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Saturday, January 20, 2018

"Now in a mirror, dimly" Paul and the Body


Feast of St Paul

Last Sunday, I referred to the Old Testament account of the Call of Samuel (Samuel 1) and the gospel story of Jesus’ encountering Nathanael (John 1) but it was the epistle that I left out – I chose not to address it.  Afterwards the reader of the epistle tapped my shoulder and asked with some feeling, why we had that reading with all that stuff about prostitution and fornication, and I responded with something like, “I know.  It’s difficult isn’t it?”

Now it may not surprise you that the epistle I rejected was from St Paul.  Most of the epistles are from St Paul and the New Testament would be desperately thin without his writings.  There is a problem with those facts alone – you could for an argument – throw caution to the winds and claim that Paul invented Christianity!  After all his writings shaped it and critically formed our understanding of it.  How do we feel about Paul’s influence; about the influence of this one critical figure, this one strongly opinionated figure, as the shaping formative force behind the New Testament?

Now last Sunday, as I thought about the question ‘Why did we read that lesson?” and ‘Why did that reading get ignored?’ 

I realised that it was the different voices I heard in the scriptures.  There were such different voices:  There was Samuel, a fine history, a clear narrative.   There was John’s gospel with the lucid and metaphysically dense craftsmanship of the Word, the mystery beyond all things, and yet now incarnate, “and we beheld his glory full of grace and truth.”  In that context the sighting of Nathanael under the fig tree is charged and luminous with possibility.  

But, in sharp contrast, the voice of the Epistle – was dissonant, it jarred against those texts.  It was the typical voice of Paul in his epistles, the Pauline diatribe (and if you are trying to remind yourself what diatribe means, an impolite but handy synonym is ‘rant’.  None of us like being ‘ranted’ at and I have a fair hunch that we struggle with Paul because we are uncomfortable with the diatribe, the constant unerring sense of argument and debate.  But that’s the art of Paul; the diatribe is the voice that commands your attention with all its ploys and rhetoric.

So listen now to the diatribe of our patron saint, as we might have heard it last Sunday:  Remember this is 1 Corinthians 6:12-20 …

Conversion of St Paul
‘All things are lawful for me’, but not all things are beneficial. ‘All things are lawful for me’, but I will not be dominated by anything. ‘Food is meant for the stomach and the stomach for food’, and God will destroy both one and the other. The body is meant not for fornication but for the Lord, and the Lord for the body. And God raised the Lord and will also raise us by his power. Do you not know that your bodies are members of Christ? Should I therefore take the members of Christ and make them members of a prostitute? Never! Do you not know that whoever is united to a prostitute becomes one body with her? For it is said, ‘The two shall be one flesh.’ But anyone united to the Lord becomes one spirit with him.   Shun fornication! Every sin that a person commits is outside the body; but the fornicator sins against the body itself. Or do you not know that your body is a temple of the Holy Spirit within you, which you have from God, and that you are not your own? For you were bought with a price; therefore glorify God in your body.

Paul begins with a saying that seems to have come from the community of Corinth, and which he uses to berate them with:    behind this passage lurks a question; what does it mean to live in the body?  Paul points to the resurrection of Jesus “… And God raised the Lord and will also raise us by his power. Do you not know that your bodies are members of Christ?”

There are Christians who, often thinking they are following Paul, have come to a theological understanding of our humanity that would have the body/flesh at odds with the Spirit; that see the body and our capacity for sensual pleasure, as something to be shunned; there are those who have considered Paul as the source of religious guilt regarding sexuality.  The diatribe we have just read can be misinterpreted in such ways but there are powerful statements that seep into the soul: 

“Shun fornication! Every sin that a person commits is outside the body; but the fornicator sins against the body itself. Or do you not know that your body is a temple of the Holy Spirit within you, which you have from God, and that you are not your own?”

But Paul’s theology is more developed than that.  One only has to turn to Chapter 13 with its reflection on love; to read that glorious paean on love, to realise that Paul’s vision of how we live in the body is charged with the Spirit.  Hear this other voice of Paul: the diatribe that is a paean of love!

“Love is patient; love is kind; love is not envious or boastful or arrogant or rude. It does not insist on its own way; it is not irritable or resentful; it does not rejoice in wrongdoing, but rejoices in the truth. It bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things.

