St Stephen’s Lewisham

29th January 2006

The Eclipse of Heaven

Last week we heard Father Nicholas preach an admirable sermon on the loss of faith within the Church of England during the past fifty or so years. He showed quite clearly how such a loss of faith always leads to a loss of hope, so that we have been left with a Church of England that appears to those outside it, quite literally, hope-less. It is only in such places as St Mary’s Lewisham, St Agnes Kennington and St Stephen’s that something recognizably the same as the Catholic Faith once delivered to the Saints for safekeeping, is still preached and practised in the Church of England..

Fr Nicholas said that he didn’t exactly know when the rot started to set in. My intention this morning is to fill in that missing piece of the jig-saw to complete the picture, so to speak. My claim to be able to do this rests upon the fact that what has gone wrong with the Church of England almost exactly coincides in time with my ministry amongst you at St Stephen’s. Since it’s almost as useful to know why something has gone wrong as it is to know that it has done so, this is a good opportunity to talk about it whilst the subject is uppermost in our minds, especially the minds of those of us who went to the Forward in Hope Rally at Westminster yesterday.

The reason for that loss of faith is what is called the Eclipse of Heaven, which has occurred in the minds of those whose faith has been lost. So let’s begin by reminding ourselves what an eclipse is.

When the moon passes directly between the sun and our earth, an eclipse takes place, just as it does when the earth passes between the sun and the moon. The result is that sun or moon, as the case may be, gradually starts to disappear from sight because, to put it simply, earth or moon has ‘got in the way’. It’s like what happens when the opposite side of a street disappears from our sight when a bus stops between us and it. In the case of a bus this happens quite suddenly; but an eclipse takes an hour or two to take full effect. It happens gradually, the light begins to fade, the birds get confused and think it’s night-time and go to bed and some automatic street-lamps switch themselves on. Then, little by little the sun begins to reappear on the opposite side of the moon, and an hour or so later you would never have guessed that anything had happened.

Now, not so very long ago, the concept of Heaven as the destination designed for mankind by his Creator, was a widely held idea in this country – indeed it still is in many parts of the world. True, people in those days had a pretty hazy idea of what heaven might be like, such ideas resulting from the misunderstanding of picture language picked up in Sunday School – harps and crowns and haloes and solemn music and the general notion that Heaven was somewhere in the sky, ‘up there’. But in the 1989 Gallup Poll conducted in America and Europe, for instance, most people said that they believed in heaven.

But the idea of Heaven, even then, had been suffering an eclipse, disappearing almost imperceptibly little by little since the 1950s. To begin with, most people gave the matter little thought. Then they began to realise that things around them had started going badly wrong. Shoplifting, burglary, abortion, murder, fraud, adultery, mugging, divorce, drug-taking, euthanasia, and a whole host of other evils rapidly turned into epidemics. People wondered what had hit them when behaviour which at one time few people would have tolerated, let alone practised themselves, started to become commonplace and even legalised.

What they failed to realise was that there is always a direct connection between the Eclipse of Heaven in people’s minds, and the way they choose to behave. Let me now explain why this should be so.

Remember the saying ‘What the eye doesn’t see, the heart doesn’t grieve about’? Now, it doesn’t particularly matter whether people don’t see things because they are walking around with their eyes shut, or because a bus has stopped between them and what they were looking at, or because there is no light to see by, as happens in an eclipse. In all three cases the result is the same – they are unsighted. But the fact that an eclipse takes place so slowly whereas the other things happen quickly, means that people may well not notice that what they once saw so clearly has become gradually lost to sight, leaving them in comparative ignorance of its existence.

Everyone who ‘walks by the light of heaven’ is someone who is continually aware that his thoughts and words and deeds are shown up by that light. Such a person will be much more careful about what he does, says, thinks and believes. He will recognize that God is his Creator and that ‘unto Him all hearts are open, all desires known, and from Him no secrets are hidden’ – and it will make a world of difference to the way he looks at life. Such a person may still choose to commit evil, but he will do so in the knowledge that, in the end, he, like us, will have answer to God for all the evil he has done.

By contrast, anyone who has lost sight of God, either because his eyes are closed, or because something has come between him and God, or because his light is failing, and he is walking in the dark, won’t have any reason for not doing whatever his instincts suggest. Those who live by their feelings lack any kind of final authority to restrain them from their wickedness. The only difference between the wilfully blind and those overtaken by an eclipse is that eclipses happen so gradually that people don’t realise when their sight has become fatally impaired.

Christians like ourselves, who walk by the light of Christ, and those who walk on still in darkness, differ because we know when an eclipse is happening, and that for a while it will be difficult to see where we are going. So we take extra care about the decisions we make; those who imagine they can see in the dark will sooner or later come a cropper.

But, we also know something else, which is hidden from those who are in the dark – eclipses don’t last for ever. Ages of Doubt are succeeded by Ages of Faith, however long that Age of Doubt may seem. So even in the darkest times we should use whatever light is given us by God to go forward in faith, patiently (for the going must necessarily be slow), down the straight and narrow pathway which he has set in front of us, looking to Jesus Christ who is the Light of the World to guide us on our way.

Let me remind you of some lines from a well-known hymn by John Henry Newman, who himself spent many long years in the dark as to what God was calling him to do:

Lead, kindly light, amid th’encircling gloom.
Lead thou me on;
The night is dark and I am far from home.
Lead thou me on.
Keep thou my feet; I do not ask to see
The distant scene; one step enough for me.

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