All Are Drowned

A literal reading of the story of The Flood would surely see God in the dock for genocide. Apart from one family, life in the world is washed away by a Deity impatient with the sinful state of humanity. According the Genesis 5:7, it is a decision to ‘blot out form the earth the human beings I have created’. In the York Mystery Plays performing this week, it is only Mrs Noah who makes a ‘din’ at this sudden and devastating loss of life:

But Noah, where are now all our kin
And company we knew before?

The resonance of these words to audiences that lived through plague years can only be imagined. People survived and wondered what had become of their neighbours; their extended families; and their friends. All the guilds that performed in the plays would have experiences the painful deaths of colleagues, with the plays being performed after a gap caused by the worst excesses of infection. Perhaps a full cast was harder to find and familiar figures were noticeable by their absence?

Maurice Crichton as Noah in The Flood, York’s Mystery Plays in 2022 (picture in York Press)

Some of the problems of the story are touched on in the narratives of the play. At the end, when the waters subside, an innocent son asks: ‘how shall this life be led Since none are in this world but we?’ Populating a new world from one family raises its own problems and risks. There is humour in the son’s question but also a serious point about the regeneration of humanity. In the streets of York such blunt questions were permitted in a way that was unlikely to be acceptable in the Minster and churches of the city.

In England the Archbishop of York proclaimed that the plague was “surely… caused by the sins of men who, made complacent by their prosperity, forgot the beauty of the most high Giver”.

Beidler, P. G. (1981). Noah and the Old Man in the “Pardoner’s Tale.” The Chaucer Review, 15(3), 250–254. http://www.jstor.org/stable/25093759

Understandably, and perhaps addressing the unspoken questions of an audience wondering about the repetition of such a catastrophe, one son asks whether the empire of the world will now last forever. Noah gives the assurance that there will not be another flood – but that the world ‘shall once be waste with fire, And never worth to world again’. The final cataclysm will be a blazing end to God’s creation. In current circumstances it might indeed feel that this is where we are heading – although the Deity only needs to sit back and watch as we pursue lifestyles that may lead to this ultimate conflagration. As the Mystery Play wagons roll through York this week they will follow a pattern, and repeat the words, used back into the mists of time. In every age they offer food for thought and hopefully, entertainment, which reflects on both our place in the world and the consequences of our actions.

We travel upon the Ark, in mud and rain,
Our oars promises from God.   
We live—and the rest of Humanity dies.   
We travel upon the waves, fastening
Our lives to the ropes of corpses filling the skies.
But between Heaven and us is an opening,
A porthole for a supplication.

The New Noah, by Adonis, translated by Shawkat M. Toorawa

Honourable Men

Marc Antony’s speech in Julius Caesar is a text famous for its oratory and skill in speaking one thing while meaning another. Time and again, he describes the conspirators who have killed Caesar as ‘honourable men’. As this repetition builds it sounds ever more hollow. The substance of the speech creates a growing space in which the populous may start to draw its own conclusions. It is a tactic of consummate skill that in Shakespeare’s hands becomes the opening salvo in a civil war.

‘Honour’ is not a term that sits comfortably in modern discourse. There is a mountain of evidence that suggests some MPs, who by tradition carry the title ‘Honourable’, are content to exhibit behaviour that undermines the recognition implied by the convention. It appears at times that there is a general desire on their part to sully the value of ethics in political office to achieve a particular goal: if everyone is behaving badly, what’s the difference when it comes to voting in elections? One recent example of this is the repeated claim by the Prime Minister that there are more people in work now than before the pandemic.

Responding to a complaint from the fact-checking organisation Full Fact, Mr Humpherson had told No 10 this claim had been made by the prime minister in Parliament on 24 November, 15 December, 5 January, 12 January and 19 January.

And it was “disappointing” the prime minister had “continued to refer to payroll employment as if describing total employment, despite contact from our office and from others”.