 Love never ends. But as for prophecies, they will come to an end; as for tongues, they will cease; as for knowledge, it will come to an end. For we know only in part, and we prophesy only in part; but when the complete comes, the partial will come to an end. When I was a child, I spoke like a child, I thought like a child, I reasoned like a child; when I became an adult, I put an end to childish ways. For now we see in a mirror, dimly, but then we will see face to face. Now I know only in part; then I will know fully, even as I have been fully known. And now faith, hope, and love abide, these three; and the greatest of these is love.”



My thought on Paul and the body ‘Now, in a mirror, dimly’…

Saturday, January 13, 2018

A matter of being 'Found'


Epiphany 3 Reflection


Greek Orthodox icon of prophet Samuel
It has been said that you can’t read or hope to understand Samuel without first of all reading the book of Judges.  There is wisdom in that advice.  In Judges the reader gets used to seeing a pattern in the history of Israel.  The people enjoy God’s favour; they rebel and fall away from the covenant; they are punished and suffer disaster; they repent and return to God’s ways; they enjoy God’s favour; they rebel and fall away … and so it goes on.  We see the story of a system of tribal alliances and a terrible lack of cohesion; God appoints Judges over the people. The judges are required to go on circuit to bring order and cohesion, but the system is fairly casual.  Alongside the story of Judges is the continual undercurrent of a demand for a different model: the people want a King to lead them into battle – they want to be like other nations.
In Samuel we see the last of the Judges and, in a brilliantly written history we observe a tragedy unfold as the last of the Judges passes and anoints the disastrous first of the Kings of Israel – Saul.

We are at a point where much is passing away.  We find Israel in a state of gathering dark – Eli fading in his powers, the lamp of God in the Temple at Shiloh (where the ark of the covenant was kept) has gone out, young Samuel is surrounded by the darkness, and we are told that this is a time when both visions and the word of God are rare (and we may draw our own conclusions).

There is tragedy in the story: Eli is a great man but his family has let him down.  His sons are scoundrels.  The ministry of God through Eli’s family has been severely compromised – and Eli’s time is coming to an end.  There is also hope in the story – if we go back to the start of Judges we hear something of Samuel’s history: we are told that his mother Hannah is barren but that she prays for a son.  Her prayer is answered and she keeps her vow to offer Samuel to the service of God.  So, when the time is right, she leaves the infant Samuel to grow up in the House of Eli and to so minister to the Lord.  In due course this bears fruit when God calls Samuel through the darkness; and Samuel, under guidance from Eli, responds and we find him in communication with God.  At long last, something is happening.

Now it would suit my purposes better if our Gospel were from Luke not John and the story was of the Annunciation – it would be so thematically tidy to let the two prayers of Hannah and Mary make the connections for us – how Hannah gives birth to Samuel who will usher in the Kings of Israel; while Mary gives birth to the Son of God.  Instead we have other connections that we need to recognise. 

God finds Samuel in the darkness of the temple at Shiloh.  In John’s gospel we hear an account of the first days of Jesus and we hear of him deciding to go to Galilee, where we are told he found Philip.  It is worth dwelling on that choice of word, on being ‘found’.  The point of that word is that the finding is done by Jesus, not through any action or merit on Phillip’s part; likewise one may say, in comparison with the story of Samuel in the temple at Shiloh, the initiative is from God; it is in God’s purpose to find Samuel.  So in dark and difficult times, we are reminded by these great stories that God’s great purpose is not thwarted; that God acts and continually acts in our affairs, however dark and difficult the circumstances may be.


We also hear in the gospel that
1:45 Philip found Nathanael and said to him, "We have found him about whom Moses in the law and also the prophets wrote, Jesus son of Joseph from Nazareth."

Is it alarming at all if I suggest that Philip is really not being honest? That he is in fact running ahead of himself and of discoveries that have yet to be made and that will be made in the faithful following of Christ?  Thus far they have not had time to suggest any conclusions about who Jesus is and, anyway, this is knowledge that will come from God and through the purpose and the initiative of God alone.

