Corpus Christi homily 2018

247f11754cd5847ddbc149fb2acdc2beAt this stage of my life, I find it disturbing to have to preach on Corpus Christi because I can no longer sign up to an orthodox interpretation of the doctrine.

The trouble is that my view of Christianity is changing. As I get older—68 next Wednesday—my view of the world develops. The death of my elder son not yet three years ago causes me to look at many of its teachings in a sceptical, even cynical, light. I am only just beginning to be able to articulate the results of this continuing process.

Added to this, I was not brought up with any kind of sacramental understanding—unless singing hymns in rural Methodist chapels is a sacrament (which it is). The mystery came in my teenage years through what one might call beauty in its widest sense, specifically music and the arts, and since then I have come to the view that there is an infinite number of sacraments, not just two or seven.

To prepare a sermon for Corpus Christi therefore has caused real emotional turmoil, since I vowed when I was ordained that I would never say anything from the pulpit that wasn’t true for me. The Hebrews knew a thing or two when they sited the emotions in the bowels. Mine have been in an uproar.

So what can I say? First, some questions.

What did Jesus think he was doing at the last supper? What was in his mind when he said “this is my body” and “this is my blood”? Did he mean it literally, transubstantiation? Did he mean it metaphorically? Jesus was well capable of speaking metaphorically—we heard in the gospel last Sunday how Jesus was narky with Nicodemus for taking “you must be born again” literally.

You may have been brought up to believe what preachers told you. I certainly was. But pretty soon I came to realise that some of them were stupider than me, so I began to think for myself. I encourage you to do likewise. Unlock your imaginations—imagination is resurrection—and think.

Jesus and his disciples are together for the Passover meal. Jesus says “friends, you know how the powers that be have been after me for a good while now. I’m for the high jump. This is probably the last time we’ll be together, so can I ask that when you share food and drink in the days to come, you remember me and what we’ve done together, so that you can continue the work we started.”

That’s the link that strikes me: the meal is linked to the tasks ahead. In sharing the food and drink Jesus is passing them something. He is passing them responsibility for the message he’s taught them and the lifestyle he’s shown them. He’s asking them, and giving them authority, to pass it on to others. He is letting his disciples see that what he did, they can do. He is telling them by word and symbol that they can become what he has been. And so it is for us.

For me, Holy Communion is not about personal spiritual refreshment—I come wearing my spiritual cosmetics, I receive, I feel better, I go home more holy (whatever that means). That would be Holy Communion as a kind-of sucky-rug, a soother. It’s selfish, it’s all about me, me, me. It’s sanctimonious.

For me, Holy Communion is far from soothing. It’s the real I, the naked I, the I full of anger and frustration and perplexity. But I set aside this I. I receive, and therefore I have a duty to pass on what has been given to me. This is a great responsibility.

In the Eucharistic prayer we hear the Jesus story in a nutshell. At the moment of consecration the entire Divine history is forced, like sand through the narrow hole of an egg timer, into the world by means of you and me who receive. We become Jesus in action: his body, his hands, his feet, his eyes, his ears, his voice.

This is the theology of the incarnation. The Wesley hymn we shall sing in a few minutes is a hymn of the incarnation that talks of exactly this in the most marvellous ways:

  • Our God contracted to a span, incomprehensibly made Man;
  • He deigns in flesh to appear, widest extremes to join; to bring our vileness near, and make us all divine (vile to Charles Wesley meant ‘of little worth’, not what it means to us);
  • And we the life of God shall know;
  • His love shall then be fully showed, and man shall all be lost in God.

As we become lost in God, as we approach the Divine, we recognise our responsibility to pass on to others the power of the bread and wine we have received.

In more words of Charles Wesley: “made like him, like him we rise”.

A couple of weeks ago I was chatting with Justin Welby. I said how much I appreciated knowing a certain gentlemen, and he (JW) said how much he did too. He added “he’s a truly godly man”. I said “knickers to that, more importantly he’s human with a good sense of humour”. Justin looked me straight in the eyes and said “it’s the same thing”. And so it is. To be fully human is to be godly. To be fully human is to approach the Divine. That is what Jesus is saying by sharing bread and wine with the twelve—he’s letting them know that they can and should do what he himself has done.

At the Easter vigil mass at Horninglow I said that if you celebrate Easter and then return to a life in which you moan, you belittle others, you spread malicious gossip, you are two-faced, and you stifle initiative, then you are not living the Easter story of new life. You are a hypocrite. My message today is pretty much the same. If you receive Holy Communion and go from church to be negative and malicious, you are a hypocrite.

If you are serious about Holy Communion, you will leave every Mass in order to do all in your power to increase the amount of delight in the world. You will follow in the footsteps of someone who comforted the disturbed and disturbed the comfortable. That is no easy task.

