Wednesday, 24 December 2014

Would you Adam and Eve It? A short thought for Christmas Eve

Now here's something new I only learnt today; in many parts of the worldwide Christian Church, December 24th, as well as being Christmas Eve, is also a day to ponder Adam and Eve who are, according to the biblical book of Genesis, the first human pair. These days, Adam and Eve are very often either seen as non-historical, embarrassing irrelevances, undermining the very credibility of the Bible, or, on the B-side of this oh-so-modern worldview, as literal, real human beings whose historicity must be defended at all costs. I suspect that both of these approaches to Adam and Eve would have left the earliest Christians baffled; what is most important, surely, say the writers of the New Testament, is not what we can say about Adam and Eve, but what they say about us as human beings. For Paul, Jesus was the 'last Adam', the man in whose real, historically true human body, all that had been wrong, less and lost in all people down the ages since time began, was put right.

So we come to this picture, painted in 2005 by an American nun. You may well have seen it online; it's been all over Twitter, Instagram, Facebook and so on over the last few days.  It's called 'The Virgin Mary consoles Eve' and in its beautiful simplicity, it says something very powerful about why so many Christians choose Christmas Eve as a time to ponder Eve (and Adam). In this picture, Eve is downcast, crestfallen; the apple in hand, she knows all that she has forfeited as the serpent winds its way around her leg. Her hair falls around her body like the trunk of a tree, dehumanising her, maybe, making her part of the orchard in which the two figures are surrounded. On the side of her head reaches the hand of Mary, whose gaze also points down, but only to meet Eve's. Mary's other hand rests on her pregnant womb, as bulbous as the pears framing the two.  Gently, but firmly, Mary's foot crushes the head of the serpent.

Although this is a recent picture, it gets to the heart of an ancient truth; that in Christ, all that is wrong in our world, ultimately,  will be put right. As early as the second century, thinkers such as Irenaeus of Lyons were talking about Eve as the representative virgin whose disobedience to God's command brought sin into the world, and about Mary as the virgin whose obedience to God brought about the birth of the one who would save the world from the consequences of sin. The word used is 'recapitulation';  in God's love, the time will come when all that has been done, said or thought that has hurt or ruined any part of the world which God loves, will be met by a new action, word or thought that will heal the ancient wounds. Every wrong will be righted, every pain salved, every loss reimbursed.

This was what Mother Julian of Norwich had in mind when she said, famously, 'all will be well.' Not 'cheer up love, it might never happen', but, rather, that in Jesus, an era has started in which the time of God's salvation - the name Jesus means 'he who saves' -  has begun in a radically new way. This invites and requires the co-operation of real, actual human beings like Mary who have the possibility open before them of saying 'yes' to God, of inviting others to be part of that 'yes', of bringing about real healing to a desperately hurting world.

This Christmas, may we ponder the Eve in us, the part of ourselves that turns away from the face of the Christ-child. May we recognise also the Mary in us, the 'yes' that rises up to meet God's angel. And may we, as we find within ourselves the recapitulation that is the very hallmark of the work of God's Holy Spirit within us, bring that same hope of reconciliation to a world at enmity with itself.

This year we have seen such pain in Iraq, in Syria, in South Sudan, and just this month, in India. What might the good news of Jesus look like for God's hurting children in those places? Well, it might look a little bit like a real, actual woman, with one hand outstretched, the other resting on her bump, her gaze cast low, but only to meet the eye of the one suffering an ancient wrong...  

Sunday, 21 December 2014

Who Lives in a House Like This? Sermon on the Annunciation

‘Who lives in a house like this?’ If you are a telly fan, you might recognise this as the catchphrase from the game show ‘Through the Keyhole’ in which a presenter, most recently Keith Lemon, wanders through someone’s house picking up clues, dropping hints and throwing around puns in the hope that a celebrity panel will be able to make use of their extensive knowledge of cultural trivia to work out who does indeed live in a house like this. The concept behind the show is, simply, that our homes are a reflection of who we are, an expression of our selves. I would imagine that most of us here this morning would agree wholeheartedly that our homes are, or at least should be in theory anyway, places where we can be ourselves, and express ourselves. 

