Monday, 2 May 2011

2nd Sunday after Easter: "The law that no man breaketh"

"I am Death; I am the law that no man breaketh" - the first words of Holst's opera, Savitri, which my wife and I went to see last week. In this story, taken from the Sanskrit epic the Mahabharata, Sāvitri, wife of the woodman Satyavān, hears the voice of Death calling to her. He has come to claim her husband. Satyavān arrives to find his wife in distress, but assures Sāvitri that her fears are just illusion, māyā. But for all his complacency, when Death arrives, all strength leaves him and he falls to the ground. Sāvitri, alone and desolate, welcomes Death. Death, moved to compassion by this, offers her a boon: anything she wants, except for bringing Satyavān back to life. So, Sāvitri plays a sophistic trick on Death. She asks only for life. Death at first is confused, wondering why she asks for something she already has. But she asks again, saying that all she wants is life, life in its fullest. Death grants her his boon - on which she tells him that a full life for her is impossible without her husband. Death is defeated and leaves, awakening Satyavān, and so proving right his original contention: that even Death itself is only māyā.
This Hindu tale might seem at first sight to have something in common with the Christian story. After all, did not Jesus also conquer death?
Yet a week after Easter, nobody doubted that Jesus had died. Even when he appears to the disciples, he emphasises not the defeat but the reality of his death; any illusion that his death was not real was shattered when he presented his wounds still bleeding for Thomas to test and touch. God did not become man to dismiss suffering as an illusion, to go through the motions of death; but to enter into the reality of human suffering, to submit to the real law of death. In submitting to the law of death, he breaks it; and entering into human suffering, transforms it. The grace of God does not destroy what he has made, but perfects it, not denying its reality, but bringing it to the fulness of reality. Death is indeed a gate that all must enter, but a gate which by the grace of God poured from the Cross leads to fulness of life.
This is what makes the Christian religion fundamentally a sacramental religion; a religion of which the fundamental sacrament is the Cross. The schoolbook definition of a sacrament is, I suppose, a real and effective sign: an action which simultaneously signifies and effects the grace of God, blessing some part of creation with the uncreated, bringing closer to full reality that which is real but imperfect. The gracing action of the Holy Spirit did not eradicate death, but transformed it into the fulness of life; and it is this same Spirit that animates the Church and effects God's work through it. The same Spirit that, this evening, will take our reality in Baptism and brings us closer to the perfect image which we were made to reflect. The same Spirit by which the Church is commissioned to forgive the sins of the repentent and reconcile us, imperfect as we are, to the God who is perfect. The same Spirit that, two days ago, took what was already there between Prince William and Catharine, but transformed it, moving it closer to the self-sacrificial bond of love that the sacrament of Matrimony signifies and embodies. And the same Spirit which, this morning at the altar, will transform humble bread and wine into its fulness as the Body and Blood of Our Lord, corporeal food into spiritual food, food which as we eat it transforms what we are into what we are meant to be. All this is born from the sheer bodily reality of the Christ's death, a victory over a very real enemy, but by a merciful conqueror, who does not destroy but redeems.
Yet we must remember that the Kingdom to which that primal sacrament of the Cross points to a Kingdom where ultimately, all sacraments shall cease; and this brings us back to Savitri. We cannot conclude, with her, that all is illusion. But nor can we avoid the fact that the reality of the world we live in is at best only partial, and will remain so until all is brought to the fulness of reality where all illusion, all suffering, and even death itself are finally dispelled. It is a Kingdom to which our present reality blinds us; but blessed are those who do not see, and yet believe. So, let us continue groping forward as blind witnesses to the invisible grace that Christ bestows on us in Church and Sacrament.

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