BBC News Website 7 February 2022

Perhaps Mr Johnson has learned the lesson from his time in journalism, that prominent and false claims continue to have credence even if they are corrected at a later date (less prominently, and in a much smaller font). Whether it is the ‘success’ of Brexit; the assertion that the UK Government did an excellent job handling the pandemic; or the overall state of the economy, aspirational claims and bluster appear to be the primary tactic of current political leadership. I am sure that however inaccurate many of these claims will appear to be, their confident assertion will hoodwink many people. The Globe’s touring production of Julius Caesar carries the right stapline: ‘Ancient Rome has never felt closer to home’. Elsewhere, Shakespeare provides Beatrice with words of contempt for the supposed bravery of big liars:

He is now as valiant as Hercules that only tells a lie and swears it.

Beatrice speaking in Much Ado About Nothing Act 4 scene 1

Establishing honour in civic life is not easy. It isn’t difficult to accuse people in leadership of hypocrisy, and none of us is perfect. However, it is a very sad state of affairs when honour is no longer held as a value to pursue. When simply holding power is seen as a kind of virtue, and the assumption is that whatever ‘sacrifice’ might be involved can be offset by the prospect of future gains (Saturday’s Guardian suggests that the Prime Minister will be able to earn £5 million per annum after leaving office).

The current political landscape in England cannot be blamed on leadership alone. We have stood by while the virtues and values of good government have been eroded. Any attempt to reverse this decline and promote more honourable leadership will require work at the grass roots. As people see the bluster for what it is, there is the chance that we can re-set expectations and encourage action and voting that sustains a better quality of leadership. I am not altogether hopeful that this can be achieved, but what honour would there be if we did not at least make the attempt?

Holy Zadok

Handel’s anthem, composed in 1727 for the critical moment of a coronation, the anointing, is the only piece to have been used on all subsequent coronations. It is not hard to understand why. It is magisterial, with a substantial introduction which swells and calms, sustaining a growing sense of expectation. When the choir enters, it is with a sudden and dizzying burst of sound. The text from 1 Kings is brief. In many respects it is a prosaic passage, describing with an almost matter-of-fact tone the actions of a priest and a prophet. Centuries later, in the hands of Handel, it is transformed to embellish the coronation of a British sovereign, conveying an auspicious announcement and the response of the people.

Zadok the priest and Nathan the prophet
anointed Solomon king.
And all the people rejoiced and said:
“God save the King!
Long live the King!
May the King live forever!
Amen! Amen! Alleluia!”

The text of the anthem from 1 Kings chapter 1

In its context the words used in the anthem signify rejoicing after uncertainty and discord. Another of David’s sons is attempting to take the crown, even as his elderly father still lives. The promise of succession had been given to Solomon, but this suddenly looks precarious. To avert civil war or other disorder, David orders Solomon to be taken to Nathan and Zadok (two figures who had not sided with the contender) – so that he can be proclaimed King. This action seals the succession and prevents any violence.

The BBC Radio 4 episode of Soul Music which centres on Handel’s anthem is a fine reflection on the technical achievements of the work as well as its past and present reception.

Hearing Zadok the Priest played for the Platinum Jubilee in York Minster this weekend, with the organ recently restored, has been a highlight of the celebrations. The well known notes, the tension of the moment and the release of expectation, never lose their power, despite their familiarity. As with so much of the symbolism of a coronation, each reference carries links to other times and occasions. Sometimes these feel fully justified, while at others it can amount to a forced connection which may be far removed from its original meaning. The text in 1 Kings, with its reference to Zadok and Nathan, appears to convey social order; the fulfilment of lawful succession; righteousness and fidelity.