This is why Nathanael’s rough response "Can anything good come out of Nazareth?", is refreshing and even encouraging – it has an earthy, grounded scepticism about it – that is reinforced by Jesus humorous greeting (v.47)  "Here is truly an Israelite in whom there is no deceit!" a greeting that echoes the story of the ever deceitful Israel or Jacob as he was known.  But Jesus speaks truly and Nathanael seems to understand that here is someone who really knows him, understands him, and has most truly ‘Found’ him and with this realisation the story of God floods the page; flooding the lives of those so touched.


As always this leads us to the question of our lives and of our times, of our being found by God in the labyrinth of our days; we should not get too anxious!  We are all God’s creatures, his dearly loved creation – and the question is really whether we are prepared to be found; there is no forcing of the door in this matter; it really is much simpler, “We just say, God, if it is your will, let it be with me as you wish. Help me.”

Monday, January 8, 2018

Sermon on A Christmas Card


It is ironic to be preaching and reflecting on the Epiphany through a Christmas card image that is so familiar but until now never really seen.

Reflection on The Epiphany

Readings: Isaiah 60:1-6  • Ephesians 3:1-12  • Matthew 2:1-12

This week I discovered a famous painting on the Epiphany story - it is known as‘The Adoration of the Magi’ and is by Gentile da Fabriano – who, in the 15th century, was commissioned by the Strozzi, a family of wealthy bankers, to paint it as an altarpiece for their private chapel in Florence.   It is a painting worth Googling – I must have seen it before – at least as a Christmas Card – but until now as I thought about Epiphany, I have never really given it attention.

I will include a link on my blog to encourage you to experience something of my exhilaration and enthusiasm for the painting.




As in previous years my initial superficial response was that of the Christmas Card: I recognised the gorgeous and sumptuous richness of the style and its conventional subject – the three Magi adoring the Christ in the Bethlehem stable.  A Christmas card subject, yet it drew me in.

It was not just the three Kings – that specific detail dominated the lower foreground but, beyond that it included different times and stages that had led them to this climax.  Higher up, fading almost into the frame, was the story of a journey. A sequential arrangement unfolded:  first, the three Kings sighting of the star; then their entry into Jerusalem and, from thence their arrival at Bethlehem.  At which stage the story of the painting flows into its title, ‘The Adoration of the Magi’: in the foreground where the Magi give gifts; take off their crowns; and worship the playful child.

That moment of wonder and adoration is the theological realisation of the painting. These magi represent the establishment of their time.  They hold power, wealth and wisdom, and yet humble themselves before the infant Christ.  Despite his humble circumstances, they recognise Him as their Lord and they strip off their signs of rank and status and yield them to Him.   A moment of reflection on this radical action makes us realise that, in a glance, this painting captures a long process of transformation; a process that began from their first sighting of the star. It all began when they chose to follow the star.  From that moment these men have been changed; there has been an inner alchemy at work through the course of their journey: the details we can only guess – but it has been sufficient for them to persist to the end until, at the stable, they doff their crowns and worship the one who is their way, their truth, their life.

Despite their doffing of royalty, they had travelled with their court,  and the luggage of their culture and time.   To the stable, they brought with them the wider world of man: so among their entourage of courtiers we glimpse feral carnivores, apes, birds, dogs –animal images that represent diverse human passions and qualities (such as lust, vanity, greed, faithfulness).  There is also a wealth of distracting detail and other stories to imagine – for instance, the servant trying to release the spurs from one of the Mages; the courtier with a falcon on his wrist; the anxious gaze of the leashed dog as one of the horses seems about to step on him; even, just behind Mary, her two attendants who inspect the gifts.

The painting teaches something about telling a story.  In the background with the distancing of time, the sense of progression seems clear – but, closer to the present, this is less so, as a sense of clutter and distraction dominates amidst the complex fabric of life, the trappings of the journey and the distinctive characters.

Can we really look at a painting like this and, in turn, not wonder about ourselves, our purpose and our story?  What star do we follow?   Are we clear about what we follow?   Are we clear about our purpose?

If we were to take our lead from this painting, to remember that it traces a journey and its sequences; how might we remember our own story and the stages of our journey?
How did our story begin?  Where did it begin?


For instance, let’s assume that our story began at baptism – when the priest asked “Do you trust in Christ’s victory which brings forgiveness, freedom and life?”  And we, or our godparents or sponsors replied on our behalf, “In faith I turn to Christ, my way, my truth, my life.”  In that single phrase, whether found or given, was the star we were to follow.  Now the facts are seldom so clear or so simple.  

