"Good God, woman, I used my thumb!"

Wednesday, April 05, 2006

It's A Hard Knox Life...

Ronald Knox is so cool. On Saturday, I picked up a 1000-page collection of "Pastoral and Occasional Sermons" which cover everything from the Sermon on the Mount and meditations on the Cross of Christ to seasonal sermons, sermons on the feasts of various English martyrs, and panegyrics following the deaths of GK Chesterton and Hilaire Belloc.

An excerpt from his homily "What Bishops are For", given on September 8, 1955, the Feast of the Nativity of Our Lady, at the installation Mass of J.D. Scanlan as Bishop of Motherwell.

Aram was the father of Aminidab, Aminidab of Naasson, Naasson of Salmon. -Mt 1:4

A somewhat uninspiring text, you will complain, taken from a somewhat uninspiring gospel. Here are we, gathered in this cathedral town, so beautifully named after Our Lady's well; it is Our Lady's birthday, and we are giving her a birthday present by presenting a bishop to her vacant See. And as we listen to the deacon's chant, proclaiming the words of life, what rewards us? Forty-odd names from the Old Testament, mostly people we have never heard of. Could not the liturgy have offered a more resonant challenge to our devotion?

That is only a surface view. If we stand back from the picture, forget the details and try to capture the general effect,, we shall see what a gracious effect it is; this dull genealogy bears witness that our Lord was truly Man. All very well for St. John to start his Gospel, "At the beginning of time the Word already was"; but if that had been the whole truth there would have been no Incarnation, and no redemption. No, St. Matthew insists, when our Lord came to Earth, he came as a member of a human family;...

And no let us notice another consideration which arises out of this prosaic list of names. I mean, its continuity. This genealogical table runs right across the expanse of human history, like a majestic river that nourishes, and is nourished by, the plain. And just as such a river will pass through alternations of scenery, now between frowning hills and now across flat marshy levels, so this most important pedigree in all history has its ups and downs, its alternations. ...

And there is a third point to notice, before we finish our meditation on these olpening verses of Matthew. The unimportant people get their mention quite as much as the important ones. David and Solomon and Zorobabel, they re all just items in the catalogue, there is no thumb-nail biography to tell us who they were and what they did. They stand side by side with Aram and Aminidab and Naasson and Salmon, mere nobodies as far as history is concerned. As if almighty God were determined to show that it didn't matter for his purposes whether the people he chose to be our Lord's ancestors were men of fine natural abilities, men of commanding personality, or not. ... [H]e picks on just anybody, and makes him into the kind of instrument he wants them to be. ...

Have I forgotten that we are enthroning a bishop? ... No, all that I've been saying has a relevance and importance of its own, if we are to understand what bishops are like, and what bishops are for. ... May we just take those three points in reverse order...and see how they apply to the office of the episcopte? "By arms, by force, nothing canst thou; my spirit is all, says the Lord of hosts"; a bishop is and will be what God makes him; that and nothing else. He is, above all, a link in a chain; he is part of the universal episcopate, and part, therefore, of the Church's continuity. And he is our father in God. ...

A lovely Scriptural introduction to a wonderful sermon on what a bishop is. Having read only a few of Knox's commanding sermons (if he delivered them with even half the force of his writing, he would have been amazing to listen to), I already think he should be required study in all homiletics classes. What a joy to read; I only wish I could have heard him in person.

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