David and Solomon, The Great East Window, York Minster

Events conspired to bring Elizabeth II to the throne – it could easily have been otherwise. Across seventy years her presence has provided stability in the winds of political change. Perhaps one day we shall know what the Queen thought about the political leadership and direction of the country. I cannot imagine that the last decade will have filled her with satisfaction as her long reign enters its twilight years. In the UK, even as the pandemic began, 27% of children were living in poverty. Recent rises in energy costs and the overall impact on the cost of living are likely to increase that figure, despite Government assistance. The gap between wealth and poverty has ballooned during the pandemic and it will take more than charity to transform this dismal trajectory.

Zadok and Nathan ensured orderly succession. Prophets, priests and kings did not always agree – but the tensions between these roles could work creatively for the people as a whole. Checks and a recognised dispersal of power are always needed for good governance, but so too is a common desire to see the whole community flourish. There has been much that is good over the last 70 years, but the reality of an ever-widening gap between wealth and poverty requires determined action if we wish to see everyone enjoy both peace and prosperity. This weekend has witnessed a rightful sense of celebration, but to honour the Queen and her unique role in British public life we cannot pass by the pressing issues of our time. A fitting legacy for this remarkable reign will be a society in which the fear of injustice, and of poverty, will begin to fade.

In Memory of God

Sometime in the late 1930s or early 40s, my father was very naughty. He used to tell me the tale with a chuckle, as he recounted the time he carved his initials into a church pew. What remained most notable in this memory was the rationale that accompanied his telling off. He was told, rather sternly I imagine, that he: ‘shouldn’t do that because people pay a lot of money to have their names inscribed in church’. As always in Lancashire, people cut to the chase.

On a recent visit to St Paul’s Cathedral I was reminded of this as I walked amongst the multitude of monuments. To amble down the aisles of this cathedral is to be surrounded by the ghosts of Empire – set out either in the commemoration of notable clergy who converted people around the world, or in the words written across the tombs of generals; admirals; and sea captains. I doubt there are many omissions from the references to far flung parts of Empire that once came under British rule. Across the acres of white marble I was left wondering what untold stories lie behind the eulogies of these historic leaders. In contrast to the praise of their actions, the voices of the acted upon are absent.

There is no doubt that these monuments signify both money and power. Set in the midst of the City of London, the figures can be seen as the immortalised heroes of a mercantile thirst that brooked little opposition. The inscriptions carry numerous references to the East India Company. There is something very disturbing about a spiritual place that glorifies colonial power and is silent about a legacy still blighting people around the world. This substantial void at the centre of Capitalism – Conrad’s ‘heart of darkness’ – is a fitting mausoleum for the sons of Empire.

In the current issue of Crucible, The Journal of Christian Social Ethics, Carlton Turner writes about the possibilities of decolonising theology. This is a challenging task as theology was recruited into the work of colonisation from the outset, or at least from the moment when a faith smelted in the experience of military occupation was integrated into government. The statue of the Emperor Constantine outside York Minster is an ever present reminder that Christianity, once on the margins of Empire, suddenly came to occupy a place at the centre.

… for people within the colonial situation, the very way theology has been done, and continues to be done, is problematic and perpetuates their own annihilation.

Turner, C. ‘Give us Healing Balm: Decolonising Theology Through African Caribbean Eyes’, Crucible April 2022 pp. 16-23.

The theology of the privileged never fully absorbs the theology that germinates in ‘base communities’, but the struggle and cost of sustaining local and authentic theologies is far from easy. For some theologians, acquiescence to the status quo is tantamount to self-harm or accepting an unchosen and enforced sacrifice (in favour of the West). Trust in Theological Education, written by Eve Parker and just published by scm press, adds further consideration and challenge to the assumptions of a theology written mostly in places of privilege and power.

When we listen to a greater variety of voices we have the opportunity to understand the damage which our theology has created, and the risks arising from a ‘normative’ Christianity applied across a range of contexts. For observers from these contexts it must often seem that these fine statues glorify man and, at best, give a modest nod to the memory of a God who made the inconvenient choice to be born amongst the poor of our planet. Every day in St Paul’s the following words are said or sung. The incongruence feels too large to reconcile:

He hath shewed strength with his arm :
he hath scattered the proud in the imagination of their hearts.
He hath put down the mighty from their seat :
and hath exalted the humble and meek.
He hath filled the hungry with good things :
and the rich he hath sent empty away.

