Monday, March 31, 2014

Crucifixion Tableau : Part 4

See also ‘Crucifixion Tableau : Part 1’ and ‘Part 2’ and ‘Part 3

Watching from a distance, two men, two secret followers: Joseph of Arimathea and Nicodemus. They come, to deal with death, on behalf of the family.

Like childbirth, handling the dead temporarily excluded you from the ritual community; because, important though ritual is in enacting life and death to us, like the Easter tomb it cannot contain actual life and death – not in its newest moments.

Joseph and Nicodemus come forward on behalf of Jesus’ family; but also to enact their own deaths, their dying to their community, to the very world that they have known. What they are doing here will cost them everything. As they take Jesus’ body, wash it, embalm it, and lay it in the tomb, they enact both their own death and their own undertaking – and as their own undertakers, no-one else is excluded on account of them.

Not only are they excluded from ritual community; they are excluded from it at its highest moment, the annual remembrance of how God delivered his people from slavery. In the rush of a mass people-movement, they are separated from their family, left behind. Once the dust has settled, they will still be slaves – for to celebrate Passover is not merely to recollect something that happened to other people long ago, but to enter-into the same experience.

And yet it is those who are slaves, who cry out to God to rescue them, whose cries reach up to heaven and are answered.

The wider community will go on to re-live the hard-heartedness of their ancestors, bitterly complaining that this freedom for which they have been set free is worse than slavery ever was. A generation will die in the desert. Only two men, Joshua and Caleb, will live to enter into the Promise…

Sunday, March 30, 2014

Crucifixion Tableau : Part 3

See also ‘Crucifixion Tableau : Part 1’ and ‘Part 2

Near the execution scaffold, a group of four women and a youth balanced on the tipping-point between boyhood and manhood, between two worlds, the world of women and children and the world of men.

What are they experiencing?

I’d hazard a guess that they are here for the very same reason that the other, male, disciples are not: fear. Specifically, fear of loss.

The child who realises that their mother is no longer with them in the midst of a crowd is not worried by unfamiliar place – children are adventurous – or unfamiliar people – children are far more trusting than adults. They are afraid that they will not see their mother again.

Sooner or later, loss is a universal experience. And so long before we experience the loss of someone close, the fear of loss is a truly universal experience.

Ironically, fear of loss can cause us to lose what we have. That is why, I would suggest, the male disciples are not there. They are not afraid to die with Jesus; they are afraid to live without him. They pre-empt the inevitable, rather than face it. But the result is that they lose precious moments that were theirs to share together.

The men are absent because of their fear of loss. The women and John are present, refusing to let go, because of their fear of loss. I don’t mean that the women and John aren’t there because of love; they are. But the absence of the others is also because of love; for if they did not love Jesus, they would not fear his loss. Perfect love may drive out fear, but not before it has drank its bitter cup to the very dregs.

It is not that the men fail as disciples at this point and the women, in contrast, are a model for us. Loss is not a competition. Rather, both groups, the men and the women, show themselves to be true disciples by their love, even if they respond in different ways.

At the heart of the Passion, Jesus addresses this universal fear. He doesn’t say, “Don’t worry, I’ll be back on Sunday!” because that isn’t really true. That is to say, he will return…but forty days later he will go again, for good. When we lose someone, even the hope of being reunited one day in the far future does not shield us from the loss we fear. Instead of denying loss, Jesus transforms it.

On the cross, something ends. But it is this end that makes a new beginning possible. Mary was Jesus’ mother; Jesus, Mary’s son. Now Mary is John’s mother; and John, Mary’s son. They cannot go back; but they can go on, into the unknown, and find there a new grace.

This is not to deny the past; but to refuse to deny the future.

And that, ultimately, is the heart of what is going on here, as this man of love hangs dying.

Saturday, March 29, 2014

Mothering Sunday : Great North Passion

This Lent, Sunderland Minster is taking part in The Great North Passion, in partnership with TheCultural Spring and the BBC. A series of shipping containers, reminiscent of the shipping industry, have been sited in locations between the river Tyne and the river Wear. In each one, a local artist has been asked to work with the community to create a Station of the Cross.

