Milton, Imagination and the Most Protestant of Feasts: sermon on the Assumption at All Saints, Margaret Street

Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary, 15 August 2017

Fr Richard Peers

Revelation 11.9-12.6, 10

Galatians 4.4-7

Luke 1.46-55

 

In the name of the Father, and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.

 

In this simple, bible service, we are celebrating this evening, my text is not from Scripture but from that great Puritan, the poet John Milton. I hope my use of him in this place won’t cause any horizontal, subterranean rotation below the Barbican.

Paradise Lost, Book i lines 254 – 255:

The mind is its own place, and in itself

Can make a heav’n of hell, a hell of heav’n.

This year, as you will know, is the 350th anniversary of the first publication of Paradise Lost. I’ve been re-reading it over the last few weeks. It is almost impossible to read silently, in my head, and needs to be read aloud. There’s a quiet corner of Liverpool’s Sefton Park which I’ve found a useful venue, along with dawn walks along the seafront in Crosby, where I can also ponder Anthony Gormley’s Another Place sculptures as they emerge from and fall into the tide of the Mersey. 

Milton is strangely appropriate for today’s feast – because Protestant-Catholic dualism is so unhelpful, but also because, despite appearing to be the most Catholic, this is, in fact, the most Protestant of feasts.

It is this feast that teaches us the reality of that unfashionable doctrine, the Fall and Original Sin.

Indeed a better name for today’s feast of the Assumption – with all its connotations of aerial flight – might well be the title of Milton’s sequel: Paradise Regained. 



My own theological prejudices have been challenged by re-reading Milton. Paradise Lost far from a world-hating Puritanism is a deeply sensuous, erotic and mystical text. 

Listen to one of my favourite passages, where he describes the sexual relationship between Adam and Eve. 

Picture, if you will, the naked Eve, half leaning into the naked Adam in Eden, she …
with eyes

Of conjugal attraction unreproved,

And meek surrender, half-embracing leaned

On our first father; half her swelling breast

Naked met his, under the flowing gold

Of her loose tresses hid: he in delight

Both of her beauty, and submissive charms,

Smiled with superior love, as Jupiter

On Juno smiles, when he impregn[nate]s the clouds

That shed Mayflowers; iv 495 – 501:

 

Wonderfully giving the lie to the myth that Original Sin is all about sex; this sex is before the Fall.

You will be pleased to know that it is not the erotic possibilities of Milton I want to concentrate on tonight. Rather, I believe we can learn from him about today’s feast and how it applies to the missional puzzle of our time:

How do we communicate the Christian message to our society?

How do we bring people to know Jesus? 



There are three elements I will highlight:

· the Fall

· Imagination

and

· Jesus



The Fall, our inability to help ourselves as the heart of the problem. Jesus as the solution. Imagination as our inherent ability to participate in the salvation he brings.

Paradise Lost, like today’s feast, is about the Fall. Mary’s journey to heaven, would not be necessary if humanity had not left Eden.

The very last lines of the poem explain this perfectly:
[Adam and Eve] looking back, all the eastern side beheld

Of Paradise, so late their happy seat,

Waved over by that flaming brand; the gate

With dreadful faces thronged, and fiery arms:

Some natural tears they dropt, but wiped them soon;

The world was all before them, where to choose

Their place of rest, and Providence their guide:

They, hand in hand, with wandering steps and slow,

[From] Eden took their solitary way.



For Milton, the Fall, is a happy one, there is excitement in that phrase ‘The world was all before them’. Endless possibility lies ahead; this is the gift of choice, of free will. This is the felix culpa, the happy fault, the fortunate fault.

Full of doubt I stand,

Milton puts it,

Whether I should repent me now of sin

By me done or occasioned, or rejoice

Much more that much more good thereof shall spring –

To God more glory, more good will to men

From God – and over wrath grace shall abound. (xii 472-478)

 

The first key to preaching the Gospel in our time is to enable people to see that we need saving. 

We need a theology that exposes the post-Freudian therapeutic world-view as the empty shell that it is. That demonstrates that counselling alone cannot build the kingdom of God. To show that sin is real, that the current machinations of war and revolt in Charlottesville, Korea or wherever, can hardly come as a surprise: that when we create a person-centred universe, when we remove God from the heart of things we carve out an emptiness that will be filled with horrors.

The liberal dream of permanent progress has been dying for a century. I know my own tendency to sin, to selfishness. Like driving with the steering off-centre and always needing to compensate, our need for a saviour is, literally, our only hope.

Philip Pulman takes the title for His Dark Materials trilogy from Milton (PL ii 916) and portrays the dying God who needs to die. We need not the small deity of therapy but the real God who is hard to see.
Milton when he wrote Paradise Lost had lost his sight and been blind for almost a decade. It is no surprise, then, that the poem is full of references to darkness and clouds.