The Magnificat, Book of Common Prayer (Luke 1)

Donne and Dusted

I was very sad when John Donne died. This wasn’t recently (in fact, 1631), nor is it a plot spoiler, but is retold in the culmination of Katherine Rundell’s absorbing recent biography of the poet. Like so many in his generation Donne had a momento mori close by on his desk – a reminder of mortality present at all times. To modern sentiments this may seem mawkish, but in an era when sudden death was far from rare, it was wise to live with an active awareness that your current experience could came to an abrupt full stop.

The awareness of death is a characteristic consistent with Donne’s relentless attention to the material world, no matter how grim or gritty it got. There was nothing too impolite or unseemly to be dragged into the pulpit of St Paul’s Cathedral and shared with the multitudes. Life, Donne told his hearers, is like a journey between a goal and a place of execution. A short trip that ran from crime to punishment, darkness to death. Except that this wasn’t the lesson of his analogy. Donne was provoking the congregation to contrast our human inattention with the alertness of someone knowingly going to their death. As he put it, on the journey from Newgate to Tyburn, no one sleeps. Yet, Donne argues, we are heading towards the same certainty spending significant parts of the journey asleep. His call echoes the Biblical and Advent theme that ‘now it is time to wake out of sleep’. To be stirred up, ‘now, in the time of this mortal life’.

Donne is not a wholly attractive figure. As a financially challenged poet his obsequious letters to various grandees grate in a more egalitarian age. His rise to high office in the Church of England required careful nurturing of royal connections. Despite this, he brought to the Deanery a fierce intellect; an astonishing mastery of language; and a theological sensitivity to the complexity of the times. The combination of his gifts and experiences enabled Donne to further what we might now call ‘the Anglican Project’ – establishing the groundwork for an expression of Christianity shaped by the heritage and nuances of English experience. There was certainly an appetite for his approach, with large crowds flocking to hear him preach. A few years ago, an experiment took place to see how audible Donne’s sermons would have been from the outside pulpit at St Paul’s, surrounded by hundreds of people.

The memorial to John Donne, St Paul’s Cathedral

Perhaps the most curious, visceral and haunting detail in Rundell’s book describes Donne’s preparation for death. As the end approached Donne saw its prospect as one final dramatic moment. He ordered an urn and shroud to be made, then lay in the shroud so an artist could sketch his appearance at full scale. This became the image from which his statue was carved following his death – still in St Paul’s today, one of very few to survive the Great Fire of 1666.

“Donne made himself ready; part, perhaps, of a desire to have things done exactly as he had imagined them – an artist of ferocious precision, dying precisely. His last words – ‘I were miserable if I might not die.'”

Rundell, K, ‘Super-Infinite: The Transformations of John Donne’, Faber 2022 p. 290

It is fitting that Donne is most often remembered for his poem beginning ‘No man is an island’. Fitting because it addresses two themes which ran throughout Donne’s life: mortality and connectedness. He lived at a time when the fusion of the material and spiritual, the sensory and the abstract, was an acceptable way to write about the world. Given the ubiquity of death, including young family members, mortality made Donne’s life an ever changing landscape. Undoubtedly these losses were never welcome, but they contributed to a vivid celebration of life and determination to be awake and alert. Donne notices the world in a way that comes from an acute sense that each and every day is gift that will not be repeated.

Will God Get COVID?

This might sound like a rather abstruse theological question – along the lines of angels and pinheads. However, it isn’t as far as I’m concerned. Since auditioning for the York Mystery Plays‘ forthcoming wagon productions, I have become God’s understudy. I’m not sure whether this kind of role existed before, but the shadow of COVID has meant directors are more concerned about having ‘first reserves’ for the main speaking parts.