Corpus Christi is a festival of the incarnation, and today it coincides with another such festival—the meeting of Mary and Elizabeth at which fetal John dances in Elizabeth’s uterus at the presence of fetal Jesus in Mary’s.

Corpus Christi is about enabling the whole world to dance to the music of love.

Project Nokabolokoff

asdsa

With a snip snip here and a snip snip there

I heard a sermon yesterday telling us, as is right and proper, how our churches must be places of universal welcome for all, irrespective of appearance, wealth, intelligence, sexuality, and so on.

The speaker contrasted such a welcome with Deuteronomy 23:1 in which men who have had their bollocks and todger chopped off (respectively ‘stones’ and ‘privy member’ in the King James Bible) are forbidden from entering the assembly of the Lord. Look it up if you don’t believe me. I’m not for now exploring the issue of whether or not I, who had a vasectomy aeons ago, am therefore fit to celebrate the holy mysteries.

For someone such as me with a long-standing interest in the evolution of reproduction, all things genital, and possessed of a degree of intellectual mischief, this was stimulating. On the way home I hatched a plan for the salvation of at least one of my churches. Here it is.

In the summer months, when the church hall is not being used for the homeless shelter, it could become the centre for something that has a great future in the Church of England—one of the few things that have—namely, an emasculation clinic.

There would be space for operating table(s), appropriate restraints, and anaesthetic equipment, though most procedures could be done under local—even with appropriate soundproofing no anaesthetic at all. There is more than adequate storage for surgical instruments and other paraphernalia. The kitchen area, which we hope to overhaul in the foreseeable future, could with suitable modification serve as a scrub-up area.

The theological and biological bases of this proposal are, in brief:

  • the reversal of the somewhat restrictive anatomical purity requirements of the Pentateuch, e.g. Deuteronomy 23:1.
  • an acknowledgment of the salvific power of the shedding of blood, as may be inferred from one of the verses of Fr Faber’s fine hymn There’s a wideness in God’s mercy, viz ‘There is plentiful redemption in the blood that has been shed; There is joy for all the members in the sorrows of the head.’ The references to penile anatomy are quite explicit, as you can see.
  • a freeing, for those that request it, of the tyranny of testosterone that corrupts our human nature with horrid masculinity (I’m quite content with this tyranny myself, but I gather others are not).
  • an acknowledgement of the fact that there is no such thing as 100% male or 100% female and that we mammals are all on a spectrum of sexuality—pansexual I suppose. This is particularly so in males for reasons of biology that I’ll expound another time.

This modest proposal would be entirely congruent with the well-established tradition of the Church of England that results in the gradual, decades-long emasculation of any male who crosses the threshold of any of its churches. It would hasten the earnestly to be desired feminization of the church, and provide a public service for a society where boys and men are increasingly not allowed to be boys and men.

A winner all round, I think.

An interesting linguistic snippet. ‘Penis’ is a Latin word meaning little tail. The correct English word for privy member is cock, defined in OED as a short tube for the passage of liquid – as in stopcock, ballcock etc (again, look it up if you don’t believe me). I suppose matrons of ancient Rome were as squeamish as are matrons today: “now, now, Titus, stop playing with your little tail, supper’s nearly ready,”

Burton Night Shelter

prodigal_son33

The welcome

Homily for the Service of Celebration of the 2017-2018 Burton night shelter at St Pauls

Isaiah 58 (extracts). Luke 6: 20-28

Two experiences have significantly influenced my views on the relationship between church and society. The first, more than a decade ago, was being a mentor for young offenders—young lads on last warning before being sent to what used to be called borstal. The second is the night shelter here at St Paul’s.

These experiences change me. They alter my views and values. They show me how if I condemn others I condemn myself. They lead me to be angry at the way in which society ignores or demonizes those who fall on hard times.

I’ve seen similar discrimination all my life. I witnessed it in a farming village in the 1950s. I experienced it at Cambridge coming from a northern state school. I see it in the way elite sportsmen are treated. Imagine two groups of people causing mayhem in the town centre at midnight. One is a rugby club on the piss. The other’s a group of hoodies. Do you think the two groups will be treated similarly by the justice system? In the news last week we heard from Belfast how impossible it is, despite evidence, to convict rugby players with a promising playing career in front of them, and doubtless expensive lawyers behind them.

My experiences make me question how society is organized, and the way we are forced into a competitive struggle. Our security is not to be found in dividing us from one another, but in community—to know that when difficult times come, we have a community willing to support us. It’s in looking out for one another that we find security—not in retreating behind electric gates into hermetically sealed groups of the like-minded. It’s in the mess of life, sleeves rolled up.

Young offenders and shelter guests are prophets. They reveal our values. They make us uncomfortable. They demolish our cosy assumptions. They show us what really matters in defiance of all that society admires and rewards.

