St Agnes, Ullet Road, Liverpool, 18 March, 2018, Lent 5 (B)
Jeremiah 31:31-34, Psalms 51:3-4, 12-13, 14-15, Hebrews 5:7-9, John 12:20-33
[While it is my own work, in this sermon I owe an immense debt to the writing of hermit-sister Martha Reeves, who publishes under the name Maggie Ross. In particular the following books:
Silence: A User’s Guide (2 volumes, Process and Application, notably the final chapter of volume 2)
From the Gospel for today, we hear what the Greeks want:
“We want to see Jesus.”
From the first reading from Jeremiah, one word,
In the name of the Father, and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.
[Please sit down]
Imagine the unimaginable. Imagine God before creation. The three persons in their own being, alone. No universe. No time. No day or night. Imagine the love of the persons of the Trinity flowing between them but with no object for their love other than each other. That endless, selfless love of God that wants only the love of the Other, the relationship of love that is I-Thou.
Imagine that endless love poured out as it is described in Genesis 1 as creation, light, heavens and waters, land, vegetation, stars, the sun and the moon, sea creatures, birds, all the creatures of the land and reptiles, and cattle, and then, on the sixth day, that moment which God has been longing for since time begin, for limitless aeons, that instant where there is a creature who can not only return that limitless, selfless love, but who can speak, who can listen and hear and understand.
What would be the first word that God uttered to this creature, these human beings, Adam and Eve, male and female? How did God decide what to say?
Not the first word uttered. God, the eternal Word, had already spoken: ‘Let there be light.’
The first Word heard by human beings, the first Word understood, by the man and the woman.
Behold, in Hebrew, hinneh.
In the King James Bible this word behold occurs 1, 298 times. In the New Testament translating the greek: idou. It is of immense significance.
I don’t usually recommend particular translations of the Bible but I throughly recommend the English Standard Version which keeps this word. This is what the translators of the ESV say about why they kept ‘behold’:
“… the word “behold,” usually has been retained as the most common translation for the Hebrew word hinneh and the Greek word idou. Both of these words mean something like “Pay careful attention to what follows! This is important!” Other than the word “behold,” there is no single word in English that fits well in most contexts. Although “Look!” and “See!” and “Listen!” would be workable in some contexts, in many others these words lack sufficient weight and dignity. Given the principles of “essentially literal” translation, it is important not to leave hinneh and idou completely untranslated, and so to lose the intended emphasis in the original languages.”
The Jerusalem Bible, which we have heard today, translates the word at the beginning of our first reading as ‘see’. Throughout the Bible other modern translations either miss out behold or translate it ‘see’, or ‘look’ or even ‘come’.
But this word behold is not just a verb, not just an activity, it is a command word, an imperial, imperative verb telling us that something of profound significance is happening.
No wonder that God chose this word to be his first word to us, his human creatures, behold, pay attention, be awake, listen.
No wonder that in the last words spoke by Jesus from the cross in John’s gospel- which we hear in the liturgy of Holy Week, Jesus says to his beloved disciple: Behold. Behold thy mother.
That the the risen Jesus says to Thomas: Behold. Behold the wounds. Behold my hands; and reach hither thy hand, and thrust it into my side: and be not faithless, but believing.
To behold is to do more than to just see something. We see things all the time. Our eyes are constantly taking in sights, colours and textures and experiences. Our brains have to filter what the eyes perceive so we don’t go mad. To be mindful, to practice mindfulness is to notice more. To be more aware, more awake. To be conscious of the filters.
To behold is to be in relationship with, to be ‘I’ to the ‘Thou’ of the things that we behold, that we notice, that we pay attention to.
My working definition of ‘love’ is ‘to pay attention to’, to attend to. To be loved is to be paid attention to, to be attended to. To be the ‘thou’ to the other’s ‘I’.
To behold is to be changed. As the hermit nun Maggie Ross says.
“”Behold” is a word that alerts us to pause, however briefly, to be vigilant, because something new, something startling, is about to be revealed. Beholding is a process of continual death (the mind being temporarily brought to silence) and resurrection (the arrival of a new perspective). If we live in beholding we continually live in a new creation.”
To behold is to die a little so that we can rise a little. To be someone who is able to stop and see, to behold is to live the resurrection life and to be a changed person, a new creation, a new Adam.
We want to see Jesus. The Greeks say.
Behold, Jeremiah says, God is making a new covenant. The days are coming say the prophet.
And they are now here. We are in the days of the new covenant as I will say with the priests standing at this altar in just a few minutes:
This is my blood of the new and eternal covenant.
And Jeremiah goes on to say what that new covenant will be like:
“Deep within them I will plant my Torah”, my Way.
There will be no further need for neighbour to try to teach neighbour. No, they will all know me, the least no less than the greatest.
This is a revolution. Jeremiah writing two and a half thousand years ago is telling us the most democratic message of history. Every human being can know God, can experience God in our hearts. God is real and we can know and experience that reality. And still we don’t believe. Still we see but don’t behold. Our eyes receive the light but we don’t notice, we glance, but we don’t pay attention. If only we would behold. If only we would become the community of the beheld; and the beholding.
In Matthew’s Gospel, Behold is the message of Jesus’ last words to his followers, his friends:
“Behold, I am with you always, to the end of the age.”
Jesus is with us in our beholding.
Beheld, the one who is paid attention to. Beholding, the one who pays attention.
We are both beheld by Jesus and he beholds us as we are.
We both behold God and are beheld by God.
God is both beheld by us and we behold him.
Our ‘I’ beholds God’s ‘Thou’. God’s ‘I’ beholds our ‘Thou’.
Not subject and object, but lover and beloved.
If you say you have not seen God, you have not seen Jesus, stop trying so hard. Stop searching. Stop looking and start beholding. God is too bright, too overwhelming to look at directly. Like the sunshine, don’t stare at the sun but experience the light, the warmth of being beheld by God.
It is in the act, the attitude, the openness to beholding that we behold. As soon as we are beholding, Jesus is present.
To behold is to be utterly mindful, utterly present, utterly attentive, to the Other. We cease to pray and we are prayed.
Dearest friends, in just a moment Fr Derek will lift the consecrated host and the chalice containing the consecrated wine, and say, simply, Behold.
Behold the Lamb of God. Ecce Agnus Dei.
Next week we will hear in church Pilate’s words describing Jesus: Ecce homo. Behold the man. Idou ho anthropos.
And as the Cross is brought in we will sing: Ecce lignum. Behold the wood.
We have this tremendous gift of beholding Jesus. Of being beheld. My wish for you this Passiontide, this Holy Week, this Easter is no less than my wish for myself:
That we may live the words of today’s Gospel, that we may fall to the ground and die, that we may lose our lives, our self-obsessions, our holding on, and that we may cease merely seeing, and looking and start beholding.
– That’s why silence is so important, because it is a stopping, a dying. That we may enter into silence and stop the ceaseless chatter of our minds to behold the Lord.
That we may cease praying and be prayed.
“Behold, the days are coming, they are here, they are now when there is no need for brother to say to brother ‘Learn to know the Lord.”
Because we all, you and me, know him, we are all known. We behold and we are beheld.