Body and blood

lastsupper.jpgHomily for Holy Thursday

People of the Book are much more at home with parts of the body and bodily functions than we are. They think nothing of talking at length about blood, guts, bowels, wombs, circumcision, hearts, body, eyes, ears. They are much less prissy and much more down to earth than respectable Anglicans.

Let’s start with blood.

The film Gandhi has Charlie Andrews on a crowded train, hauled up to sit on the roof. An Indian says to him ‘I have friends who are Christian: they eat flesh and drink blood every Sunday.’ It’s a friendly greeting, though with today’s flesh-eating zombie and vampire films and video games, people might think otherwise.

We can bleed to death. As the blood seeps away, so does the life-force. Lack of blood equals death, so blood equals life. Ritual preparation of meat to eat involves draining all the blood so that diners are not guilty of consuming the life force. (I like black pudding so am doomed.) The blood that marks the doorposts in the first Passover signifies that the house will be preserved: blood equals life. The blood of Jesus, the blood that flows from his crucified side, gives life to the world.

First biology.

  • Blood brings nutrient to the cells of the body. What more nutritious than the Sermon on the Mount?
  • Blood contains red cells that bring oxygen to the tissues. Get rid of the polluting smoke of duty and should, and instead take up the oxygen of freedom from worldly burdens. We are in the world, but not of the world.
  • Blood has white cells that fight disease and maintain health. Think about that.
  • Blood removes rubbish from tissues of the body, and contains platelets that plug holes in blood vessels. Think about that too.

When I hear of the ‘blood of the lamb’, I understand it as, quite simply, the life of the Divine. As St John’s Gospel has it: ‘Unless you eat my flesh and drink my blood, you shall not have life within you’ (John 6:53). And in the passion gospel we hear that when Christ’s body was pierced, blood and water flows out to sanctify the earth.

Now body, and specifically on Holy Thursday, feet.

For most people on the planet, feet are even more important than they are for us. Bad feet means no work. Feet need to be cared for. Washing feet is service. And I know that naked feet of the very rich look pretty much like naked feet of the very poor.

Imagine Jesus and the disciples’ feet. No stout brogues, and I doubt that they would have been so lacking in fashion sense as to wear socks with their sandals. Who knows what they trod in. So in washing their feet, Jesus was taking a bit of a risk.

This is a cleansing, like Baptism. A washing away of the dust on our feet, that is, washing away the past. It’s a confession. And as we wash each other’s feet we might confess our weaknesses to one another. In truth, we should be washing each other’s feet as a preparation for every mass.

Now bread.

Companion means [taking] bread together. That is a sermon in a sentence. Bethlehem, Bayt Lahm, means house of bread. Another sermon.

And finally, an invitation.

I could end with George Herbert’s invitation (Love III: Love bade me welcome …), but instead I opt for Bishop Lancelot Andrewes’ play on the word ‘come’ in his Christmas Sermon of 1620.

In the old Ritual of the Church we find that on the cover of the canister, wherein was the Sacrament of His Body, there was a star engrave, to show us that now the star leads us thither, to His body there. And what shall I say now, but according as St. John saith, and the star, and the wise men say, ‘Come.’ And He, Whose the star is, and to Whom the wise men came, saith, ‘Come.’ And let them who are disposed, ‘Come.’ And let whosoever will, take of the ‘Bread of Life, which camedown from Heaven’ this day into Bethlehem, the house of bread. Of which Bread the Church is this day the house, the true Bethlehem, and all the Bethlehem we have now left to come to for the Bread of life, – of that His life which we hope for in Heaven. And this our nearest coming that here we can come, till we shall by another venite come unto Him in His Heavenly Kingdom to which He grant we may come, That this day came to us in earth that we thereby might come to Him and remain with Him for ever, ‘Jesus Christ the Righteous.’