Prophets aren’t nice. They aren’t popular. They don’t fit in. They aren’t sensitive to our feelings. They aren’t agreeable. They aren’t reasonable. They aren’t diplomatic—which is just a form of lying. They don’t negotiate. They don’t care if we’re offended—indeed we should be. In both readings this evening we hear prophets telling it like it is.

We humans have an enormous capacity for self-deception. We ignore the consequences of our decisions. Prophets help us to recognize that we simply must face them—we must confront the naked truth—in order to rid ourselves of self-obsession. We need to be saved from ourselves, and prophets help to demolish our selves—our pride, our arrogance, our greed, our egomania.

In this, the fifth wealthiest nation on earth, it’s time for us to be impatient.

Will the institutional churches help? They are so obsessed with obscure points of theology that I doubt it. I used to be interested in the theological why and wherefore and how, but my experiences as a clerk in holy orders serving my people, together with events in my own life over the last decade, make me impatient with all this.

What I’m concerned about now is not why or wherefore or how, but so-what? If my faith is a matter of acknowledging Jesus as my lovely friend and personal saviour while I continue being aggressive, greedy, selfish, and vain, then it is pointless, and I am all that Jesus condemns.

The institutional church does have an answer, but it’s not in services or masses or devotions or fine words. It’s in action—social and political.

There’s a story about churches working with the homeless in Manhattan. Methodists pick them out of the gutter, Baptists wash them, Pentecostals feed them, Presbyterians educate them, Anglicans introduce them to society, and then Methodists pick them out of the gutter again. Let’s hope that the experience in St Paul’s has more fruitful results.

I was hungry and you fed me, I was thirsty and you gave me a drink, I was homeless and you gave me a room, I was shivering and you gave me clothes, I was sick and you stopped to visit, I was in prison and you came to me. Whenever you did one of these things to someone overlooked or ignored, that was me—you did it to me.”

From Paul Laffey, CEO Burton YMCA

YMCA Burton and Burton Churches are grateful to everyone for their support for the Winter Night Shelter. We are particularly grateful to the congregation of St Paul’s Church and the PCC of the Parish of St Aidan and St Paul for allowing the use of the Church Hall as a shelter. Our appreciation is also extended to Consolidated Charity of Burton Upon Trent, Burton Transformation Trust, Burton Churches and the many individuals who have provided finances to make this project happen. We also appreciate Kerry Foods, Bretby Rotary Club and many local people for providing food for the customers that slept at the Shelter.

We couldn’t of course make any of this happen without the amazing 130 volunteers and the 8 staff from the YMCA. Our thanks to them all. We have seen much joy with our Outreach team bringing people in off the streets, and managing to accommodate and give them a new hope. It was particularly encouraging to know that when the cold weather at its worst plummeted to -7 degrees, people were able to come off the streets into the warmth, have a hot meal, and a bed for the night—at no charge.

The Night Shelter has required a significant financial and legal commitment from the YMCA and we are very grateful to Trustees and Senior Staff for making this happen. We give thanks to God for lives transformed.

Qs and As (answers provided by YMCA)

  • How many guests have come? In December there were 40 different individuals using the night shelter, and in January 46.
  • Why do they come? Relationship breakdown and bereavements are common, as is loss of benefits, unemployment, debt issues, people trafficking.
  • How many are ladies? About 15%. Some have fled domestic abuse and are brought by the police with just the night clothes they are wearing.
  • How many volunteers? Around 130. The minimum number needed every night is 6, and we are open 7 nights a week for 17 weeks.
  • Have you received all the funding you need to keep the shelter open till the end of March? We have received no funding at all for any staffing costs. We have taken this step in faith that our needs—around 30k—will be met.

Easter freedom

CarlBoss

Eyes that see shall never grow old

Easter homily 2018

The New Testament word for sepulchre, tomb (as in empty) is mnema. It’s the word that gives us memorial, memory, and mnemonics beloved of medical students. The stories in the gospels about Jesus expelling demons from men living in the tombs are for me about freeing them from living in their memories, from living in the past.

People who live in the past cling to resentments, unable to let go, unable to forgive, unable to move on. They are entombed. Think of Miss Havisham in Great Expectations. Think of Gollum in Lord of the Rings. Think of parents who live through the achievements of their offspring. Think of sad men propping up golf club bars boring all and sundry with tales of their sporting achievements before their hairy bellies started hanging over their belts.

Now think of the Easter story. Never mind if it’s literally true or not. Never mind if it’s a fable based on more ancient folk tales. It’s utterly psychologically authentic. The stone is rolled away. The contents of the tomb have escaped, flown away.

Can you not see that this is an invitation for us to let go of the past? If we are to live life abundant then we have to learn to to move on. The empty tomb means the past is cleansed. Forgiven.

