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.

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.

Sacramental assurance

247f11754cd5847ddbc149fb2acdc2beI’m intrigued by the frequency with which different people receive Holy Communion. Some receive daily, some twice or thrice weekly, some weekly, fortnightly or monthly. Some receive only three or four times a year. I suppose it’s a matter of personality, tradition and upbringing. Even theology too. But I can’t help my mind wandering. So bear with me in this gentle meander.

First, let’s consider those who receive three or four times a year. Clearly they don’t feel the need of the sacrament in that form any more often. Perhaps they are pure, holy and incorruptible,. Maybe there is nothing more to be said. Or perhaps the sacrament that they receive so infrequently has been so powerfully consecrated by a minister so virtuous that its efficacy is so very long-lasting, despite the havoc wrought by gastric acid and intestinal and hepatic enzymes. If so, I can see how three or four times a year would suffice.

Or perhaps it could be that the gastric acid and digestive juices of this group are weak, thus having little effect on the mystical power inherent in the consecrated bread and wine, which are thus largely unaffected by natural secretions. There is another possibility, namely that these people are all recovering alcoholics and so not permitted wine more often than three or four times annually. Of course they shouldn’t have it at all unless, as in the case of a former King of Saudi Arabia, the alcohol turns into fruit juice as it passes the cricopharyngeal sphincter. Frankly, I think this argument is stretching things a bit, and it seems to me that one could never establish the truth since if one asked such people of their boozing history they would almost certainly tell fibs.

At the other extreme there are those who take the sacrament daily. How might this be explained? Perhaps they are very, very wicked indeed and need constant mystical reinvigoration. Or maybe the priest who consecrates the elements is a very naughty boy or girl with as a result such weak powers that the efficacy of the sacrament is ephemeral. Or maybe these priests have been ordained by a bishop who is not a member of the right club, or has the wrong sort of genitalia. Or maybe, just maybe, these people have such powerful gastric secretions and intestinal enzymes that the spiritual power of the elements stands no chance whatsoever.

A research project calls. It would involve volunteers of course, together with physiologists, lab technicians, geneticists and theologians: a multidisciplinary project to elucidate a tricky issue.

Invertebrates rule OK

4985825287_273f35736fThis is not a swipe at spineless Church of England bishops, though God knows there are plenty of reasons why they deserve to be swiped.

It’s about octopuses. A recent article announced that scientists said that because of their DNA, octopuses ‘are aliens’. The assumption is that those scientists are competent to judge what is and what is not alien.

Humans have been around—let’s be generous here—about 200 thousand years, and our immediate antecedents about 6 million years. Octopuses, on the other hand, have been around for 150 million years, and their antecedent cephalopods 500 million years.

So—let’s get this right—the new arrivals belong on the planet, but the old stagers are aliens.

This mind-set allows us humans to do what we like with animals and plants. It allows us to do what we like with the planet. It enables us to discard rubbish, pollute environments and behave as if we were rulers of creation, bossing it about.

Biblical scholars might like to know that when Genesis 1:28 is properly translated from the Hebrew, it’s clear that we are to be custodians of the earth, not subdue it or have dominion over it. We are responsible for it, and our actions.

A theological conundrum arises. Are octopuses saved? Do they need to be? Let’s say for argument that they don’t. What do we humans have that requires our salvation, but that octopuses lack? This is not an entirely silly question, for its implications need to be explored if biology and theology are to have a serious conversation. Good luck with that.

Octopuses are very bright. They use tools and solve problems. Comparing the behaviour and skills of octopuses with those of some of the species to which I belong yields conclusions that it ill behoves a clerk in holy orders to consider, let alone articulate. Perhaps the human ape is evolving into several species as I type.

7869-a-plate-of-octopus-salad-pvThere are more octopuses than humans. Octopuses will be around long after we’ve disappeared. Jellyfish are older and vastly more numerous. The more toxic waste we chuck into their environment, the sooner they will rise up against us. Read The Swarm by Frank Schatzing. In the mean time, I am very fond of octopuses, especially with garlic and lemon.

Losing it and letting go

charles-e-brock-gulliver-is-shown-the-aged-struldbrugs

Living for ever

“Where did I put my keys?”

Why do I go out, lock the door, then have to unlock it to get something I’d forgotten? Not once, not twice, but three times.

“Yes, I rang you, but I’ve forgotten what about—oh, wait a minute, now I remember.”

Our brains are wired so that as we age, we remember 30 years ago better than yesterday. There are good reasons for this in terms of self- and species preservation. We remember what is good and bad for us. We remember what we learnt by experience.

In days gone by, the loss of recent memory didn’t matter much since we were unlikely to live long enough for it to become a problem. But now we live too long. Or some people do.

Remembering stuff from decades ago can be depressing. We tend to dwell on the days when we were fit and active, and when we grabbed life by the short and curlies. We become sad about what we can’t do any more. We need to grieve these losses: the loss of youth and energy and get-up-and-go. And we need to acknowledge that things we once thought important have turned out to be no more than seductive bubbles that have burst, leaving only a soapy mess.

11212629_835354123185770_7807558211314617443_oRather than moping, try mopping. Honour what you used to be able to do and absorb it into yourself. Accept that you can’t do it any more. Take up something you can. I’m very impressed with what SWMBO has achieved in a short time having taken up crocheting. I need to find something like that. Think how you might share your wisdom and experience with younger people. Talk to them as friends. One of the sadnesses about my relationship with my father was that before he died (I was then 37) we never reached the stage of talking to each other as friends. I dare say it was as much my fault as his, but at that time his words seemed only to be given as peremptory instructions.

Phibes

There comes a time to acknowledge that it’s someone else’s turn to carry the flag. We see people doing things that our experience tells us will come to grief, and we want to tell them why. If only we could plug a memory stick into a USB port on the side of our heads, transfer our wisdom to it for transmission to someone else’s brain. Maybe bodily USB ports will be the next stage of our evolution. Dr Phibes, the wonderful Vincent Price, seemed to have some such thing on the side of his neck.

Hindu sanyassi give up all their possessions and wander off to fend for themselves. I find this peculiarly attractive. I’ve lived my life backwards in a sense, each change of job in the last 10 years some sort of a renunciation, with less and less income (poor SWMBO). But I lack guts to go the whole hog (relieved SWMBO). Enjoy getting older. Acknowledge the right of others to cock up just like you did. Let go of the will to control and influence, and relax into life. Clutter, rank, things, attitudes, stuff, possessions—none of this matters. The only things that matter are relationships. Live in the present because before you know it, it’ll be too late.

Living in the past leads to depression. Living in the future leads to anxiety. Living in the present leads to peace.

Blood, flesh and bread

The-Holy-Eucharist4People 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, wombs, circumcision, hearts, body, eyes, ears. They are much less prissy and much more down to earth than respectable Anglicans are.

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. For Jews and Muslims, ritual preparation of meat to eat involves draining all the blood so that they are not guilty of consuming the God-given life force. (I like black pudding so am doomed I suppose). 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.

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. The resources of the church are there for us when we feel burdened, and life overcomes us. Come unto me all that labour and are heavy laden, and I will refresh you.

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, specifically on Holy Thursday, feet.

For most of the people on the planet, feet are even more important than they are for us. Bad feet = no work. Feet need to be cared for. Washing feet an example of service and kindness. And 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, Bet Lahm, means house of bread. Another sermon.

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.

Lancelot Andrewes

Lancelot Andrewes

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 came down 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.’