Renaissance

pupa-3978412_960_720Church Magazine, March 2019

Spring-cleaning brings to mind memories of carpets being draped over washing lines and beaten to within an inch of their lives. It’s a happy coincidence that for us in the northern hemisphere, spring means more hours of sunlight, animals and plants waking from hibernation, caterpillars becoming butterflies, and a general feeling of renaissance. A good time of year for an inward spring-clean—Lent.

Between caterpillar and butterfly there is the intermediate stage of pupa, chrysalis, cocoon. It looks from the outside as if nothing is happening. Such is far from the truth. Inside, all sorts of things are happening as some bits die, new bits develop, and things rearrange themselves before the adult form forces its way out with a great deal of effort.

In our lives we often reach a point where all that has gone before is cluttering up our heads to the extent that we are paralyzed, not knowing what to do next. We enter a kind of pupa. If we are willing, we can mirror the biological metamorphosis with a psychological metamorphosis as we let some bits die, new bits develop, and allow other things to rearrange themselves.

This is hard work. It’s painful. It takes a lot of energy to chip through the crust that develops around us so that the beautiful butterfly can emerge and take wing. You can easily extend these images into those of passion, crucifixion, and resurrection/ascension—and I leave you to ponder this.

In biology, the term for the adult form is imago. Image. Even the adult form is just an image, an illusion, a mask, a persona. So the question is: what is the adult an image of? How far do you have to delve into yourself in order to find the real you, if there is such a thing?

I doubt that there is such a thing. I find my own “self” so often at the mercy of events, emotions, sensations, and feelings. I’m certain that much of what we do is governed not by “free will” but by circulating chemicals in our bloodstream: testosterone, oestrogen, insulin, thyroxine, and countless more. There are the neurotransmitters – sometimes not enough of them, sometimes too much. All these substances affect our moods, our inclinations, our actions, and our perspective of life on the planet. And then there are things we shove into ourselves. Be in no doubt: food is a drug. Too much carbohydrate can make you sleepy. Too much caffeine makes you jittery. Too much booze makes some people aggressive, others stupid, others comatose.

Given all this, what room is there for any kind of “real” you? I suppose in order to find it you would need to deprive yourself of all food and drink and sit in an entirely stimulus-free environment in the hope that you would be able to find the real you. Trouble is, before you even began to get there, you’d be dead through boredom and inanition—like in Deanery Synod.

Nevertheless, Lent is a great opportunity to take stock of where you are, where you want to be, and what you might do to get there—in particular, what you need to get rid of in order to make the journey easier. To use an analogy I’ve often used before, what do you need to chuck out of the basket so that the balloon can ascend to the heights?

Ash Wednesday is one of the truly great festivals of the year. It reminds us that we’re human, that we are going to die, and that we need to get a grip on our lives before it’s too late.

Interregnum

A reassessment will be forced on the churches in a few months’ time. By the end of 2019 I shall have retired. It’s unreasonable to expect Phillip to become effectively the vicar as he did in the last interregnum: he is seven years older and neither his health nor I suspect his marriage would stand for it. It’s unreasonable to expect Robin to become effectively the vicar, for he is not paid and, like all unpaid clergy he will do only what he is willing to do—you must not impose on his good nature. It may not be too difficult to find cover for Sunday services but you need to give serious thought to the future of midweek masses. In my retirement I don’t want to be tied down to any particular midweek service schedule, even if I thought it worthwhile turning up for a mass with one other person present—which I don’t. I don’t know any retired cleric who would.

I wonder how long the interregnum will be. It’s difficult to attract clerics to apply for jobs in the Midlands and North of England. Burton is not viewed as particularly attractive. This job is odd in combining different churchmanships, different social profiles, and civic responsibilities. The latter would repel some clergy, though I enjoy them.

Whatever else you do, remember that you need to present yourself as attractive. The interview is as much about letting applicants vet you as it is about letting you vet applicants. The interview team needs to be pleasant, positive, and interested in the applicant. Such is often not the case. You must be sure that other people the applicants meet on the day are not subverting the process by trying to impose their view of what the church needs, as happened for me.