People make the mistake of thinking that forgiveness will just happen. It won’t. It’s hard work. We have to practise it like we have to practise the piano. We have to keep telling ourselves. We have to brainwash ourselves. But the penalty for not forgiving is that we become like Miss Havisham or like Gollum, wizened, miserable, resentful, odious, mendacious. We think we are sticking two fingers up at the world, but in truth the world doesn’t care a jot. The only person I harm by living in the past is me.

Think of people who refused to support Jesus, who deserted him, who told lies about him to save their skins or to curry favour with authority, who joined the chanting mob. How many of the Palm Sunday supporters joined that baying crowd? Now think how shocked they must have been to hear that the man they’d betrayed wasn’t dead and gone, but might meet them in the street. It’s like gossiping with a friend about a mutual acquaintance who, just as you’ve made the most utterly bitchy remark, appears round the corner and cheerfully greets you. You want the ground to open up and swallow you.

How does Jesus react when he meets his so-called friends again? Does he berate them for their calumny? Does he take them to court? Does he arrange for some big fellers from the local pub to kneecap them? Does he plan some even more horrid act of vengeance?

No, none of this. All he says is “Peace to you”. It’s like he says, “never mind the past, friends, let’s get on—we’ve work to do.” Forgiveness.

Now, think of those times you’ve gossiped, betrayed, told half-truths to get you out of a tight corner, blindly followed the crowd—every time hammering another nail into the wrists and ankles. The story is not just about 2000 years ago. It’s about human nature, you and me, now. It’s about death of pride and self in order that selflessness can ascend.

We need to, we must, forgive and let go, otherwise we become entombed in living death. This is not about an afterlife—it’s about life abundant before death.

The most difficult person you’ll ever have to forgive is yourself. Some of us like wallowing in it like Miss Havisham. We turn masochism (all very well in its place, I’m told …) into an art form. But life is to be lived. So, girls and boys, practise forgiving yourself. Moment by moment. It doesn’t mean you escape the consequences of your actions, but it helps you to move on and make the best of them for the benefit of others. It helps you to escape the tomb and see the big wide world: eyes that see shall never grow old. It helps you to live life to the full by laying down all the vain things that charm you most.

Forgive yourself. Live for the future. Happy Easter.

Plagiarized from the Easter sermon preached by Bishop Lancelot Andrewes before King James at Whitehall on Sunday 16 April 1609. 

http://anglicanhistory.org/lact/andrewes/v2/easter1609.html

Easter ramble

aasdsa.jpgI reckon that the theory of atonement that appeals to someone is dependent upon upbringing and personality. If you’ve been brought up feeling the need of rules and regulations and a strong father, you might have one view on how the atonement could work. If you’ve been brought up rigidly and with frequent beatings, then you’d have quite a different view.

Church history matters too: substitutionary atonement is a recent western thing—it doesn’t much feature in the Orthodox churches. And I can’t help but feel that those Orthodox traditions and beliefs are more likely to be in tune with the early church, partly because of locality and culture, and partly because they’ve had few if any difficulties of translating from ancient Greek.

How do I see things on 31 March 2018 (I’m not dating this for Easter Day lest my two readers think it’s an April fool).

I see JC as the example for us all – the type. We are all resurrected – that is, free to ascend – when as a result of a Gethsemane moment we let go of selfishness and ego. This is not just a once-in-a-lifetime event. We have Gethsemane moments many times a day as we are confronted by the paradoxes of our humanity and the difficulties of life on the planet. It is not easy being human.

For me, Easter resurrection has nothing to do with life after death. That was something introduced by the church as a means of controlling hoi polloi–behave now and you’ll get a club-class seat in the hereafter. Absolute pish. Death in the Passion story is about meanness of living, not about absence of heartbeat.

I’m sure that the resurrection is the thing that most makes modern people laugh at us—how can we believe such sky-pixie tripe? And it’s very difficult to get across to schoolchildren, especially so soon after Christmas. The symbolic message of resurrection–ascension is much more important than any literal interpretation, and it is incontrovertible.

I suppose there’ll be letters to the bishop from “disgusted of Burton”. Good luck with that.

Happy Easter.

Read my Easter message here.

Tuesday in Holy Week: love your enemies

prodigal_son33

The welcome

Isaiah 49:1-6. John 13:21-33, 36-38

I suspect all church people have heard ‘I’m not coming to church: you’re all a bunch of hypocrites.’ The usual response is ‘well, there’s always room for one more, so you’d be in good company.’

We hear a lot about Judas in Holy Week, and Judas is, amongst other things, accused of being a hypocrite. Judas wasn’t a particularly bad man, just weak. His weakness is part of the story, just as are Peter’s denials. Maybe if Judas hadn’t killed himself he’d be a saint like Peter—maybe he should be, since he was the agent of Jesus’ liberation from earthly form. Yesterday we heard him say that money used to buy oil should be given to the poor, whereas in fact he wanted to filch it for himself. And tomorrow there’s an element of ‘it wasn’t me, guv, honest’ in the Judas story.

