Just over a week ago, on Friday 2nd December, the anniversary of his death, a memorial to the poet Philip Larkin was unveiled in Poets’ Corner in Westminster Abbey. At the bottom are inscribed the final two lines from his poem ‘An Arundel Tomb’: “Our almost-instinct almost true: What will survive of us is love”. Written in 1956, the poem is a response to visiting Chichester Cathedral and being struck by a touching memorial to a 14th century Earl of Arundel and his wife, “Side by side, their faces blurred”. The
“plainness of the pre-baroque
hardly involves the eye, until
it meets his left-hand gauntlet, still
clasped empty in the other, and
one sees, with a sharp tender shock,
his hand withdrawn, holding her hand”.
This stone effigy has become an enduring image of love.
But all is not as it seems. The monument was heavily damaged during the 17th century Civil War and reworked by the sculptor Edward Richardson in the 1840s when he was commissioned to repair it. The “stone fidelity” is his work and the carved figures had even started out on separate tombs. But that does not stop an image capturing the imagination of passing visitors.
“Time has transfigured them into
untruth. The stone fidelity
they hardly meant has come to be
their final blazon, and to prove
our almost-instinct almost true:
what will survive of us is love.”
The untruth is their reconfigured posture, but in that it proves for us the enduring and instinctual draw and connection of love.
Advent is a season when we ask what the point is. We can do this by focusing on the final things, the once traditional themes of death, judgment, heaven and hell. One definition of judgment is that it is being known, being seen for who we really are and being brought to confront and face that. Who we are is children of God’s love and grace. But who we are is also how we live up to that and knowing that we fall short, that we stand in need of God’s redeeming grace. The grace that gives life, redeems life. So the point is to be found in the hope of God, whose love calls us into being and holds before us the hope of new life in his Son, Jesus Christ. I was given chance to rehearse this on BBC Radio Cambridgeshire on Wednesday when I was asked to talk on their mid-morning show about the true meaning of Christmas. The meaning of Christmas is the meaning of life. If we think that lies in shopping, we are in a desperate state. But the shopping, the gifts we buy are tokens of our love. And the purpose of their giving is to remind us of those who knelt to worship and adore the child in the manger. In him we see God’s love for us, which all our loving reflects and from which it springs.
There is something instinctive about love. We don’t need to be taught it. It touches the purpose of the human soul, all that it means to be who we are at our deepest and most intimate. It is the fruit of grace, of gift, and it stirs generosity to give in turn. This is why endless consuming is so destructive of the person and presents without love, without the giving of the self, are rather empty. People who just have things but do not have love have a gap deep inside, which no matter how much they have will never be satiated. Without love, we are, in St Paul’s words (1 Corinthians 13), just an empty noise and have nothing. Gift brings life, it is the source of life, and it springs from the love of God. That love is our ‘almost-instinct’ and what survives.
When John the Baptist was languishing in prison, an extremely unpleasant place, surely wondering if a violent end was about to come as indeed it did when Salome danced for a lecherous Herod, he wondered if there really had been a fulfillment of what he had proclaimed (Matthew 11:2-3). Had he really been the voice making the path straight for the ‘Promised One’ and was he right to say “Behold the Lamb of God” pointing to Jesus? Was this cousin of his the real deal after all, or was he about to die deluded and having backed a fantasy? We can forgive him his wobble at that moment. Jesus’ reply is not a straight forward ‘yes’ but rather something more profound. He points to what is happening, to the signs of the fulfillment of promise. The blind see, the lame walk, lepers are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised and the poor have good news brought to them (vv4-6). These reflect Isaiah’s hope and promise of God coming to save, which we heard in our first reading (Isaiah 35), and John would have recognized that. When gift is let loose, when love is set free, blessing abounds. Jesus points to the signs of love moving and healing and blessing.
So when Jesus asks what the people went out into the wilderness to see, what it was that they expected to find, he challenges them with the call to be true disciples and not just spectators (vv7-11). The message of John was not just something to be entertained by, a fashion spectacle of fine clothing, nor an ethereal image of the wind blowing on the reeds. The message of a prophet is supposed to be heard, heeded and acted on. There is one of those internet memes doing the rounds at the moment that says
“If you want to keep Christ in Christmas then feed the hungry, clothe the naked, forgive the guilty, welcome the unwanted, care for the ill, love your enemies, and do to others as you would have done to you.”
This is a brief summary of some of Jesus’ key teachings. We keep Christ in our Christmas celebration when the instinctual love of God in Christ lives in and through us. In asking what they went out to see Jesus’ aim is to connect with the passion and the longing, the hope and the love which found a deep resonance in the teachings of John, who of course pointed to Jesus, its true fulfillment.
Through the ‘Light Project’ churches in this city are supporting a pop-up night shelter in 7 churches for the homeless. Working with the City Council and a housing agency, homeless people are given a bed and help to rebuild their lives. The homelessness problem is complex and multifaceted, but hope is being put into action and the ‘almost-instinct’ given form and practical expression. As a Cathedral we support this, and I am a trustee of the ecumenical charity running it. This is a sign of God’s kingdom at work among the poorest, who literally don’t even have a roof over their heads and have lost their way. Another sign is the support for the Foodbanks, which continues and is a truly remarkable expression of the instinct for love and charity.
Yesterday was the anniversary of the United Nations Declaration of Human Rights being signed in 1948. So in two year’s time the Cathedral’s great 900th anniversary of the rebuilding in 1118 will coincide with the 70th anniversary of that declaration. Human Rights affirm the inherent dignity of each person without exception. All are beloved Children of God, heirs of his grace, and fellow pilgrims on this earth without distinction. When we advance rights we honour and join in harmony with the Kingdom of love which John announced had arrived in Jesus and to which Jesus called his followers when he asked them what they had gone out to see.
Love is instinctual and survives because it connects with the love at the heart of Creation. It brings us into line with the purpose of God and that calls for living in harmony with the justice of his Kingdom. Our ‘almost-instinct almost true’, what survives is love because God’s love is the true meaning and purpose of everything, not just for Christmas, and we affirm it when we live it.
Sermon preached in Peterborough Cathedral, Advent 3, Sunday 11th December 2016