Sermon: Cantate Domino
Preached on 2nd May 2010
by The Reverend Canon Dr David Kennedy
Matins (Easter 5)
May the words of my lips and the meditations of our hearts be now and always acceptable in your sight, O Lord my strength and our redeemer. Amen.
Cantate Domino canticum novum: ‘O sing unto the Lord a new song' - the joyful bidding of Psalm 98, the appointed Psalm for this morning. Sing a ‘new' song, because something new has come and is coming. And so it is the theme of ‘newness' that I want us to reflect on today.
Psalm 98 is a celebration of God's saving power; of a God who is not remote and distant from his people, but active and engaged in revealing his justice, truth and salvation. A victory has been won, although we are not told what exactly that victory is. The Psalm could be a response to a new experience of God's saving activity, or it could be a liturgical text employed at some annual festival, just as we celebrate Easter year by year. It could look back to the Exodus, the primary narrative of God's saving power, of which all subsequent deliverances were simply fresh instalments of a enduring salvific principle. For ‘remembering' was never simply a mental recollection of a past event; in some real sense, the past was eternally present, and was received in the context of worship as present gift. Even the old becomes new when we remember it before God - and as such, it is to be received with a new song. And we know this from our Christian experience. The first Easter, our primary narrative, was 2,000 years ago, yet we celebrate it as if new year by year, not as a kind of make believe, pretending that we didn't know the outcome of the story, but precisely because in worship, we enter anew, in symbol and in story, into these saving mysteries because the dying and rising of Jesus is unrepeatably in time and yet incomprehensibly beyond time. O sing unto the Lord a new song.
But there is also something new going on in the Book of Daniel. A new doctrine, a new outlook on life, and more fundamentally, a new outlook on death. In fact, it is so new that only imaginative stories can communicate the point. It is customary to regard the book of Daniel as perhaps the final book of the Old Testament to be written, dated in the second century BC. The stories of Daniel 1-6, however, are set in Babylonian exile, some four hundred years earlier. So the traditions about a great hero are re-cast for contemporary use. It seems that the Book of Daniel, with its stories and its strange apocalyptic visions, was written at a time when Jews were being actively persecuted, in the Inter-Testamental period, many of them to the point of death. Martyrdom for the faith was part of the cost of remaining faithful to Israel's God and to the conventions of worship. Earthly rulers arose who demanded absolute fidelity to the traditional gods or even to themselves as quasi-gods. They demanded conformity of life-style upon pain of death. That is why in Daniel we have stories about human rulers, King Nebuchadnezzar, King Belshazzar, and King Darius, who are pictured as demanding total obedience and conformity. And it is also why we have two stories of deliverance from death - the deliverance of Shadrach, Mesach and Abed-nego from the fiery furnace in Chapter 4 and the deliverance of Daniel from the lion pit in Chapter 6.
So what is new? Well, in older traditions of the Old Testament, the concept of life after death is undeveloped. The conviction seems to be that death was not total annihilation, but that the dead descended to a kind of twilight existence in which something like the shadow of the human body and personality went down beneath the earth into the dark, dusty, dank realm of the dead called Sheol. Sheol was a diminution of life, a place where people are cut off from the land of the living, separated from the blessings of God's covenant. It was sometimes described as ‘the Pit' or ‘the deep' and therefore something to be dreaded. Psalm 88 describes it well:
For my soul is full of troubles,
and my life draws near to Sheol.
I am counted as those who go down to the Pit;
I am like those who have no help,
like those forsaken among the dead,
like the slain that lie in the grave,
like those you remember no more,
for they are cut off from your hand.
You have put me in the depths of the Pit,
in the regions dark and deep.
Your wrath lies heavy upon me,
and you overwhelm me with you waves.