It all puts me in mind of Homer Simpson’s advice to Bart. Homer says: I want to share something with you: the three little sentences that will get you through life. Number 1: Cover for me. Number 2: Oh, good idea, Boss! Number 3: It was like that when I got here.

As it happens I think Homer’s a great guy. For all his faults, he’s a kind of innocent, and he certainly loves his family. But enough of these insights into my depraved televiewing habits. I want to talk tonight about demons—the kind of demons that assailed Judas, and because there’s Judas in us all, in our human nature. Once again, biology plays its part.

We left Jesus on Sunday standing at the gates of the city, facing death in the city of wrong. Jesus faces his demons. As we go with him, we must face our demons, our fears. These demons are the enemies within, enemies of spiritual growth, enemies of resurrection, enemies of imagination. Jesus tells us to love our enemies, but we can’t love these demons until we see them, and we can’t see them until we look them full in the face.

What are our demons? Let’s look at the demons in the Passion narratives. Three are obvious:

  • Denials. Peter’s denials saved his skin—but only for that moment. Later, he wept, overcome with remorse. It’s hard to hear today’s news without being confronted by denials. How can a head of state deny his part in a situation that sees three quarters of his people starve while he lives in luxury? How can a politician say what is self-evidently not the case? Is anyone guilt-free? Who has not tried to get something for nothing, or used work time for personal business?
  • Mob justice. There are so many stories that illustrate this. Children attacking other children. One from 2007 sticks in my mind. In March of that year, The Times reported, a young man was surrounded by a gang with wooden sticks. Witnesses say that teenage girls egged on the attack with shouts of “Kill him, kill him.”
  • Evasion of responsibility. Judas said ‘it wasn’t me’. Pilate wriggled out of responsibility and washed his hands. Pilate needed to please his superiors. It’s easy to pick on politicians because they set themselves up for it. Look at bankers evading responsibility. Now, we all make mistakes. We all are greedy. We all want the advantages of investment dividends if we are lucky enough to have money invested, and our pensions depend on them. In this regard, we are all complicit in the problems that afflict us, and our children and grandchildren will have to bear the burden of the mistakes our generation has made. I accept all that, and I can’t and don’t condemn anyone for faults that also afflict me. However, the arrogance and lack of remorse that we see in public life is staggering. According to the Gospels, Jesus was censorious about very little, but always, always, always about hypocrisy and complacency.

So three headings, but in truth they can be compressed into one: the sin of Adam—trying to be what we are not. The fig leaf has nothing to do with covering up our genitals, but is about covering up our naked selves by putting on a mask, a persona to hide our true faces. We deny the truth because of our need to save face, but it’s not the face that suffers. It is the inner self that I harm when I deny what is evident to others. This inner self that is, in my theology, the Christ within, the Divine within. When we harm others, we wound the Christ within as surely as any nail on the cross.

I want to give you some biological basis for the Christ within. I begin with a prayer from the Liturgy of S Basil, addressed to Our Lady.

Because of you, O full of grace, all creation rejoices, the ranks of angels and the human race; hallowed temple and spiritual paradise, pride of virgins; From you God was incarnate and he, who is our God before the ages, became a little child. For he made your womb a throne and caused it to become wider than the heavens.

Mary is the means by which logos, word, wisdom becomes human. She is God-bearer, QeotokoV. Now, just listen to this reproductive biology.

  • When an embryo is growing in the uterus, some of its cells invade maternal tissue. Some of these destroy maternal tissue and allow the embryo to exchange things with the mother.
  • Some of these embryonic cells also find their way into mother’s blood vessels and are carried throughout the mother’s body.
  • The invading embryonic cells are very unusual, in that they lose their individual boundaries and become a community without boundaries – individuals give way to a cooperative.
  • Embryonic cells remain within the mother up to and after she gives birth, so the woman is changed by the embryo growing in her uterus. After giving birth, the woman is no longer the same: embryonic cells have been incorporated into her. The mother is changed by this, and it happens within a week of fertilization – before she knows she’s pregnant.

All this is biology. Now put this in theological terms. During pregnancy,

  • Jesus’ cells invade Mary.
  • Mary does not reject Jesus.
  • Jesus and Mary exchange material.
  • Some of Jesus’ cells are left behind in Mary after Jesus has been born, and by this means Mary has been changed, transformed by the 9-month Christ-pregnancy.

But Mary is the representative of humanity, she’s one of us. So by spiritual extension, the Christ-event that began with Mary’s pregnancy and transforms her, also transforms you and me.

