I wonder if anyone here keeps old photographs?
Of course, with the advent of technology, keeping photos is easier than it ever has been, but my Mum still likes to keep traditional old photograph albums. Ones where the photograph is actually printed on paper, rather than being on a screen. Each year she goes through all of her devices, and selects a goodly number that she gets printed. Then off they go, and get slotted into an album, with little descriptions of where they were taken, and on what occasion.
Looking back over them is great fun. I particularly enjoy the ones of my parents from before they had me, and my brother and sister, not just for my Father’s amusing selection of head gear, but I enjoy them too because I can see my parents, whom I know so well, from before they knew me. I can see something of the chronology of their lives, see the sort of things they used to do.
Now, my Mum is a very organised person, and I have another good friend who takes a lot of photographs, but they never put them in any sort of order at all. They too get them printed, but only with a vague hope of cataloguing them at some point in the future. This ‘system,’ (if I can call it that) too, is enjoyable to look through, but mostly for being constantly surprised by the next photograph. Naturally enough, in the chaos you never know what, where, or who, you are going to see next.
With my Mum’s system, the focus as you look through old photographs is very much on place, and with my friend’s ‘system’ the focus is almost entirely on the surprise of seeing certain people.
As I say, I enjoy looking back at old photographs a lot, but I do rather wish that there was some sort of middle ground between my Mum and my friend. Some way looking back at the past and linking more naturally the emotion of a place, and the different locations of significant emotional moments.
Looking back at the past from a distance can be very beneficial to our sense of where we are now, and the sort of person we might be turning into, or wanting to become. Looking back at the past and seeing how God has affected our lives is a natural way of discerning where God is in our present, and what sort of future God might be calling us to.
This tension between past, present, and future hope is captured perfectly by the Beatitudes that we have heard tonight. Each phrase starts with a description of a situation people might presently find themselves in. Each phrase goes some way to describing a present, concrete situation.
Each phrase then describes a movement from a present situation, into a situation of future hope, promised by God.
In this way that the Beatitudes take us from the present into an imaged future reality, they are something like a road to holiness.
Whilst the journey that the Beatitudes take us on may seem contrary to the way of the world, particularly at this present time, it is a journey into the very heart of God; into the very heart of what it means to be faithful to the one who calls each of us.
The difficulty with this tension between present and future is that our hope is of something not yet realised – in the sense that for some of us this future hope is hard to imagine. It is a hope that is like a picture taken out of focus – we can see the sort of shape, or the outline, of the future, but not any of the detail. For those of us who are very much in the difficulties that the present can throw up, this is very difficult.
There is a sense in which we know we are on a journey, but do not know where the ending might be, or what it might look like. We are on a road to holiness, but do not know where the final destination is.
On this road, we are constantly challenged, both by what the world’s expectation is of us, but also by what are own motivations are. For the way of holiness is the way of God, and so often we are tempted to act in our own interests, rather than in in the interests of following the call of God. It is sometimes easy to justify the way we act by saying to ourselves that this will lead to some sort of instant happiness – that some action will be a way of avoiding the tension in the beatitudes.
But this is not so. They road of, and to, holiness is a journey of a lifetime, even though it may have significant moments, or points in it. But it is also a way which is most natural to us – for to be holy is exactly the same as being the person that God wants us to be, to follow the call of the Father on our lives.
It is by following this call on our lives, by stepping onto the road with an unknown destination, that we can make sense of the tension between the now and the future. It is by allowing God’s will for us to form us that we can look back at our past in a way that informs our future. Both are held by God, and are steps along this road.
The Beatitudes are a path that guide us in the direction of holiness, that guide us in the direction of the Lord, who is our beginning and our end. As the hymn says, each of us are called to just take one more step along this path. Although the Beatitudes promise an extraordinary future, we mustn’t be fooled by the expectations of the world into thinking that we must do extraordinary things all the time.
In fact, the very opposite is true.
True holiness, a true following of the call the Father makes on our lives is found by consistently and constantly taking small steps along this road. Steps so small that we can only see the distance travelled by looking back once in a while as though looking through a photo album.
We know that true blessed-ness, true holiness, our true sense of being ourselves can only be found through God, the source of our being. Our challenge is to trust in the one who calls us that he will be with us as we step out into the unknown, to put one foot in front of the other on the path of the beatitudes, the way to holiness.
Let us pray.
MY LORD GOD, I have no idea where I am going. I do not see the road ahead of me. I cannot know for certain where it will end. Nor do I really know myself, and the fact that I think I am following your will does not mean that I am actually doing so. But I believe that the desire to please you does in fact please you. And I hope I have that desire in all that I am doing. I hope that I will never do anything apart from that desire. And I know that if I do this you will lead me by the right road, though I may know nothing about it. Therefore I will trust you always though I may seem to be lost and in the shadow of death. I will not fear, for you are ever with me, and you will never leave me to face my perils alone. Amen.