Some years ago I encountered the York Mystery Plays while undertaking research connected with the history of hospital chaplains. This involved visits to the York Minster Library to access records and materials connected with the large hospital of St Leonard, developed out of an infirmary built over a thousand years ago. It was here that I came across a reference in the prayer of the Barber Surgeons which addressed the Lord ‘as Sovereign Leech’. It’s a small expression of the visceral and earthy content of the plays, bringing the stories told in Latin in the pristine interior of the Minster down to the vernacular of the Shambles. A narrow lane where the butchers of York conducted their trade, and the cobbles no doubt ran with blood.

The play in the cycle which I’m supporting is The Flood. Given some of the inaccessibility of the language it’s helpful to have a story which is well known, even outside Christian circles. The cast has reflected on the question of what kind of god saves one family and kills everyone else? This may have been less troublesome to Medieval tellers of the tale or their audiences, where the traditional explanation of ‘sin’ is the accepted reason offered for the mass slaughter. God repents of creating humanity and decides to ‘work this work I will all new’.

Sithen has men wrought so woefully
And sin is now reigning so rife,
That me repents and rues fully
That ever I made either man or wife.

I’ve no doubt that official toleration of the plays depended to some extent on the text more or less following the official story known to the literate people of the day. However, it would be fascinating to know what some thought about this mass extinction when plague had been part of their experience. Times when everyone would have known someone who had suffered and died in the frequent outbreaks that occurred in urban centres. In the second half of the 14th century York’s population fell from 15,000 to 10,000. As the deaths undoubtedly fell unevenly, some families and professional Guilds would have experienced dire losses. Questions about the link between sin and an early grave may well have vexed the minds of citizens, especially given the suffering that took place with very limited medical aid.

Photo by James Wheeler on Pexels.com

At the very least, after the plagues, the story of the Flood may not have seemed quite so innocent or uncomplicated. Unlike many, this does not give me concern from a biblical perspective. Like the story of Job, I do not view these as literal accounts in the sense that they describe physical happenings as we would evaluate them today. Very often these accounts are addressing theological and philosophical questions that were real and pressing for people. Why do sudden natural events wipe away large number of people? Where is God in this destruction and loss of life? Are human beings living the way God is calling them to live? Can we make a fresh start? One view about the demise of Mystery Plays across Europe suggests that a growing diversity of beliefs meant that vernacular plays were no longer uncontroversial accounts of an agreed theology. This both placed people’s souls at risk (of error) and posed challenges to civic authorities attempting to maintain order in fractious times.

The plays are full of hints and winks that add ribald humour to the narrative and no doubt contributed to the popularity of the plays. For example, we are left to wonder whether one of the daughters became pregnant in the ark when she remarks towards the end of the flood: ‘Nine months past are plain Since we were put to pain’ (both the timespan and reference to pain – Genesis 3:16 – appear to leave little doubt). As with so much community theatre, the allocation of roles could also lead to mirth. Might some of the humour be subversive, casting a teetotaler as Noah or a reprobate as God? We know from the contemporaneous Canterbury Tales the character of Medieval discourse and popular humour or, at least, the kind of humour that found a ready audience. In a dissertation by Asier Ibáñez Villahoz, it is suggested that both the Mystery Plays and the Tales draw on a form of carnival subversion. While I disagree with Villahoz’s claim that sexual humour is absent, it may certainly have been more obscure or toned down when compared with the Tales due to its public performance.