Jesus’ divine cells invade Mary. Jesus invades us – the divine spark within, like a divine radioactive core, ready to saturate all our cells, all our being, if only we will let it. As embryonic cells devour maternal tissue to enable exchange, so the divine core within can, if we allow it, devour our less salubrious parts, to enable exchange with God. Bishop Lancelot Andrewes in 1614 wrote: ‘He was not idle all the time He was an embryo — all the nine months He was in the womb; but then and there He even eat out the core of corruption that cleft to our nature and us …. [We] were by this means made beloved in Him … this the good by Christ an embryo.’ This is astonishing for 1614, without knowledge of reproductive biology.

Exchange. The embryonic Christ and Mary exchange things through Jesus’ placenta. So we exchange with God: God sustains us, and we offer the sacrificial gifts of worship and compassion. I call this the doctrine of mystical intermingling, and I have patented it!

Then there is community. Embryonic cells that invade the mother lose self-identity and become a community. This is a wonderful example of the mystical body of Christ where we lose our self-hood in community. In cooperation we can be so much more effective than if we act singly. The light in a glow-worm comes from millions of luminescent bacteria – one alone is invisible, but when they act together it is a different story.

Given that we have this divine core within, why do we do rotten things like Peter, like Judas, like Pilate? Why, as Paul said, do we do what we know we shouldn’t, and don’t do what we know we should? Where do the demons come from? I look at newborn babies and see no evidence of them. But as Satan—however we choose to interpret that—entered into Judas, so Satan enters into us sometime during our exposure to life on this planet. There are spiritual battles going on in us all the time with demons that we need to guard against. There is a whole subject opening up as I speak: our biological urge to reproduce, our biological need of sustenance, the need to survive at the expense of competitors—all this set against community and common good. This is for another day.

Using my image of God implanted within, how do we allow this divine core to transform us?

  • Mary listened. We need to listen to God. We do this by listening to God within, the still small voice. This is the implanted word. Conscience.
  • Mary did not resist. Honest self-examination is a key to this. It’s not so much that we have to do something actively, it’s that we have to stop doing something, and the thing we need to stop doing is resisting.
  • Thus we let the divine core within expand to fill our skins and suffuse all our tissues and thoughts. The pilot light flares within. This is salvation, redemption, deification, theosis.

God became man so that man might become God, said St Irenaeus.

Self-examination melts away the demons, allowing the divine spark within to fill our skins. It is painful when the light shines in our souls and we see ourselves starkly illuminated. But as Isaac the Syrian said, it is a spiritual gift from God for a man to perceive his sins. Only then can we repent. Isaac talks of three stages in the way of union: penitence, purification and perfection – that is to say, conversion of the will, liberation from the passions (detachment), and the acquisition of that perfect love which is the fullness of grace.

Mary is suffused with divine cells, she is divinized. She is a co-redemptrix. But remember, Mary is one of us, so we all share in this redemptive power if we choose to: we can all light the way for others. As the Divine within suffuses all our tissues, so we have the new creation happening in and around our cells. We are transformed from one degree of glory to another.

Charles Wesley was thoroughly grounded in this theology. His most astonishing hymn is Let earth and heaven combine. Here are some lines from it:

He deigns in flesh to appear, Widest extremes to join; To bring our vileness near, And make us all divine: And we the life of God shall know, For God is manifest below. … His love shall then be fully showed, And man shall all be lost in God.

Mary enables this mystical intermingling of human and divine. It is based on sound theology and, amazingly, on sound biology. In the words of Mother Julian of Norwich, the Saviour ‘began his work very humbly and very gently in the Virgin’s womb.’

My point is that the battle for salvation is not about doing stuff and ticking boxes, but rather about relaxing so that the Divine core can expand to fill our skins, pushing out the demons. Imagine these demons as imps when you recognise one, and send it on its way. There’s nothing like the light of day to make these creatures dissolve. But there is a never-ending supply of them, and they keep us in exile from that inner sanctuary. Here is a poem that talks of this inner kingdom, the holy of holies within that I suggest needs to fill us from the inside. It was written by a 20-year old C H Sorley who died weeks later in 1915 at the Battle of Loos.

From morn to midnight, all day through,

I laugh and play as others do,

I sin and chatter, just the same

As others with a different name.

 

And all year long upon the stage,

I dance and tumble and do rage

So vehemently, I scarcely see

The inner and eternal me.

 

I have a temple I do not

Visit, a heart I have forgot,

A self that I have never met,

A secret shrine—and yet, and yet

 

This sanctuary of my soul

Unwitting I keep white and whole,

Unlatched and lit, if Thou should’st care

To enter or to tarry there.

 

With parted lips and outstretched hands

And listening ears Thy servant stands,

Call Thou early, call Thou late,

To Thy great service dedicate.

 

We left Jesus standing at the gates of the city and confronting reality. We are standing at the gates of the inner kingdom. Let us love our enemies, our demons. Let us embrace them and expose them to Divine light and watch them dissolve.

