Monday, March 18, 2013

Veiling our Images: A Sermon for Passion Sunday

You may have noticed that tonight we omitted Psalm 42 in the prayers at the foot of the Altar, with its familiar “O send out thy light and thy truth that they may lead me and bring me unto thy holy hill and to thy dwelling,” only to hear this verse as the introit of the Mass.  As with most of these things, there is a message there.

Today we enter Passiontide and, in the breviary, the hymns of the first part of Lent give way to new pieces focused upon the mystery of the cross.  The hymn of the vespers, written 1400 years ago, proclaims, “The royal banners forward go.  The cross shines forth in mystic glow.”  In the epistle and in the preface, we hear of the battle of two trees:  The Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil, which Satan used to trick Adam and Eve into mortality and the cross, by which Christ brings the hope of life back into the world.  

The cross of Christ takes center stage as we prepare to celebrate the redemption of the world.  And yet this is precisely the day when we veil the crosses and, paradoxically, when the familiar verse, “Send out thy light and thy truth,” takes a place of special prominence within the Mass.

St. Bernard of Clairvaux tells us that the final stage of learning to love God is to give up our images of God—that we must forego the God whom we have tamed in our imagination to be able to love the God who truly is, was and will be.  In this final portion of our journey through Lent, we too must veil our images if we are to be ready to meet the risen Lord at Easter.

The crucifix veiled on the altar is a central piece of my image of God.  I bought it in Bethlehem.  It hung in my house in Philadelphia.  As a monk, it hung in my cell.  Today, I say Mass in front of it.  In years of praying with this crucifix, it has become a source of solace and focus, but there is also a danger.  It is easy to look at its familiar face as I say my prayers and to let it become a symbol of the God whom I have created in my image, the one who loves me too much to challenge me, the one whom I conform to my image rather than conforming myself into his image.

St. Bernard, of course, was not speaking of literal images, but of this danger of loving a God we have made or that we believe we have the wisdom to fully comprehend and predict.  It was the beautiful Tree of Life, we are told, that led to the fall in the garden because it became a false image of redemption and life, while it was the repugnant instrument of crucifixion that actually bore the noblest fruit.  We must give up our own images to see things as they are, to find God where he is rather than where we have convinced ourselves he ought to be. 

And so today we cover our familiar images and open the Mass by praying, “O send out thy light and thy truth that they may lead me and bring me unto thy holy hill, and to thy dwelling.”  We pray for God’s light, not to walk by our own lights.  We pray for God’s truth, not our own subtlety.  We pray not to lead, but to become vulnerable and open ourselves that we may be led.  As we symbolically give up our images, we pray that we may give up our comforting distortions to seek the one who is always seeking us.

Two weeks remain until the feast of the resurrection.  Let us take the time to veil the images we have created that we may see God clearly.  Let us notice not only where the image of God is obscured in our lives, but also where we have created veils to mute the discomfort of his presence.  Let us work to free ourselves of the God whom we have created so that our hearts are prepared to receive one who is wonderful beyond all imagining.

In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Ghost.  Amen.