Archive for August, 2006

Beheading of John the Baptist

Readings: Jeremiah 1:17-19; Mark 6:17-29 

You could hardly have two readings more calculated to contradict each other than these. The first is bracing with promise: you will be a pillar of iron, a wall of bronze; they will not overcome you. And it’s quite a ‘they’ arrayed against the prophet: kings, princes, priests, and people. And it’s a promise that God does not keep. In the end Jeremiah is doomed and defeated: the Lord neither delivers him nor the people.

John the Baptizer fares no better: his message arrays the powers of his day against him and … and his God does not deliver him either. On its own that is bad enough, but we have that promise made to Jeremiah in our ears, awakening the engrained conviction that things really should go better for those who speak God’s word and do God’s work?

Hopkins the poet says it like this: “Why do sinners’ ways prosper? and why must Disappointment all I endeavour end?
Wert thou my enemy, O thou my friend, How wouldst thou worse, I wonder, than thou dost Defeat, thwart me?”

Not a happy note to begin a retreat we might think… but that seems to be exactly what Jesus does. As Mark tells it, he hears the story we have heard and he retreats to a quiet place to wonder about it all. To wonder about lost friends. To wonder about his own ministry, his own words and work, his calling, his future. To look to his roots. To look to God. To let God look back. … and if that’s good enough for Jesus perhaps it might be make a difference for us too.

August 29th, 2006

Sunday Week 20 Year B

When I was at university some friends of mine signed up for VSO, Voluntary Service Overseas, to head off for Papua New Guinea. With the ghoulish interest of a 21 year old I thought to myself ‘mmm, cannibals! head-hunters!’ and hit the library, intent on scaring the life out of my buddies. I discovered that though dying out, the practice still existed but that it wasn’t a straightforwardly bloodthirsty activity but a deeply religious one. It was about bringing the tribe together around a sacred table where you literally made a meal of outsiders. You ate them—daintily I’m sure—to ensure that you all knew who you were and who you were not. It was a meal that formed and reformed you as a people. A meal to make your gods dwell among you, within you. A rite of communion and community.

Now doesn’t that sound just like what Jesus is talking about here? ‘Eat my flesh’, ‘drink my blood’. Notice there’s no talk of bread and wine here: this is stronger meat for stronger stomachs. Flesh that is real food, real meat; blood that is real drink, thick as soup.

The gospel rubs it in by the choice of words. John’s been using an ordinary word for eating but when he gets to point, ‘he who eats my flesh and drinks my blood lives in me and I live in him’, he switches to a rather nasty word usually reserved for animals gnawing and chewing on their carcasses. ‘He who gnaws and chews my flesh lives in me.’ No wonder his hearers are arguing with him.

Cannibals and head-hunters only make explicit and literal what all human communities do implicitly and metaphorically. They—we—build our communion by making a meal of our enemies—the ones we will not tolerate among us. We cast them out to make ourselves whole. We might not know who we are but we sure as hell know who we are not: Us not Them.

It’s a very unholy communion: consuming the bread of death and division to find life and security.

Is this what we are doing here this afternoon? Is that what our communion is like? If it is we have betrayed Jesus who shows us another way—a holy communion. Instead of building a new community on the sacrifices of others he offers himself as a willing gift, a bloody meal without sacrifice, to make us whole. No more sacrifices. No more victims. No one is outcast from this table of his flesh and blood.

But to eat this flesh and drink this blood means more than opening our mouths and swallowing. It means saying ‘Amen’, ‘so be it’, with our lives. To eat this meal is to consent to be eaten too, to agree be flesh and blood for the life of the world.

5 comments August 20th, 2006

Sunday Week 19 Year B

Bread. Bread for the journey, bread to keep you going in the desert when you are done with doing…

We join Elijah in mid story, sulking under a tree. ‘I’ve had enough. I want to die.’ But in truth he’s been eating the bread of death for a long time. He’s been fighting a guerrilla war for the honour of his God, culminating in a showdown with the massed priests of Ba’al. How do you prove your God is better than theirs? You turn to the tools of death. You settle the score with sacrifice, with a wager. 450 priests chanting and praying and gashing themselves for fire to descend and burn up their offering of a bull. Elijah taunting all the time… Nothing! Then our hero, building his altar, butchering his bull, getting his enemies to douse the lot with water, and then again, and once again, building it all up to a showman’s climax of fire licking from the sky consuming all before it. And the people loving it, leaping up with one voice: ‘Yeah! Yahweh for us!’

But the sacrifice doesn’t satisfy Elijah. Not enough. … It has only fed the fires that are burning him up. He seizes on the blood lust of the people and butchers all the priests of Ba’al.
Which sends him on the run… We catch him in the desert, under a thorn tree, his elation drained away, wanting to die. ‘Enough’, he says, though he is famished and still hungry for death. The bread of death hasn’t satisfied him.

I like to think this place of hell is a place of grace for him, his moment of truth… I like to think that he’s not just depressed because he has the hounds on his heels but that, with the taste of blood in his mouth, he is beginning to learn that sacrifice doesn’t satisfies him. ‘I am as bad as the worst of my ancestors’, he says out loud. And then and there his God dies, his bigger and better Ba’al dies and leaves Elijah alone and at rock bottom. And there and nowhere else the true God comes to meet him. Or since, rock bottom is God’s natural habitat, Elijah finally makes it down far enough to find God. Either way God is revealed here not as a bigger Ba’al but as someone with bread to feed him and give him the taste for life.