Few of us can remember our baptism and though many of us have probably made similar faith commitments in quite different circumstances.  Nevertheless I’d be interested where or how you think your journey began.  How your progress went; what helped; what hindered; and where you think you are now.  Some of us may only remember what we might now think of as false starts, or starts that were really a beginning again.  Life can be messy; our story might be too. Nevertheless the promise of baptism holds true: “I turn to Christ” and we follow the star.  At moments of uncertainty, our direction holds firm: at the thought “I turn to Christ,” we follow the star.


Saturday, December 30, 2017

“Be alert, be awake - there is more to all this than meets the eye!”



“Be alert, be awake - there is more to all this than meets the eye!”   

This is a strange time of the year and impressions and memories that have been formed from early childhood still influence how many of us understand the Season of Christmas as it spills over into the New Year.  I read a recent article from a NZ columnist who explored that thought with insight and reverence.

“When I was little, Christmas seemed such a big thing. It loomed in my child’s mind as the final, familiar headland, around which the Ship of the Year must pass before dropping anchor on New Year’s Eve.

And it wasn’t just the gathering pace of the festival; the choosing and decorating of the tree, the steadily mounting pile of presents, the arrival of grandparents, aunts, uncles and assorted cousins, that quickened my excitement. Underpinning it all there was an awareness of the Christmas Story itself.

We are so familiar with the biblical narrative now, that it is easy to forget its impact upon the imagination of the very young. For me, the wonder of the story of the Nativity has always been encapsulated in the lines of Oh Little Town of Bethlehem:
Oh little town of Bethlehem
How still we see thee lie,
Within thy dark and dreamless sleep
The silent hours go by.
Yet in thy dark streets shineth
The everlasting light
The hopes and fears of all the years
Are met in thee tonight

That sense of immanence, of something miraculous and terribly important taking place amidst the mundane and the ordinary; of a supernatural presence smashing through the barriers of the workaday world – as it did for those shepherds on the hillside – was incredibly powerful. It was as if a voice was whispering: “Be alert, be awake - there is more to all this than meets the eye!”

To a little boy growing up in the Otago countryside – where at night the stars burn bright and clear - the whole Christmas story glimmered with mystery and magic.”

In this our columnist (Chris Trotter) demonstrates an instinctive understanding of the power of the Christmas story; a recognition of the irruption into normal finite time of something transcendent in essence and of a measure of reality far beyond what can understand: “Be alert, be awake - there is more to all this than meets the eye!”   

I utterly agree.  It is of course outrageous – those words ‘mystery’ and ‘magic’ are surely a warning of where such thinking leads -  and theologians opposed to all such notions of transcendence have warned us and argued the point, affirmed the ‘Death of God’ theology, but, in the process have seemed to paint the faith into a corner.   At their hands our universe can seem drained of the sacred and our imaginative capacity is denigrated and diminished as an aberration rather than a complement to our use of reason and science.

Great Christian writers have worked tirelessly go restore our imaginative richness and renew our openness to the sources of transcendence at work within the natural order. The gospel vision appears re-framed within the fictions of C. S. Lewis and J. R.R. Tolkein.  There is an expansive contemporary movement of Christian/ religious fantasy fiction and a growing number of writers whose works extend its notional boundaries.  

The strange novels of Charles Williams fall clearly within that category but also some names I had not thought of – John Masefield for example, in his children’s novels The Midnight Folk and The Box of Delights.  Similarly the possibly neo-pagan aspect of Susan Cooper’s children’s fantasy The Dark is Rising, presents our familiar world as a place where good and evil, light and dark, are enmeshed in conflict. “Be alert, be awake - there is more to all this than meets the eye!”
   
These are stories that may or may not be recognised as Christian in essence, but doctrine and orthodoxy (as the creeds may express it), need imaginative relocation to refresh and renew our faith.  We all need help to see our world as a place where there is mystery and wonder, and where our hopes and deepest instincts draw upon a deeper wisdom than we allow for or can easily explain.  

In doing this we reclaim a sacred space for the imagination and we acknowledge the reality of evil and, alongside it, the capacity for goodness in our world.  To read such works is always to imaginatively realign ourselves with God and the good; this is reading to warm the heart and stir the will; it is reading with the intention or hope of transformation.


