Friday, 6 June 2014

A blessing from on high and an eccentric Englishwoman abroad: a short thought

The heat bounced off the bright white walls of the church, casting sharp shadows in the cobbled courtyard. By the door an elderly woman sat, a basket of shawls at her side, ready to cover up shoulders and knees as the tourists briefly became pilgrims to this small but utterly beautiful Byzantine church.

After we had traced the stories of salvation on the church walls, the saints and the angels, the devils and the demons, the people whose eternal fate hung in the balance between these two groups as the scales wobbled between heaven and hell, my son and I approached the sanctuary. It was odd not being able to go in; after all, I'm a priest, and sanctuaries are places to which I am both drawn, and in which I feel a profound sense of being at home. But the thick rope kept us away, so that all I could do was to strain my eyes and crane my neck towards the domed ceiling above the altar.

'There's someone up there', I muttered, looking up at the figure painted on the ceiling, wondering if it might be St John the Baptist, to whom the church was dedicated, but suspecting it more likely to be Jesus himself. It wasn't easy working it out from that angle, so I did the only thing I could do: I crouched down to get a better view. Some fingers, a nose and a mouth came into view. I crouched down further, wondering at what point the eccentric behaviour of this Englishwoman might get me thrown out by the elderly woman. There was nothing else for it: I had to lie down on the floor of the church to see the whole picture, and when I did, the face of Jesus gazed back at me, hand up in blessing.    

My son wandered over. 'Can't you see?' he said, standing next to me as I got up and smoothed down my skirt. 'It's Jesus.' Of course, he is that much shorter than I am at ten years old, so for him, seeing the face of Jesus was effortless.

Jesus himself talked about us needing to become like little children to enter the kingdom of heaven. Maybe part of what that might mean is that we need to become humble, to crouch down lower and lower so that eventually we will be short enough to see what children see easily; and when we do, we will see the face of Jesus gazing back at us, his hand raised in blessing.

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