Invisible made visible

The Revd Dr William Lamb
Second Sunday before Lent

10.30am

Sung Eucharist

Proverbs 8.1,22-31, Psalm 104, John 1.1-14

I had a distant cousin who went to Art College. I remember her visiting my grandmother and showing us a portfolio of her work. She never became an artist. I think she ended up as a Tory Councillor instead (but thankfully not on Handforth Parish Council). I learned myself to play the piano and then the organ as a teenager – I even had a desire to learn the trumpet at one point, which never quite materialised – but while I developed the technique, if I am honest when I sit down at the piano nothing really happens. I can look at the notes in front of me and make a reasonable stab of playing them, but I know that I’ll never make a concert pianist. Once upon a time as a parish priest in South Yorkshire, there was a period when we couldn’t find an organist. I used to announce the hymn and then rush to the organ to play it. In one of the churches, there was a remarkable harmonium that used to wheeze, gasping for breath between the notes. I could play everything that was written on the page, but musicality? You must be kidding. It was just a performance.

The trouble is that some performances are just that, performances. They lack depth. They lack emotional power. Without heart, without life, without spontaneity, they lack creativity. In his book The Empty Space, the theatre director, Peter Brook, makes a distinction between ‘deadly theatre’ and ‘living’ or ‘holy theatre’.

By ‘deadly theatre’, Brook means ‘bad theatre’, a flat production that on the face of it appears to be done in the ‘proper’ way. It follows the original script, with the actors wearing the right kind of colourful costumes, in the tradition of the best classical theatres. But, he says, ‘secretly we find it excruciatingly boring’ or to make matters worse, there is the ‘deadly spectator, who for special reasons enjoys a lack of intensity and even a lack of entertainment’. 

Brook contrasts this with the holy theatre or the theatre of the ‘Invisible-made-visible’. He makes the point that there is more to the performance than the text of the play, the words and the stage directions. He describes a series of ‘Improvisations’ with a group of actors. He observes that in these exercises the actors discover a new level of concentration. They become more open, more alert and more awake. A whole range of emotions, reactions, gestures and feelings that simply were not visible in the script suddenly are made visible. Peter Brook says ‘Religious teaching ……asserts that this visible-invisible cannot be seen automatically – it can only be seen given certain conditions. The conditions can relate to certain states or to a certain understanding. In any event, to comprehend the visibility of the invisible is a life’s work. Holy art is an aid to this, and so we arrive at a definition of a holy theatre. A holy theatre not only presents the invisible but also offers conditions that make its perceptions possible.’

The readings, the psalm and the collect this Sunday invite reflection on the theme of creation. The Book of Proverbs sees Divine Wisdom active in creation from the very beginning, when there were no depths, before the mountains had been shaped. Wisdom is present in the moment of creation: ‘when he marked out the foundations of the earth, then I was beside him, like a master worker; and I was daily his delight, rejoicing before him always, rejoicing in his inhabited world and delighting in the human race.’ It’s a theme picked up in the Psalm, ‘O Lord, how manifold are your works! In wisdom you have made them all!’ There is the wonder of creation. The sea monsters like Leviathan, who have been created simply to play in the depths of the sea. And then we come to the gospel of John, a familiar passage, but today the accent on creation helps us to see the way in which the Evangelist deliberately echoes the Book of Genesis. Indeed, John’s gospel has been described as the genesis of the New Testament: ‘In the beginning…’

And yet, when we think of ‘In the beginning…’, we imagine that creation is an event which is past, something which happened long ago, something which is distant, deadened by the passing of time.

I want to suggest to you today that to think of the doctrine of creation in these terms is profoundly limiting. We get stuck on the question of origins, and I am not sure that this really does justice to what the biblical writers are talking about. It might be more fruitful, it might be more intelligible to a world in which scientists have enabled us to see the beauty of evolution, to think in more dynamic terms when we speak of creation. Perhaps ‘creativity’ is a better place for us to start.

For then we begin to see that creation is not simply a past event. It is something which is continuing to emerge and unfold. When we say in the creed that God is creator of heaven and earth, of all things visible and invisible, we are acknowledging that God has not simply created the idyllic landscape of the garden of Eden, which the Book of Genesis describes, but also flowers and friendships, silence and symphonies, seabreezes and suspension bridges, animated conversation and the rhythm of the changing seasons. But it also means acknowledging that God has also created those unyielding laws and forces, of gravity and economics, entropy and institutional inertia, genetic consequence, even the conditions which have allowed the destructive turbulence set in motion in a wet food market in Wuhan.

We rejoice at the wonder of creation, but at the same time, we recognise that the world we live in is not only dark, but dangerous. And yet, perhaps too easily we forget that the people who wrote the first chapters of the Book of Genesis also knew hunger and injustice. They knew the failure of harvests and the disparities of wealth and poverty. They knew incurable diseases, and the hostility of the wilderness. They knew the darkness that can so easily appear to overshadow and overwhelm the world.

But they had also learned that this was not the way in which the world would be. They had learned to look for the light, the light which shines in darkness. And, in those stories of paradise, they expressed their trust in the God who would bring them out of captivity in Egypt, who would bring order out of confusion, and who would lead them from turbulence to peace. This is the creativity which the writer of the Proverbs sees in Wisdom, the creativity which the Psalmist sees in the Spirit, the creativity which John sees in the Word made flesh. John peppers his gospel with signs, signs of wonder, which declare the renewal of creation, and which enable us to see that it is, not simply in the beginning, but in the end that God creates the world: ‘All things came to be through him’ and all things will continue to come to be through him.

Perhaps it is this same creativity which is manifest in our own lives, the same creativity which enables us to celebrate the ‘invisible-made-visible’. The beauty of this building, the dance of light in Radcliffe Square, the artistry of our musicians, the ingenuity of our scientists, the compassion of those caring for others amidst the demands of the current pandemic. We see here the wonder of human and divine creativity in its refusal to allow the powers of death and destruction to overwhelm us, the hope that ‘the light shines in the darkness’, and the darkness will never overcome it.

But there are times in our lives when we know that we can be destructive, and no one can preach on these texts without acknowledging the destructiveness of humanity or the reality of human sin in failing to cherish for our planet. Our hearts can be filled with righteous indignation against those who despoil out planet.

But I wonder if our scripture readings today commend another way in which we can protest against the powers and principalities of this world: do something creative. Whatever it may be, writing or thinking, making or baking, dancing or singing – playing like Leviathan. Get in touch with that life-giving Word deep within you, the Word which speaks with emotional intensity, the Wisdom which calls out ‘raising her voice’ in pursuit of justice, the Word which became flesh and dwelt among us. Listen to its voice. Be attentive to its presence. Marvel at the ‘invisible-made-visible’ for then in that silent moment poised with grace, we may find the words ourselves to bear witness to the truth that ‘the light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it’.