As the apostle John has expressed it: “The light shines in the darkness and the darkness has never overcome it.”  “Be alert, be awake - there is more to all this than meets the eye!”   This is, in effect,  an invitation to view the New Year and its changes with hope, caution and resolve.

Saturday, December 23, 2017

Advent 4 And is it true?


Fourth Sunday of Advent 2017

Readings: 2 Samuel 7:1-11, 16; Romans 16:25-27; Luke 1: 26-38;

Dunedin residents and readers of the ODT (Otago Daily Times) will recall the recent spat over the Christmas Tree in the Octagon and the new message that accompanied it: ‘Happy Holidays’.  I had someone ring me to ask that I complain: this was someone who sounded sane and benign but was plainly upset at the deliberate sidelining of the religious origins of the festival.  What can one say? ‘Happy Holidays’ was not in itself offensive.  On the contrary it was a benign sentiment, calculatedly inclusive and politically correct, (aspirationally commendable) except that it notionally excluded all for whom the so-called ‘holiday’ acknowledges a holy day, Christmas.

To be fair, this is nothing new; in one form or another  the issue of the holiness of the day rears its head uncomfortably as we think about the season.  Most of us indulge in the happy rituals of Christmas, - presents, tree, St Nicholas aka Santa, and like a few carols – it is a time for families and general good will – but it is also a time when we don’t want anything too serious, too solemn, let alone ‘holy’.  The thought of the latter can send a frisson of panic along the spine of the casual, carefree, ‘I’m OK with Christmas’, Christian.

Let me give you an example:  In a poem, simply titled ‘Christmas’, the poet John Betjeman celebrated the sentimental pull of the season - a time when ‘girls in slacks remember Dad/ and oafish louts remember Mum’ only to then abruptly ask a terrifying question, “And is it true”?
And is it true? And is it true,
this most tremendous tale of all,
Seen in a stained-glass window’s hue,
                A Baby in an ox’s stall?
The maker of the stars and sea
Become a child on earth for me?

And is it true?  For if it is,              
No loving fingers tying strings
Around those tissued fripperies,
                The sweet and silly Christmas things,
Bath salts and inexpensive scent
And hideous tie so kindly meant.

No love that in a family dwells,
                No carolling in frosty air,
Nor all the steeple shaking bells
                Can with this single truth compare –
That God was man in Palestine
And lives to-day in Bread and Wine.

For me the poem works because the poet picks out the familiar details of the Christmas rituals and the stubborn pull of affections in family and friends, good and charming things as they are; only to then set everything and every endeavour against the great and incredible mystery of the Incarnation: (Nothing) “can with this single truth compare - That God was man in Palestine
And lives to-day in Bread and Wine”.

This truth of the Incarnation is almost impossible to conceptually grasp and that difficulty is the nub of Betjeman’s point.   If we embrace that truth, the consequences are annihilating.  We see ourselves, our world and our place in it, in an entirely different light.  From here on the ordinary is seen differently.  Reality as we understand it shimmers with immeasurable possibilities; all things become luminous with divine presence and purpose.  Our options for how we live are no longer quite our own, because to live now means to live ‘In Christ’.

This is why we can talk about the scandal of the incarnation: intellectually and conceptually it seems “a bridge too far”.  All theological concepts of God seem at odds with the God who takes on human form – no, more than that, the God who is truly and utterly human.  Philosophers and theologians, Christian and of other faiths, seem stumped on this issue.  As Leonardo Boff expresses it (read my Note from the Dean in this week’s pew sheet): “Once Christianity affirms that a man is at the same time God, it stands alone in the world. We are obliged to say it: This is a scandal to…all the religions and pious peoples of yesterday and today who venerate and adore a transcendent God: one that is totally other, who cannot be objectified, a God beyond this world, infinite, eternal, incomprehensible, and above everything that human beings can be and know.”

“And is it true?”  We keep coming back to Betjeman’s question.  On the one hand we hold affectionately to the Christmases we have celebrated over the years and the place those memories hold in our hearts.  Yet on the other hand, we are less than comfortable with the implications of the mystery – of the Holy amongst us – and of the call that places on us. In these moments of wrapping presents does the weight of an overwhelming reality press upon us and draw us into another way of being, into a deeper structure of reality?  And is it true?