Monday in Holy Week: letting go

hot-air-balloons-1422702946OcWIsaiah 42:1-7. John 12:1-11

The events in tonight’s gospel take place before the Palm Sunday procession. I’m going to take the stories in the Biblical order.

Here are some themes that strike me.

  • Preparing for death: Mary’s anointing Jesus with oil normally reserved for anointing the dead.
  • Hypocrisy and dissimulation: Judas pretending to object to the waste of oil because of what it might have bought the poor, whereas maybe he wanted it for himself.
  • Jesus doing the unexpected: riding a donkey (Zechariah 9:9. Rejoice greatly, Daughter Zion! See, your king comes to you, righteous and victorious, lowly and riding on a donkey, on a colt, the foal of a donkey).
  • Jesus facing the future squarely: his cheerfulness, and the crowd’s acclamation. Faces are important in this story.

Preparing for death

We live in a society that refuses to look death full in the face. People pretend it won’t happen. They go to great lengths to try and delay it, even when it’s obviously inevitable. The medical profession doesn’t help. We spend money on seeking a cure for this or that disease as if there’s some hope that we can live for ever. We may be cured of cancer today but as sure as eggs is eggs we’ll die of something else tomorrow.

This always leads to trouble. If you pretend it won’t happen, you can’t set things straight before you go. There’s unfinished business. If you can’t set things straight, you are left with regret and guilt. You can’t say that you wished you’d not said so-and-so, and you can’t say, before it’s too late, what you should have said years ago. And all that is the overwhelming cause of grief and weeping and family tensions at funerals. It’s in contrast to the death of a friend of mine, who knew she was dying, told the world, and wrote her funeral homily, and characteristically witty it was too. Our refusal to be straightforward about death results in grave disappointments.

For six months of my life I worked in a children’s hospital just off the Brixton High Road in south London. I saw there babies with incurable conditions having operation after operation, and I was required to insert drips into their tiny veins whilst seeing their eyes looking at me. The inhumanity and cruelty of it. I plucked up courage to suggest that baby Anthony should be allowed to die with dignity. The reaction was swift: I was reprimanded in no uncertain terms. He died the next week after yet another operation. It is not my intention to start a debate tonight on end-of-life issues—that’s for another time maybe—but I’m using this as an illustration of how many of us refuse to confront one of the realities of animal existence on this planet. Death comes to all≠. By pretending otherwise we cause grief for ourselves and for those that love us.

This sanitisation of death, this refusal to look it full in the face, is a consequence of urbanisation. In Derbyshire and Ireland, my parishes covered large rural areas. Rural folk have a robust attitude to death. They see it day by day. Animals are killed so that we might eat. One of my churchwardens thought nothing of shoving her arm up a cow’s vagina to pull out a dead calf. Now, I acknowledge that my attitude to death may be peculiar: not only was I brought up in a farming village, but for 25 years I was using human cadavers to teach anatomy: cutting them up, examining them and handling them.

I’m convinced that our attitude to death needs realigning. Tonight’s Gospel and the Palm Sunday procession seem to say likewise. Our Lord faces death full in the face. Face: earlier in the gospel Jesus came down from a mountain with a shining face. Then he set his face to go to Jerusalem. And now acknowledging to Judas—I rather like Judas by the way—that he is being anointed for death. The Easter message is that death leads to new life. If you want to build on a new site, it is wise to clear it of rubble so that good foundations can be laid. This is new life following death of the old. And so, of course, is the resurrection story.

Biologically speaking, death is part of life. The cells of our bodies are dying all the time, and new life replaces them. Skin cells are constantly being shed and replaced. Blood cells past their sell-by date are replaced all the time. There are lots of other examples, but here is a startling example of the necessity of cell death. When a fetus is developing in the uterus, the hands and feet start off as spade-like things, a bit like fists. You might think that fingers and toes grow out from the spades, but you’d be wrong. What happens is that rather than digits growing out, four strips of cells are programmed to die, leaving digits remaining between them. If not enough cells die, we get webbed fingers and toes. If more strips die we get more fingers than usual. Here is another example. When a bone is fractured and reset, the two ends are rarely aligned properly. The body copes with this by killing off bone cells in the wrong place, and laying down new ones where needed.

Biology has no hesitation in killing off the old in order that the new can flourish. We can’t move on if we try to preserve the past. That is why, despite my love of architecture and liturgy, I oppose the conservationist lobby. We must face death when necessary. We can’t engage with the present if we refuse to accept the inevitability of death, because we will be tempted to put off things that need attention before it’s too late.

