The playwright Stephen Sondheim in a recent interview on The Newshour said that playwrights should listen to their audience and know who they are and what kind of world they live in. Preachers have to do that too.
You can see St. Peter Chrysologus of Ravenna, in a homily today in the Office of Readings, doing that. He’s describing a fearful world falling into ruins. It’s the Roman Empire coming apart as barbarian tribes invade it in the late 5th century.
The bishop of Ravenna uses biblical images, not current events, to describe what’s happening. It’s a deluge, like that experienced by Noah in his time. But notice how he sees God working lovingly through it all:
“Thus, when the earth had grown old in evil, God sent the flood both to punish and to release it. He called Noah to be the father of a new era, urged him with gentle words, and showed his trust in him. He instructed him about the present and reassured him about the future. God did not just issue orders but shared in the work of shutting into the ark all that was to be born into the world in the future. Thus by sharing in love he took away servile fear, and he protected with shared love whatever their shared labour had saved.”
So God works lovingly, and not at a distance, but side by side with Noah as the deluge goes on, taking away his fear.
It’s a world such as Abraham experienced, unsettling, calling for change. But a loving God is also at Abraham’s side as he journeys into a strange world:
“Thus God called Abraham out of the heathen world, lengthened his name from ‘Abram’, and made him our father in faith. He accompanied him on his journeys, protected him in foreign lands, enriched him with possessions, and honoured him with victories. He made promises to him, saved him from harm, accepted his hospitality, and astonished him by giving him the offspring he had despaired of. Abraham was favoured with so many good things and drawn by God’s sweet love so that he would learn to love, not fear: love, not fear was to inspire him to worship.”
Mosaics in the ancient churches of Ravenna often feature Abraham.
The bishop of Ravenna goes on to describe Jacob wrestling with a loving God and Moses called to lead a people into a new land. The God who works in ruins and challenges does not lead to fear and despair but love and promise.
As we discover God in the deluge, on the journey, in desperate situations, we say with Moses: “If I have found favor with you, show me your face,” the bishop says. “Love cannot accept not seeing the thing that it loves. That is why the saints counted whatever they deserved as being nothing if it did not mean that they could see the Lord.”
Experiencing the mystery of the cross, finding a loving God in our sufferings, leads us to seek the face of God.
Peter, the bishop of Ravenna , spoke golden words, that’s why he was called “Chrysologus.” The Empress Galla Placida, who had her share of suffering and exile, heard him speak and probably gave him that title. He’s one of the patrons of preachers. They say he was always afraid of boring people when he spoke. Would that we were all fearful of that!