Like Elijah we come to the altar with blood on our hands. We are killers, all of us. Our every meal we take from the mouths of others. Our clothes off their backs. Our liberty we buy with their despair. Our health with their infirmity. We are no better than the worst of our ancestors.

We come to the altar guilty as sin, deserving of death. And what we find instead is someone with bread to feed us. It’s not much, that bit of bread, but it is enough. Enough for God. Enough to give us the taste for life.

August 13th, 2006

Paying the Price

I’ve been indulging a guilty pleasure for a few weeks: watching my way through the DVDs of ‘Buffy The Vampire Slayer‘. I’m trying to spin it out now that I’m closing in on the final episodes so maybe some theological reflection on the topic will help delay me.

‘Buffy’ is full of insights that jog my theologian’s elbow but one in particular has me pondering now. This last series raises lots of issues about power and where it comes from and how it can be used and abused. It seems the Slayer’s power is bought at a price. Power doesn’t come for free. In the Slayer’s case it is at root achieved by the infusion of evil, of the demonic, and ultimately against the will of the Slayer, imposed by men who want to use her. Even the brightest power for the good (‘she saved the world … a lot’) involves a hidden pact with darkness. A pact Buffy herself refuses.

The same theme emerges in two other writers of fantasy. Sheri Tepper’s stories unfold strange worlds where the truly extraordinary lies right under everyone’s nose clothed in the everyday. What often drives her novels is the unmasking of the nastiness under the normalcy. And often enough its a pact or a bargain struck by some at the expense of others. The big question is what you do with the power once its origin is revealed.

Ursula LeGuin’s latest Earthsea stories also raise the question of power and its price. Earthsea runs on magic — it’s the everyday technology of life — but in the later stories it’s running awry and the difficulty is linked with death. The dead are troubling the living. It turns out that the Mages’ power was bought once long ago by a bargain. In return for magical power they would renounce the power to truly die and instead accept the fate of the shadowy world of the dry lands where all meaning and purpose disappear but existence goes on. What can be done when this is finally understood? LeGuin’s solution is to tear down the wall that divides life from this false death. To accept true death. And we are left at the end not truly knowing if magic will survive or how.

Buffy’s solution? Well, I still have several episodes to go…

It has me wondering what our own world’s bargain might be. What our power is and what pact have we made to gain it and at what price. And what would we do if the price turned out to be too great? I have some ideas.

To be continued…

1 comment August 6th, 2006

Feast of the Transfiguration Year B

Readings: Daniel 7:9-10, 13-14; 2 Peter 1:16-19; Mark 9:2-10 

We’ve reached here the highpoint of Jesus ministry. Literally. In recent weeks he’s raised the dead, he’s made a meal for a multitude out of scraps and gleanings, he’s walked on water … and everywhere the crowds are following him in droves. These are his glory days. And here on this mountain top his glory is unwrapped for a moment in light and shadow for us to glimpse what he is and what he will become. Metamorphosis, the Greek calls it. He speaks here as equal—and more—with Moses and Elijah. And the voice that at his baptism had whispered in his ear, ‘Beloved’, now roars it out from the cloud of glory, ‘This is my Son, the Beloved. Listen to him’.

But this is the high point of his ministry and from here on there’s no way but down. And downhill it will go, into opposition and misunderstanding and failure and fear and pain and death. So much for glory.

But it seems God wants us to listen to what we have heard here and understand the glory we have glimpsed. Not as consolation prize but as promise. Somehow God is putting the stamp of approval on all that will unfold. God is saying, downhill isn’t the disaster it seems.

There is glory here and now with shock and awe and special effects but there will be too, all the way through, even when the light is extinguished and we can’t see it all.

We are wrong about glory. This is to teach us that glory isn’t what we thought it was.

‘Whatever happens, listen to him’. Jesus takes up the baton from Moses and Elijah and takes up with it their ministry of liberation, a ministry only ever carried out by bearing the glory of God vulnerably among the world’s violence.

We thought glory was shiny. We were wrong.

There are ironies here. The original feast of the transfiguration was a local affair in Armenia and thereabouts until it was made universal in 1456. Why? To mark a victory over Islam at the Battle of Belgrade 550 years ago today. Glory?

And you can’t remember August 6th without the scouring light and mushroom cloud of Hiroshima 61 years ago today. Glory?

And who knows what violence and victory August 6th will be remembered for this year?

But it’s also about what we remember and what we value in ourselves. About what we think is up or down, high or low, glory or shame, and about which way we will travel, and how, and with whom.

5 comments August 6th, 2006

Hiroshima Day

Tomorrow brings together the anniversary of the atrocity of Hiroshima and the Feast of the Transfiguration. Every year the collision seems both inescapably apt and awful beyond words. It demands we understand glory and bear its weight.

An eye-witness account by a Jesuit living in Hiroshima in 1945.

Tomorrow’s gospel reading:

Six days later, Jesus took with him Peter and James and John, and led them up a high mountain apart, by themselves. And he was transfigured before them, and his clothes became dazzling white, such as no one on earth could bleach them. And there appeared to them Elijah with Moses, who were talking with Jesus. Then Peter said to Jesus, ‘Rabbi, it is good for us to be here; let us make three dwellings, one for you, one for Moses, and one for Elijah.’ He did not know what to say, for they were terrified. Then a cloud overshadowed them, and from the cloud there came a voice, ‘This is my Son, the Beloved; listen to him!’ Suddenly when they looked around, they saw no one with them any more, but only Jesus.

As they were coming down the mountain, he ordered them to tell no one about what they had seen, until after the Son of Man had risen from the dead. So they kept the matter to themselves, questioning what this rising from the dead could mean.

1 comment August 5th, 2006


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