe arrival to the full joy of Christian faith. Until then, parents, godparents, relatives, and members of our congregation will be the child’s ‘tent-builders’.
We are reminded by our symbol of the ‘shaky nature’ of the booth, of which branches the stars of the sky, or the rainy clouds can be seen. We have to be aware that keeping the Christian faith alive is a laborious work. Setting an example to remain faithful to our baptismal vows, saying no to the works of Satan, saying a full yes to God’s goodness, and the godly way of life, is a hard toiling. But during our joint journey with the child we shall be enjoying heavenly protection.
For us, Christians, the feast of baptism, is our ‘feast of the Tabernacles’. When we think back to our own journey into faith, from our baptism, we are reminded of the hardships, and the moments of being lost on this journey. But this child’s feast, the symbols of the fulfilment of faith (anointing with the oil of the Catechumens, the oil of the Chrism, and the candle of faith), is also an anticipation of our ultimate happiness with God, which we shall enjoy in our final abode, in the House of Love, Heaven.
The Feast of the Tabernacles have another important symbol, the four plants used in the feast. The golden citrus and the tall palm branch, decked with sprigs of flowering myrtle and graceful willow, the four species, mentioned in Lev 23:40. They represent four different types of persons, each with his or her own virtues and shortcomings, who all combine in one common effort to serve God. Thus, the Etrog, a fruit both pleasant in appearance and in fragrance, typifies comeliness, fragrance of reputation and fruitful activity. The willow, those who lack both beauty and fragrance, who produce no fruit and wilt easily. The myrtle which is fragrant and comely in appearance but bears no fruit, resembles the pious who are not productive; while the Lulav, possessor of stately height and fruit-bearing even in the desert, typifies those who have endurance, dignity and good-will and give of their best in thought and action.
These plants resemble also the four chief organs of the human body. The Etrog resembles the heart; both must be flawless. The willow is shaped like the mouth; as the former drinks of the water by the side of which it grows, so must the latter drink at the perennial fount of the Bible. They myrtle, cast in the shape of the human eye, bids us be pleasant in character; while the Lulav, fashioned like the spinal cord, is a sermon in uprightness.
The Baptism which we celebrate today, and the work of support to the newly baptised, are similarly reminders of the Christian virtues. Starting with the theological virtues, faith, hope, and love, as it comes purely from God. So, let our task be to think about those virtues, those human virtues, which all of us must practice, in order that this child might arrive to a fully adult Christian faith, and that we ourselves might arrive to our final abode, which God has prepared for us. So, let the building blocks of this child’s journey be these virtues, Temperance, Humanity, Charity, benevolence, generosity, sacrifice, diligence, patience, kindness, humanitas, satisfaction, compassion, and humility
These are verbal Icons, expressions of how the world is seen from Saint Augustine's..