As a priest, I go into lots of people’s homes, to visit, to take home communion, and to visit families preparing for baptisms, weddings and funerals. I look at photographs on mantelpieces and pictures framed on walls, I admire ornaments and colour schemes, and I can’t help but notice people’s CD collections or DVD stacks or bookshelves – I suspect that sheer nosiness about people’s lives is one of the basic requirements for being a priest – and I hear the stories behind all these little things that, as the cliché puts it, make a house a home. I visit people in care homes too, and I notice all the ways in which people create a home for themselves wherever they may be. Sometimes it’s in a care home room, with photographs and crayon drawn pictures by grandchildren and magazines and books piled up on a side tables, that I get the best sense of who someone is. Some people are, with our doubt, excellently stylish home makers and create rooms which are both beautiful and welcoming, but what I like most are rooms which say something to me about the person who lives in them, rooms into which I can walk and see, from looking around, who lives in a house like this.

This morning we’ve heard the moment in the story of King David when, at last, David finds himself at home, and wants to make a house for God to live in, too. King David’s rise to royal power was not, as you might know, an easy one, and home must have seemed a very distant promise for David as the conflict over who would be king, Saul or David, gathered momentum. At times David had been a shepherd, spending much time outdoors; he had been wary guest in the house of King Saul, and later a fugitive, fleeing for his life and hiding in caves. Through it all, David knew that God was with him; no wonder, then, that when David finally took his throne in Jerusalem and found himself living in palatial surroundings, that his prayer was for God to come home, too.

 It wouldn’t be until the reign of David’ son Solomon that the temple in Jerusalem would be built, and even then, the temple would not be a forever family home for the Almighty, overtaken as it was in the Babylonian exile some five centuries later. Even the second temple, the one that still stood in Jerusalem at the time of Jesus, was to be ransacked by the Romans in the siege of 70AD. Yet what we hear in the words of the prophet Nathan is the faithfulness of a God who is with his people even in exile, in hiding and in dry dusty desert wanderings. We hear the yearning of a tender God who longs to come home, to dwell among his people. We hear the confidence of a sovereign God who
 does not need humans to create a home for him, but who himself creates a home for us.

And so we come to our Gospel reading, that most angelic of home visits when Gabriel is sent with the news that at last, the throne of David would be established, not in the Jerusalem Temple or in any of the other great cities of the ancient near east, but inside her own, young, possibly teenaged, virgin, body. The home which God promises to create, the home God yearns to share with his people, the home which is to be found even in exile, in hiding and dry dusty desert wanderings, is not made out of cedar wood or gold, but out of female human flesh. How can this be, asks Mary. How can I – a virgin, a girl, not even a mother yet, poised between adolescence and adulthood – how can I host this king of all kings? The thought is preposterous.

Yet when you think about it, the idea that God can create a home in a human body is no less preposterous than the concept that God’s home can be made out of wood and gold. After all, when we read about the Temples of Jerusalem in the stories of David and Ezra, with all their splendour and beauty, we end up understanding that it was never about the beauty and the splendour, the cedar wood and the gold, anyway – it was about the presence of God that filled the sanctuary and sanctified it, made it holy. If you read on a little from our Old Testament reading, the climax of the story of the Jerusalem temple of which David dreams, is the moment when the cloud of the presence of God overshadows the ark of the temple as Solomon dedicates it to God.  It is this overshadowing presence that establishes the temple as the house of God, not the craftsmanship or the music or the royal connections. It is the same overshadowing presence that establishes Mary as the person in whose body the King of all Kings will take up his home.

So what kind of God lives in a house like this? A house made of young, vulnerable, female human flesh? A house which itself will be under threat in the most vulnerable days of Jesus’ life, a house that will move, like the tabernacle, from Galilee to the hill country of Judea to Bethlehem and thence as a refugee to Egypt, a house that cannot possibly match the splendour and beauty of the Jerusalem Temple but, on the contrary, bears within its body not glory but the shame of pregnancy out of wedlock? 

Mary sings out in her Magnificat what kind of God lives in a house like this. A God who does great things for the humble. Who lifts up the lowly. Who calls out his mercy from generation to generation. Who does mighty deeds. Who fills the hungry with good things, but dismisses the haughty and the proud. Who remembers his servant, Israel. Who has not forgotten one of his promises.  When we look at Mary, in her youth, in her vulnerability, in the social shame of her unmarried pregnancy, in her tenacity, in her faith and readiness to say yes to God despite the sword that will pierce her own heart as she bears the Christ child, we see what kind of God lives in a house like this.

And what about where that same God lives today? All around the world people have built houses for the Lord; we are in one here, one which I love very much. But our churches are never meant to be about the stone and the wood, the music or the craftsmanship. All of that – beautiful and splendid as it is – is to help us to see the overshadowing presence of the divine who still comes and dwells among his people today. Because when God takes up his home in the body of Mary, that same God sanctifies all human flesh, makes it possible for all human bodies to know within them just a little of the presence of the divine that Mary carried those nine months. 

