Maundy Thursday has seen the return of the traditional Chrism Mass to Cathedral Isle of Man. Bishop Peter was joined in the cathedral by the clergy, lay ministers and others from the Diocese.
During the service Bishop Peter blessed the holy oils for sacramental anointing across the diocese and preached a short homily based around Anton Chekhov's short book, 'The Bishop.'
Homily for The Mass of Chrism, 29 March 2018
For my extra-Biblical meditation this Holy Week, I have gone back to a story that I haven’t read for a very long time, not since I was an undergraduate student of Russian literature. It’s a short story by Anton Chekhov, written in 1901, called The Bishop. Chekhov is best known in the English-speaking world as a dramatist (The Seagull, Three Sisters, Uncle Vanya, The Cherry Orchard), but to his own country he is a writer of short stories. He was not a believer, and he was not prone to a romanticised view of life. As one who earned his living as a medical doctor in the rural Russia of the late nineteenth century, whose own health was poor, and who died of tuberculosis at just 44, he most certainly had a practical and pragmatic outlook on the world. But in The Bishop, perhaps with an inkling that his own span had not long to run, Chekhov shows the storyteller’s gift for interpreting humanity, and offers a unique meditation on the relationship between life and death, time and liturgy, and the human self and the world in which it is set.
The story begins on Palm Sunday, with the bishop officiating at the service of Vespers, or Evening Prayer. Palm Sunday in the Russian Church is known as ‘Willow Sunday’, and the association with weeping is emphasised further by the day’s additional theme of the raising of Lazarus, at whose tomb the Lord wept. The bishop is in fact in the first grip of an unsuspected illness, an ‘illness unto death’, and the first symptom is hallucination, flickering and fading lights, and then, in a premonition of death, the weeping of the congregation and the bishop himself. After Vespers, Gethsemane is suggested by the moonlit walls and the shadows of the monastery. The portrayal is deeper and wider and more multi-layered than this, and it is clear that two worlds are about to absorb each other, and that the liturgical world of Holy Week is shortly to become the world of reality. Back in the monastery, the bishop’s mother and his niece come to visit him: the past and the future are about to enfold the present. This is manifest in the oncoming delirium of disease, recollections of earlier life including exile and homesickness, sadness in a fading reality and euphoria at the prospect of an emerging one.
But the bishop’s work is not yet done. He performs the liturgy of foot-washing on the Eve of Easter, and collapses. Typhoid now has its hold, and death is very close. But it cannot happen yet! He still has to preside at the Easter Liturgy that will anticipate the Resurrection! As on Palm Sunday, lights flicker and fade, and the hallucination sets in as individual faces become a haze. The bishop dies, and his world concludes; but the world beyond continues. The bishop dies, but Christ is risen. The bishop dreams of sunlit fields, and Easter Day dawns. His mother brings the cows home from pasture, and her granddaughter, the bishop’s niece, is the pledge of a life that endures.
This is a bitter-sweet story, and it is certainly not intended as a sermon in prose. Chekhov’s gift as an artist would not allow that, even if he owned a personal faith. But in its very structure, it is liturgical, even using Old Church Slavonic turns of phrase in the narrative. The Chrism Mass of Maundy Thursday, even by the rich standards of Holy Week, gives us the same truth, a truth that it embodies in sacrament: life is liturgical, and the great liturgical event is death itself. Death is present in the eucharist, and it is present in the oils of anointing. Our oils serve several purposes, but anointing in the gospels primarily has to do with death: preparation for it, in St Mark Chapter 14; sanctification of the presumed dead body in St Mark Chapter 16. And if the bread and wine and oils are the elements of our ministry, then ministry is by its nature sacrificial. It is a ministry unto death. The same is true of authentic discipleship: it is a witness unto death. It will be raised to life beyond, to something infinitely greater, but that is only possible if the costly vocation is accepted for itself and for nothing more, indeed as the ultimate price that it is a privilege to pay. Another way to put it would be in the terms of St John 12: 24, which the lectionary rightly and wonderfully gave to us the Sunday before last: the grain of wheat must fall into the earth and die, and only in doing so will it bear fruit.
The priest and the prophet will anoint for many reasons, and our reading today from the story of Samuel exemplifies this. But to be a priest and a prophet … that is indeed a vocation! St Luke’s account of ‘who is the greatest?’ is gentler than that of his synoptic colleagues, in that it does not personalise it. Neither does it spell out the cost quite so drastically. But it makes plain that priesthood and pastoral care and prophetic ministry must be rooted in service, and that will indeed be spelled out in our liturgical commemorations and celebrations in the next three days. And your part in it, your own individual part, will be decisive, because those to whom you minister and preach, and those who see you as a Christian disciple, will see that your ministry is your gift to God. For that, on behalf of this diocese and on behalf of the greater Church, I thank you. I hold your ministry in thanksgiving and in prayer always, and especially over these sacred days.
We die to the world, and we live to Christ. We die with Him that we might rise with Him. That is the story of Chekhov’s bishop. Even if it was not what the bishop might have willed, he understood it and accepted it. He ‘realised’ it, in the literal sense of ‘making it real’. A human being cannot do more. At a time in history when restless people are so concerned about what their own individual legacy might be, this is a lesson in truthfulness. Chekhov himself saw that he lived at a pivotal point of history: the turn of the century, the first Russian revolution just a few years away. Unnecessarily unconvinced of his own place in literary history, he noted: ‘Everything that I have written will be forgotten in a few years. But the paths I have traced will remain intact and secure, and there lies my only merit.’ Perhaps his bishop might have said that too. Perhaps any of us might be pleased to say it. For to trace the path of sacrificial ministry and discipleship is costly, as costly as the ointment with which the unnamed woman anointed the Lord at the house of Simon the Leper in Bethany, and if we trace it faithfully then it will remain intact and secure, and it will endure unto death and unto life eternal.
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