No love that in a family dwells,
                No carolling in frosty air,
Nor all the steeple shaking bells
                Can with this single truth compare –
That God was man in Palestine
And lives to-day in Bread and Wine.


This morning we come to the Eucharist with that question in our minds and on our hearts “And is it true?”

Advent 3 "Who are you?"


Reflection for Advent 3
Readings: Isaiah 61:1-4, 8-11; 1Thess 5:16-24; John 1:6-8, 19-28

At the heart of the gospel for this morning is a question – and in reality a question that cannot be answered.  Yet nonetheless the question is put: “Who are you?”  Imagine that you are asked that question: how do you begin to answer it?  Do you go back to your ancestry, list your whakapapa or bring out the Family Tree… even tell the legends and display the photos that inform the story?   Might you reel off a list of professional qualifications (framed of course), publications and conference papers, reciting what you have done?  There might be some gender variations here: there was a time when women were identified by who they were attached to or whom they were the mother of … “Who are you?”  But how do we express the mystery within that question – the enigma of consciousness and the truth of our identity?

John recalls that the people who asked the uncomfortable question were the Pharisees, the zealous and diligent Israelites who followed the Torah and were so scrupulous to keep the customs that preserved a Jewish identity, no matter what cultural complexities surrounded them.   They were a people knew the great Isaiah prophecy, cherished it, looked for its realisation and asked ‘Who are you?’:
The spirit of the Lord GOD is upon me, because the LORD has anointed me; he has sent me to bring good news to the oppressed, to bind up the brokenhearted, to proclaim liberty to the captives, and release to the prisoners;

.. to proclaim the year of the Lord's favour, and the day of vengeance of our God; to comfort all who mourn;
So who then are these oppressed and broken-hearted ones?  We have seen them in the long lines of wretched Rohyinga wading through the muddy paths from Rakhine in Myanmar to Cox’s bazaar and thence to Bangladesh.  They are in the dreadful queues at border crossings from Syria to Iraq and thence to Lebanon or Turkey: the cars, the trucks, anything with wheels and fuel; but we have also seen them on foot – hauling hand carts, and wheel barrows; and what about the captives, the prisoners, the mourners? Well we have seen them too.  The captives are the disarmed and disillusioned ones lined up at a vetting station to eventually be processed to a refugee camp; the prisoners are among them too; small groups huddled under the scrutiny of hard-eyed captors and their machine guns.  The mourners are all too familiar to us: we have seen droves of them, in columns by freshly dug graves.  Whole families buried this way; no time to waste; all to be done before sundown; tears in the dust are their line in the sand.  Here, in this week’s news, is the human state of broken hearts, captives, prisoners and mourners – as real now as in ancient times but universally documented with a smartphone and the internet.

To know this world of pain, to have realised just a bare fraction of such raw suffering, is to understand the intolerable longing contained in the prophet’s message.  Against this the prophet speaks of God’s faithful purpose: “The spirit of the Lord GOD is upon me, because the LORD has anointed me; he has sent me to bring good news to the oppressed …”; and, in a dark hour in an occupied land, a territory of Rome’s empire, there were those oppressed, who sensed something in John the Baptist and asked out of their longing, ‘Who are You?’

Our prayer is always in our longing: which is encouraging for all of us who find prayer difficult.  The writer in the Epistle this morning tells us to pray without ceasing and it is Augustine who understood that our longing is always our prayer – and so we are to keep on longing and to hold that longing before God who knows our hearts and our thoughts before we can form the words.  Of course we hear the question those other longing hearts asked the Baptizer: “Who are you”.  His answer must have come as a disappointment – it was a string of negatives – an ancient way of doing theology – the via negativa. “ I am not the Messiah.  I am not Elijah. I am not the prophet.  You don’t recognise the one who is among you.  I am not worthy to undo the strap of his sandal.”  Who are you?  I am a voice crying in the wilderness (which is an around-about way of saying, I am nothing).  But the voice crying in the wilderness is the voice of longing; the cry of prayer.  Who are you?