Carnival subversion appears in the way some characters as the adulterous woman or Noah’s wife are depicted connected to that anti-feminist tradition. Misogyny is a major issue in these plays: not only Eve is represented in a negative way but also other women that have just been mentioned do not behave the rigid orthodox way of behaviour they should have.

https://uvadoc.uva.es/bitstream/handle/10324/33297/TFG_F_2018_35.pdf;sequence=1

The resurrection of the Mystery Plays in a modern setting may reflect the relative decline in the UK of religious disagreements as a cause for public disorder. The audiences appear happy to regard the wagon plays as public spectacles, with historical interest and a spirit of local pageantry. Seeing them performed in full for the first time since the pandemic may cause some to reflect on the recent inundation of infection. Whether this unforeseen loss of life will raise theological questions is uncertain and, despite the inevitable temptation, I genuinely hope that God does not come down with COVID.

Two or Three

Understandably, Evensong is about the ending of the day. As I have written before, it offers a space for reflection and prayer rendered in words that are centuries old. Once a staple ingredient of the worshipping diet of the Church of England, fewer and fewer churches hold the service with any regularity. Cathedrals still maintain its place as a mainstay of their existence and many are rewarded with appreciative congregations. York Minster saw many hundreds of people at its Easter Sunday Evensong, but this is the exception rather than the rule.

Recently I attended Evensong in the pretty port town of Whitby. I was fortunate in that my stay coincided with the one Sunday in the month when Evensong is held in one of the Anglican churches. This information wasn’t difficult to find on the internet – but I note that the local paper, the Whitby Gazette, no longer carries a listing for local church services. The publication has always felt a little retro (I’ve no idea how common the practice is) but until the pandemic there was always a sizeable entry reporting all the service times for Whitby and the surrounding villages for the forthcoming Sunday.

‘The other response to decline has been the creation of complex patterns of rotation of services’.

Bruce, S. (2011). Secularisation, church and popular religion. The Journal of Ecclesiastical History, 62(3), 543-561.

The service I attended took place at 6 pm in the large Victorian church of St Hilda, built in 1844. As I have found with a number of churches at service times, there was no external indication of what was about to take place. Admittance was by a modest door that stood open, but with no signage inviting entry. Coming to this service required a confident churchgoer. While there was no one there to greet worshippers, books with a service pamphlet were prepared and waiting on a table. Arriving just a few minutes before the service time I found that I was one of three worshippers sitting in the nave. On the hour a crucifer and robed choir in double figures entered via what appeared to be a side chapel, and the service began.

It was a good service. Three hymns were sung, all familiar to me and strongly led by the choir. There was no sermon. Yet in a town of thirteen thousand souls, with many more visiting as tourists on a Bank Holiday weekend, the congregation never rose above three (two of whom were clergy). I’m not very interested in nostalgia, but there may well be a place for lament. For Evensong aficionados the service was listed in the Choral Evensong website, but that made no discernable difference to the attendance. Although over a decade old, I think Steve Bruce identifies accurately many of the problems of religion in these coastal communities, and more widely. Numbers have dwindled; clergy are fewer; sustaining services across multiple benefice parishes has led to complex timetables; as churches have closed a wider network of folk religion has diminished. In all the counting done by church strategists, the existence and role of popular religion is mostly neglected. The people whose children went to Sunday school; who attended the Carol services and coffee mornings; who turned to the church for occasional offices. Throughout my ministry, this group has been a vital part of my pastoral ministry, whether as residents in a Lancashire suburban parish; as patients in hospital; or amongst the people now living into their tenth decade and beyond. The mood music of the C of E seems to require this group to make a decision: be a disciple or be gone.

‘a notional sense of affiliation and occasional and peripheral involvement in churches and chapels requires that there be functioning churches and chapels close at hand’.

Ibid.

While there are groups now fighting a rearguard action, such as ‘Save the Parish‘, the spiritual capital already squandered through closure, complexity and theological withdrawal, will not be regained. It was built over centuries and lost in a generation. To many of us the ‘disciple’ mantras from the centre sounds like an ever-narrowing agenda. The ark may have escaped our reach, but we are downsizing to lifeboats in order to accommodate the faithful few and float over an ocean of the un-saved. This pays little regard to the everyday sacred; the resources of our churches as wonderful places to ‘be’ (when they are open); the honest striving of people to make sense of their lives.