But what is surprising, is that so many of these references are not to the darkness and cloud as negatives, but as positives, as the way to the real God:
This deep world

Of darkness do we dread? How oft amidst

Thick clouds and dark doth Heaven’s all-ruling Sire

Choose to reside, his glory unobscured,

And with the majesty of darkness round

Covers his throne, from whence deep thunders roar. ii 262-268

the Most High

Eternal Father, from his secret cloud

Amidst in thunder uttered thus his voice. x 31-32 

 

The Christian vision, is not that we will come to some rational post-therapuetic wholeness and intellectual knowledge of God. It is that we will pierce the Cloud of Unknowing, we will ascend the mountain and find God in the cloud. 

We will come, as Milton puts it, in his brilliant phrase, to

darkness visible (i 63).
 God has placed in us, has created us with, the capability to pierce that darkness, to pass through that cloud. This is what Milton knew as he composed his epic poem, that happy fault, which was his own blindness is where he discovered that

The mind is its own place, and in itself

Can make a heav’n of hell, a hell of heav’n. 
It is our imagination that will set us free – as the designers of this glorious building, the painters of these walls here show us.

We have become so enthralled to the false God of measurement and provability; we so worship at the shrine of science and the verifiable, that we have forgotten that what is imagined is not untrue.
When I look at a picture of my beloved, my love is real, the warmth in my heart, the stirring desire to be together, is true. “God has sent his Spirit into our hearts.” (Gal 4:7)
This is not some pipe dream, it is the daily right of every Christian. As real as sexual longing and fulfilment – which is the point of Milton’s sensuous description of our first parents.
Dear friends, my urging to you in your prayer is to take the way of imagination, to stir up in your heart a true longing for Jesus.

Picture him, imagine him with you, speaking to you, above all listening to you, tell him the deepest longings of your heart, the smallest struggles of your day.

Forget the false sophistication that rejects what is so essentially human. In reality even Science relies on leaps of imagination to make progress.

If we are to know God we have to use our imaginations to rediscover an authentic, spiritual sentiment that is serious, sincere and unembarrassed, so that we can cry ‘Abba! Father!’. (Gal 4:7)
Sunday by Sunday down the road from here at the Dominion Theatre, thousands of people come together to worship Jesus at Hillsong. Yes, they will sing songs that sound like pop songs, love songs, to Jesus.

Last week in Walsingham at the Youth Pilgrimage I worshipped with hundreds of young people singing love songs to Jesus and seeking the Holy Spirit to warm our hearts.

That is what this building was built as and for: as a love song to Jesus. In the beautiful music this evening, in the beauty of this building and the liturgy, aesthetic delight, or sophisticated appreciation is simply not enough. Our hearts must be warmed as Mary’s was when she met her cousin Elizabeth.

Mary shows us in her song, her Magnificat, that the one impregnated with Jesus will always be on a journey to him.

Where is Mary going when she is carried heaven-wards?

She is going to Jesus.

The Assumption teaches us that this is the route we can all follow, to return to Jesus.

Mary is honoured not for the biology of Jesus’ birth but because she is the first believer. The first to say ‘yes’ the first to surrender her will and plans to Jesus.

Where she follows Jesus, we too can follow. When our love for Jesus is as tangible as Mary’s was, then through us, our friends, neighbours, families will come to know Jesus.

Blindness, unbelief, darkness, thick cloud.

We can make the journey through these to heaven 

now, today, at this Mass, daily in our prayers,

if we would only believe, say ‘yes’ to Jesus and surrender to His plans for us.
This is what that old Puritan Milton knew as he described, in his account of creation, what we are doing together in this church tonight:
 … not in silence holy kept: the harp

Had work and rested not; the solemn pipe,

And dulcimer, all organs of sweet stop,

All sounds on fret by string or golden wire,

Tempered soft tunings, intermixed with voice

Choral or unison: of incense clouds,

Fuming from golden censers, hid the mount. (vii 591 – 600)
Unlike the statues on Crosby beach, Mary shows us that we can travel to Another Place in our hearts and minds and at the end of our lives. As I read Paradise Lost on Crosby seafront those Gormley statues are literally stuck in the sand, staring at an horizon they never reach, daily overwhelmed by the tides. As we walk with Mary down Oxford Street in our procession tonight we are showing that we are a pilgrim people, on a journey, with Mary following Jesus to Another Place, to Paradise Regained.
We are demonstrating that imagination will take us to Jesus who saves us from where we have fallen.

The Fall, our inability to help ourselves as the heart of the problem. Jesus as the solution. Imagination as our inherent ability to participate in the salvation he brings.

In our walking we show what Milton knew, what the young people at Hillsong, at Walsingham know, that:

The mind is its own place, and in itself

Can make a heav’n of hell, a hell of heav’n.

 

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