You also need to do some work together beforehand, and I don’t just mean one meeting, in which you come to a common view of what you want. I recall in my interview in 2014 a point when, after two interviewers had been rather curmudgeonly, I realized I wasn’t going to be offered the job, so I went on the attack and said “you lot need to decide what you want, because it’s clear to me that you all want different things. It just ain’t gonna happen.” It was the best thing I did.

It’s not too early to think about these things. You must be assertive when dealing with the diocese and the deanery. You must not assume that bishops, archdeacons, rural deans and deanery apparatchiks know better than you what you need. They don’t. But you must be realistic. You must be forward-looking. You must accept that returning to how things used to be will never happen.

There’s a lot of reassessment to be done. Happy Lent.

Addendum to complete the story of my appointment to Burton

When they did get round to offering me the job after Fr Young had turned it down, I said I would take it only if all six assessors promised me their total support. I was assured that this was so. Three of the six kept their word. I suppose 50% aint bad.

Things creeping innumerable

virus.jpgAn asthmatic child living in a farming village. Even thinking about being close to hay bales makes my lungs feel prickly. I never minded cow dung or sheep dottles, but grass and hay and corn were not my friends. Neither as it turned out was that poisonous substance cows’ milk, but that story can wait.

I learnt very young that the bedroom window should be left open, and I spent many happy hours in the dead of night with my arms pressing down on the windowsill to engage the accessory muscles of respiration so as to get a bit more air in.

A particularly unpleasant episode occurred when I was about 14 and had five weeks off school with what was diagnosed as pneumonia and pleurisy. When I returned to classes, I was told with some glee that they’d heard that they’d never see me again. Ha!

I don’t think I ever really recovered from missing so much work. I remember particularly the fourth form chemistry exam where some of the questions were complete gobbledegook, the material, I maintain, having been dealt with when I was ill. There was a good deal of whispering going on between me and a neighbour who, doubtless at risk to his immortal soul, helped me. Never let it be said that I don’t know to cheat.

I’m reminded of all this since for the last four weeks I’ve been out of action with a respiratory infection. It started on the throat, then the larynx, then the trachea making me feel as if a wire brush were plunging to and fro inside it. To the lungs next with painful cough, phlegm (grey, no blood, since you ask) and then back up again. I was reluctant to take antibiotics for what is almost certainly viral, but I wanted some prednisolone to reduce the inflammation.

Could I get a GP appointment? Reader, I could not.

I tried to get the steroids online, illegally. Couldn’t even see how to do that without going into bitcoin or the dark web, neither of which I’m ready for yet. If there’s anyone out there that can help me stash steroids for the future, please contact me privately. Seriously – I mean it. After three weeks I went to A&E and got some prednisolone. It’s finished now, but I don’t think the job is done properly.

I was musing on all things creeping innumerable, both small and great beasts, some of which—bacteria and viruses—are bothering me at the moment. Why don’t they go and find somewhere else to reproduce? Why does it have to be in my respiratory tract?

The urge to reproduce is clearly overwhelming in these little bastards. Is the urge to reproduce overwhelming in humans? I think it is, only we sublimate it into other things—a future blog.

As a clerk in holy orders I’m supposed to believe in things like free will, and choice, and discernment guided by the “holy spirit”. I don’t think I do. As creatures of this earth it seems to me that we are at the mercy of circulating chemicals, most of which are produced by the body itself—sex hormones, other hormones, enzymes, neurotransmitters, and many more. Some of them are produced by organisms that live with us such as bacteria on the skin and in the gut.

Some of the chemicals that influence us are voluntarily injected, absorbed, eaten, drunk or smoked. And don’t think just because you’re not injecting yourself that you are drug free. You’re not. Food is a drug. Coffee is a drug. Cheese is a drug. Water is a drug according to our Cambridge pharmacology lecturer. Nobody, nobody, is drug-free. If there were such a thing as free will then it’s not “free”.