This year, we have seen over and over again in our news pictures of refugees – in Syria, in Iraq, in South Sudan and in other places. We have seen battered and exhausted human flesh wandering through dry desert ways, many people dying before reaching place where they can create new, if temporary, homes. The good news of the incarnation is that it is in this flesh that God sets up home. What kind of God lives in a house like this? A God whose love for his people is so faithful, so tender, so confident, that within the human body itself is the most natural home he could choose. Amen. 

Tuesday, 2 December 2014

Will there be cats in heaven?

If you know me, chances are that you'll know that this Advent Sunday was a sad and subdued one in the household. A phone call from a neighbour told me that a ginger cat had been found dead on her lawn, and my heart wilted as I hastily dressed and crossed the road to discover what I had already accepted as the inevitable.

Fred and Ginger (I know!) came to us a week after the lady from the cats' protection charity had, with her checklist, notebook and gentle demeanour. Among the questions she asked us as she observed bot the main road at the front f our house and the large garden and fields at the back, was whether we might be prepared to have more than one cat. The thought hadn't occurred to us until that moment, but it sounded like a fair proposition. So, a week later, seven-week-old kittens who had been birthed and then abandoned by a feral cat in the nearby town, who had been found mewling under a bush and who were so dehydrated that one of them (Fred) sucked so hard on the teat of his bottle of kitten milk that he swallowed the teat and had to have an operation to remove it from his stomach, came home with us. They hadn't had the easiest start, and we all fell in love with them. They chased balls of wool and moving shadows, and sat and stared out into the garden until finally, the day came when they were allowed to explore. And explore they did! They ran along the fences and climbed trees; Ginger leapt out of a bedroom window into a flower bed two storeys below, they jumped in and out of the bathroom window to and from the flat roof below, startling more than one of us more than once, and they discovered the taste of peanut butter, thanks to a neighbour who left out peanut butter on bread for badgers every dusk. (The badgers got the bread.) They took on foxes and other cats, and took sociopathic delight in catching mice, birds and even rabbits. Then they came, rubbed their furry bodies against our skin, and curled up in a laundry basket on on a child's bed.

It was Ginger on the lawn. It seems most likely that he was run over by a car on the main road outside our house early on Sunday morning, and had managed to walk to our neighbour's house.  Running my fingers along his cold fur, that same love which had welled up with in me when I'd first heard about these bedraggled little semi-feral kittens rose up again. Ginger the brave explorer who had once mysteriously disappeared for fourteen hours; Ginger the cruel, who once brought a half-dead baby bird into my bedroom; Ginger the vulnerable kitten who hid in a cardboard box during his early weeks with us; Ginger the content cat who would curl up and sleep alongside my daughter night after night.

I found myself wondering idly, will there be cats in heaven? And the honest answer that came to me: I don't know. Ginger's mortal remains were taken, with great dignity and love, to a pet crematorium and his ashes scattered. But what of Ginger himself? I can't imagine losing a human member of my family without the hope of eternal life and the resurrection we are able to anticipate because of the resurrection of Jesus.  So what about feline members of our family? Or, come that, God forbid, the canine ones? As I say, the only honest answer has to be 'I don't know.' I find it hard enough to imagine what we will be like in heaven - as St Paul says, the bodies we inhabit here on earth bear as much resemblance to the bodies which we will have in heaven as seeds to trees - without throwing other species into the mix.

But one thing I do know, confidently: what made Ginger special was the love we shared with him, the love that hooked our hearts from the moment we heard the sad story of his delinquent youth, the love that tickled us as we made him leap to reach a dangling feather to alight on a moving laser beam, the love that warmed us as he settled down on our laps, the love that stretched us as we  - I - removed dead bodies of mice and birds from our hallway. We loved Ginger, and I think, in his funny feline way, he loved us too.

And whether or not there will be anything in heaven tat I can vaguely recognise a cat, I do know that the love that we shared with Ginger, and still share with Fred and Ben the excitable spaniel, is just a tiny little foretaste of the love we will know, fully, ultimately, everlastingly, in heaven. We are mortal; our bodies, whether feline, human or other, do not last forever and cannot bounce back from every blow. But within our fragile, mortal bodies we can know a love that is indestructible. We see that love in our pets, in our children, in our families and friends and in the love that is poured into art, science and other labours of love. Most fully we see it in Jesus, but even then, to go back to St Paul, we see a dim reflection. In heaven we will see, face to face, love himself. Will there be cats in heaven? I don't know. But we loved Ginger, and there will be love.