In the glories of High Church Victoriana, Evensong can feel like the faithful performance of am-dram Shakespeare. A mystery play forged through the fires of Reformation England, with local actors adding their accents to the long, long tradition of Anglican spirituality. Words that name our wretchedness, speak of the dead and lay hope in the resurrection. In a town where the physical landscape is used to such good effect, and where jet became the jewellery of mourning, I wonder if there is any chance that new life might be breathed into this ancient worship? Before we give up the ghost on this liturgy, perhaps we should consider the possibility of new links and relationships. Surely, if any piece of worship was ever made for the Goths who congregate in Whitby, it’s Choral Evensong.

Dawn Leads on Another Day

The break of day is a moment that divides and defines the ambit of our experience. Perhaps we find it mundane and predictable, but each dawn is momentous. For most of us it stirs us to waking and unfolds the day ahead. I never fail to feel that each day is unique and marvellous – a never-to-be-repeated opportunity. Of course, days will recur: but never the same day. Like the blare of a siren we are aware of their approach, and with rapidity they fall behind us. There are countless days we shall forget and a small number that will remain with us until the grave. In literature the risks and possibilities of each day have been a foil for playwrights and poets:

Night’s candles are burnt out, and jocund day
Stands tiptoe on the misty mountain tops.
I must be gone and live, or stay and die.

Romeo and Juliet Act 3 Scene 5

It is little wonder that in Genesis the first words attributed to God are: ‘let there be light’. It is the division between light and dark which forms the fundamental aspect of life, perhaps the first element of conscious human awareness. It grants us the experience of time. In Mark 16, just as God created the first day, so the women go to the tomb ‘when the sun had risen’. It is another day; a second creation; the moment when ‘light shines in the darkness’ and humanity no longer has to dwell in night. For, although in creation day was divided from night, when the Psalmist thinks about God: ‘even the darkness is not dark to you; the night is as bright as the day, for darkness is as light to you’ (Psalm 139). Whether in the darkness of rooms behind locked doors, or when, ‘just after daybreak, Jesus stood on the beach’ (John 21) the resurrection stories contrast night and day. Easter is a daybreak that will never darken.

Converting 4 million tons of matter into energy every second, the sun constitutes about 99.86% of the mass of the Solar System

Perhaps the reliability of the sun’s daily appearance dulls our appreciation of what is taking place – both in space and time. Our brief lives are lived in orbit around this ancient and enduring fixed point. It was not always here, and it will not last forever, although in all probability it will outlive humanity. While its output fluctuates, to our senses it is constant and unchanging. Our days, months, years and hours are defined by its appearance. Like so many things, including historic perceptions of earth’s centrality to the universe, the sun’s significance is estimated from a human perspective. Despite all our technology and progress we have no ability to alter or influence its existence.

Of course, when the dog stirs at first light, I am not enamoured with the shift to longer days in the Northern hemisphere. (I think 05:30 is the limit of my tolerance for greeting the new day with a spring in my step). Watching the inexorable rise of the sun out of the sea is certainly a spiritual experience and prompts metaphysical questions. It is little wonder that many religions have tied their prayer times to reflect such moments, responding to the natural world with practices that invest meaning, seek relationship and prompt contemplation. Perhaps uniquely in the ancient churches of the world, only the Armenians developed a ‘Sunrise Office’. Touchingly, it describes monks ‘having awakened in awe’, instantly moved to pray. The service came to stand apart from Prime or Matins and included Psalm 112, a text reflecting on those who fear the Lord: ‘They rise in the darkness as a light for the upright; they are gracious, merciful, and righteous’.

This prayer signifies the second coming of Christ and the resurrection of humanity from the tombs on the first day of the week at the first hour. For the resurrection of all human natures will take place at that hour… he is the morning and the beginning of the dawning of the sun of righteousness, and it will take place at that first hour of the great day.