We’re at the mercy of all these circulating chemicals. So relax.

Anyhoo, I digress. Back to the plot. These bacteria and viruses are clever little things. They perceive a weakness in my immune system and before I can say immunodeficient, wham! the little buggers are in there reproducing with gay abandon causing havoc and generally making me feel shite.

I’ve noted over the years that I tend to succumb to infections not when I’m stressed, but when I’m recovering from stress. Like the moment I leave on holiday. Or in this case, since I find November and December stressful, the moment January comes along. It was ever thus. Do you think I learn from my observations? I do not.

Do you think if I prayed hard enough the microorganisms would spare me a little, that I may recover my strength? Might they go hence, and be no more seen in me? Might they find someone else to infect?

No, I suppose not. But it’s becoming clear what I need to do.

Project Nokabolokoff

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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,”

Tuesday in Holy Week: love your enemies

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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.

Venerating flesh

Rembrandt_Harmensz._van_Rijn_007

Rembrandt got it wrong

The Vatican has forbidden the sale of would-be saints’ body parts as relics. That momentous news set off a train of thought.

As attitudes to dead bodies go, I guess mine is—let’s be neutral here—unusual. Since 1976 I’ve been handling embalmed bodies, cutting them up, chopping off bits and pieces, sawing heads in half, removing brains, and so on and so forth.

Embalmed bodies don’t really look like human flesh, and they certainly don’t feel like it. Anatomy departments need embalming fluid that preserves for years—three is the normal legal limit—while funeral directors use a different chemical mix that preserves for only a few weeks, but gives a better cosmetic result.

When I was in anatomy we went to considerable trouble to show our appreciation to the families of those who left us their remains. We kept them informed, organised the funeral, and held memorial services to which relatives were invited. In Dublin most students were non-Christian, always keen to be involved. They and I were immensely grateful to the relatives.

In the 1990s there was controversy about body parts removed for future study and retained in hospital labs. After this came to light, funerals were held for the specimens—a liver, a heart, a lung or whatever—despite obsequies having already taken place for the people from whom the specimens had been removed. I pondered how big a body part had to be in order to necessitate a ceremony months or years later. If a separate funeral was required for a liver, say, then what about a sebaceous cyst that had been removed? Should a malignant tumour have a separate funeral? Is it necessary to have a funeral for my nail clippings? What about all the flakes of skin that fall off every day? Pus from an abscess?

Is it possible that compensation culture was rearing its head? Surely not. Why did clergy condone this nonsense? It’s not as if they get the fees—at least not in the C of E they don’t.

In any case these events led to a revision of regulations. Up to that time anatomical donations were governed by the 1832 Anatomy Act, brought in to deal with the Edinburgh body snatchers, so it was overdue.

Coincidentally, as the controversy was kicking off in Ireland and the UK, retained body parts of Thérèse of Lisieux were on a world tour, soon to land briefly in Dublin. I wondered how many of those who flocked to pay them homage were at the same time agitating for separate funerals and/or compensation for a relative’s retained organs. I wondered if they had ever given thought to what Thérèse’s parents would have wanted.

Let me be clear: I’m not knocking the veneration of body parts of saints. If such devotions help you in your passage through life, good for you. It occurs to me that I do it in a different way: I venerate dead people’s intellects and personalities by reading what they wrote.

When I last saw my father in the flesh in his coffin in 1986, the undertaker said to me that it was just a body, it wasn’t really him any more. A cadaver is just dead meat. When I last saw my elder son in the flesh in 2015, a certain finality hit me when I noted the circumferential skull incision through which his brain had been removed for post mortem examination. I don’t know if it was retained. They would have been welcome to take what they liked.

I write this on Christmas Eve. The incarnation is all about flesh. Look after it. Life is short.