Not, I think you will agree, a very cheerful prospect. But then in Daniel, a new doctrine finds expression, a doctrine that we can see foreshadowed in some earlier Old Testament passages but only now beginning to be formed. So, chapter 12 says this:
Many of those who sleep in the dust of the earth shall awake, some to everlasting life, and some to shame and everlasting contempt. Those who are wise shall shine like the brightness of the sky, and those who lead many to righteousness, like the stars for ever and ever.
A new doctrine, the resurrection of the dead - in this passage, not all the dead, but only the very righteous and the very wicked, the former for salvation, the latter for judgment. And stories of the three young men in the fiery furnace and Daniel in the lion pit were meant not so much to suggest that the righteous who were being persecuted would be delivered, because many of them were not, but rather that they would be raised. In death, they were not absent from God, for God has the power to deliver even from death itself. Indeed, both narratives state that God was present wity them, and the Matins canticle Benedicite is imagined as the song of the three young men in the fiery furnace:
O ye Fire and Heat, bless ye the Lord:
Praise him and magnify him for ever.
So remain faithful is the message, because there is life beyond death for God's faithful servants. O sing unto Lord a new song.
And all of this was paving the way for the yet greater revelation of human destiny in the death and resurrection of Jesus. And here I want to speak about the newness of Easter Sunday. You know there was a time when I suspect many of us used to think about the resurrection stories of the New Testament as a kind of proof list for the truth of the resurrection. We all read books that made the resurrection accounts like some kind of lawyer's brief in a court of law, and we marshalled the arguments point by point and tried to iron out inconsistencies. But I don't think that is what the narratives are about at all. They are chaotic, bewildering, breathless, utterly surprising, because the resurrection is so wonderfully and magnificently new, so big, all-embracing, incomprehensible, literally earth-shattering; they are not about human receptiveness, but God's utterly mysterious self-revelation - you literally do not know what is coming next. So Mark's Gospel ends with women so terrified, so utterly overwhelmed, so filled with the holy fear that is the sign of most true and most profound theophany, that for a while they are rendered speechless. O sing unto the Lord a new song.
So for me, the message of Easter 2010 is all about the God of new things, to whom we sing our Cantate Domino. This past week I have had the privilege of visiting Rome as part of the Liturgical Commission of the Church of England. We were able to meet liturgical scholars and those responsible for liturgical oversight and Christian unity in the Vatican, and we attended a Papal audience. Of course, in Rome one is powerfully reminded of the historical continuity of the Church, as is true of this great Cathedral. Two things stand out in my memory; one was visiting the Scavi, the excavations initiated in 1939 by Pope Pius XII and completed by Paul VI beneath St Peter's Basilica, revealing the ancient burial site on which the Basilica was originally built, and most wonderfully the remains of the Constantinian pillars and walls marking the traditional site of St Peter's burial place. We were able to see through to the fragments of bone that may be the relics of the Saint himself. Well, whatever the case, there was a tangible sense of proximity to our Christian origins as our Guide led us in prayer. The second was standing in the basilica of Cosmas and Damian on the edge of the Forum, two early Roman Christian martyrs commemorated in the Roman Canon, and depicted in breath-takingly beautiful sixth century mosaics. But there was a tension that ran throughout our time there between the past and the present, between uniformity and creativity, between law and liberty, freedom and control, tradition and new revelation, a tension with which both our Communions are struggling. And I was pleased to own the freedoms of the Anglican tradition, even if discerning the limits of those freedoms can cause us some problems. Because we must, while remaining rooted in our historical faith, be open to the new things into which God is leading his Church. And even if it seems that things are out of control - well, resurrection life is a bit like that if we look carefully at the New Testament. And the work of the Spirit is to lead into new awarenesses of God's will and new understandings of his ways. For as we were reminded, in many ways Christianity is still a relatively young faith. We are still working out the implications of Immanuel, God with us in Christ, and the outworking in history of the Paschal Mystery so wonderfully accomplished at Easter. To be sure, it is a faith which has not yet yielded up all its secrets. And so, we look to God and we sing our Cantate Domino, O sing unto the Lord a new song, for he has done and is doing, and will do, marvellous things.