2nd Jan, 2005

The Second Sunday After Christmas Day

Christmas 2
8am Low Mass, 10.30am High Mass

Collect: wonderfully created yet more wonderfully restored

Jer 31:7-14 turn their mourning into joy
Eph 1:3-14 Blessed be the God & Father
St John 1:1-18 Johannine prologue

Once upon a time Miss Julia Garnett, an eminently British schoolteacher, decided that she needed to ‘get away from it all.’ Miss Garnett’s faithful, life-long friend Harriet has just died. Miss Garnett has been buttoned-up, reticent, respectable and utterly conventional in every aspect of her life. In the death of her intimate friend, however, she comes to know that “death is outside life but alters it: it leaves a hole in the fabric of things which those who are left behind try to repair.”
So, Miss Garnett embarks on an utterly new and out-of-character pilgrimage to Venice, Italy. In that glorious city she soon realizes that her lifetime of careful caution and meticulous attention to detail is going to be challenged and thrown into question. She experiences not a Damascus Road conversion, there are no bolts of lightening, but something far more revolutionary is stirring deep within. Miss Garnett’s Copernican revolution is her discovery of the paintings and art of the Chiesa dell’ Angelo Raffaelle, the Venetian Church of the Archangel Raphael, inconveniently situated just a stone’s throw from the apartment in which she lodges herself when she arrives in Venice. Hmm. Or did the paintings discover her?

In the art and paintings of St Raphael’s Church are depicted the popular apocryphal story of Tobias and the Angel. It is in those paintings, to her very conventional and sombre British sensibilities, that there appear the apparently incongruous and deeply puzzling images of a young lad with a faithful black and white spotty dog, the lad is being seized by the arm by an angel in possession of the most entrancing azure wings; as if this were not disturbing enough for the very down-to-earth, tweedy school ma’am the whole scenario is being watched by an entirely deranged and loopy young woman and a psychotically murderous giant fish- who ever said that Italian art was boring?

Cleverly the ancient biblical Jewish tale of Tobias is retold, mirrored and interleaved in the pages of the novel to which I am referring, “Miss Garnett’s Angel” by Sally Vickers. Now legend has it that the enthusiastic Tobias traveled to Media on behalf of his pious and devout yet blind father Tobit to reclaim a family debt. Tobias, the spritely son, is unaware that the stranger who has kind of tagged himself along for the long, hazardous pilgrimage is none other than the Archangel Raphael and Blessed Raphael’s pet dog, Kish. I bet you didn’t know that Archangel’s travel with pet dogs. Who knows, the faithful Rectory Rotties Mowgli & Baloo might now be candidates? Miss Garnett is an old-fashioned disciplinarian who considers herself well beyond the reach of the fripperies of Renaissance daub and outdated Italian artistic sentimentality. However, as Miss Garnett gets to know the paintings, or perhaps the paintings are getting to know her, the impenetrable surface and well-defined defences begin to soften. Miss Garnett grudgingly begins to appreciate beauty, truth and goodness in the most unexpected places. She unravels and then pieces together the art of the Jewish legend of the similarly all too practical and down to earth Tobias who in his traveling is accompanied by the Archangel of healing, restoration and wholeness. But, like the ever-shifting sea-light of Venice, nothing here is quite as it seems.

The icon, the work of art is not a picture for those with curious minds and inquisitive sensibility- but rather it is a symbol that so participates in the reality to which it points that it is itself worthy of reverence. The picture, the symbol is an agent of the real presence. As our Romanian Orthodox friends who worship here at 1pm will tell you icons are not to be gazed at but they are windows through which the unseen world of heaven looks upon and into us; that is why icons are holy, sacred and mysterious. You think that you are gazing upon the smile of Our Lady in the icon behind me; but maybe she is smiling at you, maybe she is gazing at your needs, your prayers and your holiness. Maybe she perceives things that you can only half guess at, maybe she is gazing at your holiness?

Something rusty and hard shifted deep inside Julia Garnett as she stood absorbing the vivid, dewy painting, the joyfulness of the conception and the unmistakable compassion in the angel’s bright glance. Her eyes filled. The door of the Church opened and light streamed into the interior… and hastily she pushed away tears. [p 40]

Now I know that we Brits have a well-deserved reputation for never expressing our feelings, our tight-lipped stubbornness and hard-nosed reticence is infamous- much in the same way that you can never get Californians to be quiet about their emotions or what’s going on in their hearts- you wear your hearts on your sleeves for all the world to see. Hmm.

So it’s tremendously refreshing to learn of Miss Garnett’s discovery when she says to a priest near the end of the novel:

When I came to Venice I’d never seen beauty before. I had, of course, some aesthetic appreciation but I’d never really let it in me, if you see what I mean? I met someone, a man, who showed me beautiful things- who explained the beautiful things of Venice to me. [p 228]

and from the Prologue to the Holy Gospel according to St John:
“… and the Word became flesh and dwelt among us full of grace and truth and we have beheld his glory, glory as of the only Son from the Father…”
this too is an icon, a mirror, for this same Jesus Christ the Word made flesh is not just gazed upon, this Word made flesh alters, changes and remakes the image of God in us, Christ beholds us- that is salvation.

The conversation between God the Father and God the Son, what I am talking about and what we see and read and hear and have overheard in St John’s Gospel is not just some bland monologue in a tragic moment limited in time and space to two thousand years ago in Palestine, recorded as some event in a daily diary or objective historical account,
this is a refracted timescale,
TS Eliot-
it is the conversation, the communion of the Most Holy Trinity, the life, the dance, the joy, the beauty of the Trinity, God’s own inner dynamic of life and self-giving. You see, and this is something that I have been struggling all my life to grasp, to get a hold of-
in the Incarnation and Resurrection (the two events that the Holy Spirit makes alive and real and present to us every time the Mass is celebrated) not only is humanity transformed, renewed and transfigured, the image of God restored in us, but there is the potential for humanity in its perfection in Christ to be taken into the life of God. The willingness of God to participate in our human dance, in our human existence in the Incarnation freely and joyfully and accepts limitedness, frailty and our mortal nature and ultimately participates willingly in death; and does so, so perfectly that death has to let go because death cannot hold onto the one who is perfect Being and life-giving love. Christ our great High Priest is raised from death by the love and glory of the Father, he is exalted and glorified and rises to the heavens and takes our new and restored humanity with him.

The incarnation, the enfleshing, the humanizing of the Word of God is an event of scandalous historical particularity and it is an ongoing, unfolding process that takes place in every here and now, in every one of YOU.

No wonder the verb forms and tenses get complicated in St John’s hugely confusing narrative for we are not idly informing quizzical curiosity or eavesdropping on the conversation of Mrs Jones next door, we are listening to the music and harmony of God’s Being- and what is the most astonishing feature in this, as in all good conversations, is that it is never one sided. It is never one-sided, there are pauses and questions, enquiries and silences and promptings because YOU are invited to participate, God waits for your contribution and to hear what you want to say, the love that makes us one with God’s Son awaits your response and your participation.

All that sounds so wonderfully theological and rather distant- what it means is that spirituality is eminently practical and down to earth and here and now- in the coming week you may join with the Clergy and Vestry in a new study that we are beginning of the Rule of St Benedict and the Commentary with Sister Joan Chittister and you may participate in the Parish Website with the online community at


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