No dissimulation

As the donkey procession (allegedly) arrives from the east, history books tell us another procession arrives from the west. At Passover the Jewish people celebrate deliverance from the Egyptian oppressors. But here they are now under Roman oppressors. A recipe for civil unrest. The Romans were nervous. So the Roman governor rode to Jerusalem from the ‘capital’ Caesarea on the coast, with military reinforcements in case of trouble. The procession from the west was one of Roman imperial power. Pilate rides a war horse, Jesus rides a donkey. Empire versus individual. Mockery of imperial power. Turning the tables of convention as much as turning the tables in the Temple. Wisdom from a donkey. There’s a scene in Attenborough’s film Gandhi which always catches my attention, and that is when the ship docks in Bombay, some British bigwig is disembarking in full dress uniform to the sounds of bands and military display. At the same time, Gandhi dressed as a local is disembarking further up the quayside. The crowds are with Gandhi.

I wonder which procession we will be part of? Will we part of the naked emperor’s procession that lusts for power, that fawns over those who have it? that fiddles expenses claims? Will we like them go for the puffed up image like an overstuffed balloon that will soon burst? Or will we be part of the procession of straightforwardness, of humility, of service? Will we be in the procession that faces stark reality, that embraces death in order that something much more glorious can rise? Death of worldly ambition. Look at the contemporary church and see how the power-lust of bishops leads them to put the needs of the institution before those of the individual.

Renunciation

Facing the future mindfully means killing all that holds us back. It can be very painful. We begin to see ourselves as others see us. We realise that we are not as good as we thought we were. We realise how we deceive ourselves and the truth is not in us. We need to grieve our lost attitudes, our lost expectations, our lost dreams. We need to let go of what we want, or wanted, and accept the grace of God to resurrect us. We must die in order to live. Death of our self-obsession enables us to rise:

As larks, harmoniously / And sing this day Thy victories: / Then shall the fall further the flight in me.

As I grow older, I look back on some of the things I used to be so passionate about and wonder what it was about them that so obsessed me. Obsession is the right word, because these passions blinkered my vision and limited my action. A couple of humdrum examples. I once had a huge collection of books: they were my friends. I came to see that they limited me. Not only did they cost a lot of money, they also dictated the type of house we could move to. And after all, when one has sucked the marrow out of a book, one might as well pass it on! (How many books do we all have for show, unread and likely to remain so?) In my teens, cathedral music introduced me to beauty, lifting me from a drab village existence. I allowed it to rule my choices for too long. Now it sustains me without, I hope, dictating to me.

These are not evil things in themselves (though many clergy harbour evil thoughts about church musicians—or is it the other way round?) but they limited me, they narrowed my vision. They stole some of “me” and prevented me from being fully me, in a similar way to that of any addiction. I am still afflicted by things—we all are—but now I’m slightly more aware of the symptoms of addiction. As we get older we find ourselves attached to fewer and fewer things. Our vision becomes less restricted. We are moving into a wide, unfettered place. The view from the road from Sleaford to King’s Lynn is an image that I have in mind for this wide view. This notion of being in a wide place is one of the Hebrew images of salvation, and it is one that Jesus teaches. If we die to earthly attachments, we are in this place, and we can focus on what matters: love of God, and love of neighbour. I like the Buddhist idea that all disease is caused by attachments—or hatred, which is just negative attachment.

Eternal not everlasting

There is a kind of renewal in all this, and the key to it is to live in the present. Our Lord’s teaching again and again emphasizes that we need to do just this. Learn from the past certainly, but don’t live in it. Look to the future, but don’t waste time laying up treasures. Live now, in the moment. This, actually, is what eternal means. When we hear ‘everlasting life’ in church services, we often get the wrong idea, and it would be better, and more accurate a translation of the Greek, to use eternal. It’s not quantity or length of time that matters, but quality. Eternal, timeless, out of time, in the present, Divine. Thy kingdom come on earth, here and now. Trust the teaching of Jesus: live in the present moment, and do your best in that moment. We can do no more, and we need do no more. In one sense this is easy to do, and in another it’s extraordinarily difficult when we are surrounded by the petty irritations that life throws up day by day, when we see the injustice that surrounds us, and when we are governed, as we are, by prejudices and faulty behaviour patterns bred into us by our upbringings. But see all these for what they are, and trust and hope.

Back to death

If we are to attain eternal life, here and now, we must face death and die to worldly trivia—the vain things that charm us most. Having divested ourselves of these burdens we walk off lighter. ‘My yoke is easy and my burden is light’ – light in both senses, light because of the light of the world, and light because we are less burdened by weighty impedimenta from the past.

Jesus’ last hours complete the incarnation. Our Lord gave up a divine dwelling for human frailty, and now he suffers the stripping away of dependence on self to fall into he arms of the divine. ‘It is finished’. This is a renunciation that we recall every time the priest utters the consecration prayer at Mass. It is a renunciation that we join in this week, and every week. And the task for us, sisters and brothers, is to accompany the Lord on his journey of death in order to fall into the arms of the divine.