Findikyan, M. D. (2000). On the origins and early evolution of the Armenian office of sunrise. Orientalia Christiana Analecta, (260), 283-314
Sunrise, the North Sea, 29 April 2022

Rich with Yeast

Allelulia, The Lord is Risen!

In a hot climate, the poet AE Stallings writes of the difficulty of locating a family grave in a cemetery. Someone goes in search of information to find the right place:

Then you came back
With the coordinates, and snagged a priest
Glistening in polyester black,

Who, at the grave, now found,
Spoke of the rest and rising of the dead
As if they were so many loaves of bread
Tucked in their oblong pans
In a kitchen gold with sunlight, rich with yeast.

From A. E. Stallings, ‘Memorial (Mnemosyno)’

He is Risen Indeed. Alleluia!

Unvarnished Truth

It is the thing which shouldn’t be there. High up in the crossing above the worn-smooth stones of the Cathedral floor. It is visible across the nave of the building, raised in front of newly refurbished organ pipes resplendent in gold and bright vermilion. Millions were spent bringing this huge instrument back to a state of excellence. Every note sounding pitch-perfect, and accompanying a choir of international renown. Below the organ pipes is the screen. Elaborate stonework and gilded kings – the work of master masons long departed this world. The Cathedral harvests the best that can be had, filling this barn of a building with the finest sculptures, carpentry and glasswork. During Lent, into all this splendour, is lifted a rough-hewn cross. As basic as you can imagine, two planks of unpolished, unvarnished and uninspiring timber hanging in space below the central tower.

Liturgy, and the context it inhabits, has a knack of creating paradox. When it seems that the church has been enthralled by worldly standards, with a hierarchy of clergy, the splendour of an Archbishop or Pope is cast aside on Maundy Thursday as they kneel to wash people’s feet. All the grandeur is subverted by the truth that the least will be greatest in the Kingdom of God, and the last shall be first. Stitched into our services is the recurring message that things will not always be as we expect. God can, and does, disturbs us in surprising ways.

The Lenten cross is yet another jarring sign of this unsettling truth: just when we think everything is polished and perfect, the rough and the ready is what we need to tell us what God is about.

“But lying there long while, I,
troubled, beheld the Healer’s tree,
until I heard its fair voice.
Then best wood spoke these words:
“It was long since – I yet remember it –
that I was hewn at holt’s end,
moved from my stem.”

The Dream of the Rood

Theology could not function without paradox. Christianity is not – and can never be – something that reconciles every aspect of human experience in a divine plan. Our worship requires us to recognise and name the most difficult aspects of human living. In baptism we say that this new life will one day die. At every marriage ceremony we are reminded that the commitments are made ‘until death us do part’. There is no shying away from these fundamental truths of human life. Yet our commitment to the limits of human existence is held in tension with a great hope. A hope which, on Good Friday, we affirm even in the shadow of the cross; the Healer’s tree. We cannot disregard the injustice, suffering and humiliation of this public execution. We see it and name it.

For some people it will not be Good Friday that is difficult. Human suffering is obvious and ubiquitous. The step of faith to Easter Day is the part of Christianity that stretches their credulity. Yet for those who follow the way of Christ, our response to suffering is lit with a hope that radiates from the empty tomb. Yes, suffering is real – but it is not all.

He hung there limply on the frame,
His body beaten black and blue.
Exposure was the thing; humiliation, too;
To which the nails seemed superfluous
When all you had to do was die of shame;
Quietly expire, a minimum of fuss.
But what a noise you made, Silent Messiah,
Your humbling death, so nakedly exposed,
Conquered forum, basilica and the choir
Of poets with the love you interposed.

N. S. Thompson, ‘Silent Messiah’ in ‘The Poet’s Quest for God’ Eyewear Publishing 2016