In Advent we find the question probes us.  Who are we?  Truly and profoundly we are what we long for.  That realisation cuts through all the humbug and self-deceit we use to protect us from the One who knows us through and through.  What do we long for?  What is the cry in our prayer?  Advent draws us to the light!

Saturday, November 25, 2017

Christ the King, Pantocrator and Prisoner


Feast of Christ the King 2017


We call this Sunday the Feast of Christ the King.  With a title like that we expect it to be an occasion of rejoicing and celebration.  This is the Sunday when we end the liturgical year (the completion of the Church’s story) and prepare to start the story again with Advent Sunday: so from the end of the story we will go back to the beginning.  So at this end of the story, we pause and realise that this Sunday is no end but already a new beginning.

On this Sunday I find myself conflicted.  I murmur the lovely words ‘Christ the King’ and make that a prayer in my heart.  It is a cry of longing.  The thought reminds me of a recurring image often found in prominent locations in ancient churches (I think especially of the Eastern Church) Christ pantocrator – it represents Christ as the creator and sustainer of the universe.   To encounter the image is quite startling – it crosses a cultural threshold; a spiritual and imaginative threshold.  This is Christ in glory – beyond the scope of time.   It is unspeakably bold in conception and, when I saw it in Hagia Sophia, the ambiguity of it wrung my heart as, on each side of it, were the huge calligraphic panes that bragged of an Islamic conquest.  And yet the cry of longing remains: I remember Christ’s caution (John 18:36) “My kingdom is not of this world” and I continue to pray “your kingdom come”, even in Hagia Sophia, this magnificent edifice to faith, desolation and loss.

Recollection Tableaux: Inmate shortly after processing, by Susan Hagen
So, I continue to be conflicted: on the one hand the image of Christ pantocrator, creator and sustainer of the universe, and, on the other hand our human condition, finite, troubled, uncertain.  How might we image our condition?  I stumbled across this.  It is a photograph of a sculpture by the artist Susan Hagen and it is called ‘Recollection Tableaux: Inmate shortly after processing’.  The situation is quite unique: it is from an art exhibit at the Eastern State Penitentiary, Philadelphia, PA.  The exhibit depicts scenes of prison life in plaster sculptures. In the photograph the sculpture is brightly spotlit but surrounded by darkness. The image is disturbing; it is a lone figure, hooded and in a prison uniform; everything in this image speaks of alienation and dislocation, of a process of dehumanisation; of subjection to a systematic assault that makes one feel lost, without dignity, without identity and utterly helpless. Even the title shocks me: ‘Inmate shortly after processing’, here is someone rendered as an object not a person; referred to as an ‘inmate’ and subjected to a ‘process’.   

On this feast of Christ the King we contemplate these two images and feel the disparity and tension between them.  In the image of the conquering Christ, the creator and sustainer of all that is, I glimpse, imaginatively, the vision of God’s purpose, that fulfilment envisioned in Revelation (21) when

“…God himself will be with them;
he will wipe every tear from their eyes.
Death will be no more;
mourning and crying and pain will be no more,
for the first things have passed away.”

But in ‘Inmate shortly after processing’ I recognise myself, and all of us, bound in our human predicament, – bound in our humanity, vulnerable and blind.  More than this, I also start to discern in this bound and hooded figure the helpless Christ of the Passion; the incarnate one who shares our flesh and our predicament; the one who is humiliated, mocked and reduced by the powers and authorities of this world.

I don’t see this connection easily or quickly; it is no glib trick of speech or shuffling of images.  It is a realisation that comes out of the pain that is also a kind of prayer.  We see it in the gospel this morning when the gloriously confused righteous ask their King in glory:

“25:37 … 'Lord, when was it that we saw you hungry and gave you food, or thirsty and gave you something to drink?

25:38 And when was it that we saw you a stranger and welcomed you, or naked and gave you clothing?

25:39 And when was it that we saw you sick or in prison and visited you?'

25:40 And the king will answer them, 'Truly I tell you, just as you did it to one of the least of these who are members of my family, you did it to me.'


On this Feast of Christ the King we rehearse and spell out the difficult grammar of salvation.  In the image of ‘Inmate shortly after processing’ we recognise ourselves and our predicament and holding that, in the manner of the watermark on our paper, we faintly discern the image of Christ Pantocrator, the one who is creator and sustainer of the universe. Dear Lord, your Kingdom come.