Ours is the only container to be situated inside a building, and as such – unlike the other containers – is a specially constructed stage set. The Station we have been allocated is ‘Jesus meets his mother.’ It feels especially fitting in this place where life is celebrated; and also kept alive, before God, in the memory of those who have known the loss of a loved one. The medium we have been asked to work with is photography – again, so important to family memory.

Tomorrow is Mothering Sunday. As part of our worship, we have asked everyone to bring photos of their mothers, grandmothers, or any woman who has played a significant mothering role in their life. During the service, we will tell one another their/our stories, and then we will gather up our joy and sorrow in prayer.

After the service there will be the optional opportunity to have the photos copied and the copies – along with some of the stories that go with them – to be included in the artwork that will be created for our Station. Hopefully, some people will be willing to share their stories on camera.

All the Stations will be gathered together in one location, from where the BBC will be broadcasting this year’s Passion event on Good Friday.

I have a photo of my mother taken around Christmas 1943. She is in her baptism gown – a family heirloom my own children wore when they were baptised – and is with her parents – who I knew as my Granny and Grandpa – and her older brother, David – who died in a climbing accident aged 21 and so whom I never knew. It is a doorway into memories, both known and unfulfilled; and a window on the present.

Crucifixion Tableau : Part 2

Then there is Pilate’s confession: his proclamation THIS IS JESUS OF NAZARETH THE KING OF THE JEWS.

It is Pilate who enthrones this Jesus, from Nazareth, of the Jews; and he does so in the face of protest. This is his view on the matter, his testimony; and it is not universally shared.

It is, in fact, a triple-crown: Jesus’ kingship is declared over not one but three overlapping realms.

Firstly, he is proclaimed king in Hebrew. Living with a heritage of exile and occupation, Jesus and his contemporaries were multi-lingual, but Hebrew was first and foremost a liturgical language, the language of Jewish religious identity.

Secondly, he is proclaimed king in Latin. Though this was the language of Rome, spreading its linguistic influence across the languages of their Empire, it by no means silenced other tongues. It was, however, the technical language uniting the multi-cultural Roman army, which drew-in men from across the Empire and sent them out across it again.

Thirdly, he is proclaimed king in Greek. This was the common language of the known world; not only connecting peoples but cross-fertilising cultures.

Pilate proclaims Jesus king over religious sensibilities; over military might; and, finally, ultimately, over every sphere of life. A man arguably too dangerous to be allowed to live.

And gathered around his throne, representatives of the ‘peoples’ he has ‘conquered’: the Jewish religious authorities, the Roman soldiers, the traders and travellers of every tribe, all milling about, paying their strange homage.

The first group protest, but are silenced. Contrary to first glance, they have no power here.

The second group clothe themselves with the robes of the king. And yet, the clothes do not make the man: neither the uniform of a killing machine – these men have their personal concerns – nor these, the king’s set-aside pre-coronation clothes. Still, these are clothes that people stretched out to touch and by touching were healed. Clothes with memory clinging to them like odour. A tunic assigned randomly by rolling dice. Who won that lottery, and how did it transform their life?

The third group look on and shake their heads in wonder. What, on earth, is going on? And what, in heaven?

What kind of king receives audiences in such a throne room? What kind of reign does this demonstrate?

What, protesting at first, finds room to back down?

What, consumed at first with self-interest, finds room to be transformed by grace?

What, knowing at first, finds room to think again; or, uncomprehending, room to discover?

Friday, March 28, 2014

Crucifixion Tableau : Part 1

It struck me that we celebrate Christmas in the home with a Nativity Scene, a cast of characters – Mary, Joseph, rustic shepherds, an assortment of farm animals, a guardian angel, exotic wise men – crowded around Jesus in the manger…but that we don’t do the same with Golgotha.

At one level, why would we? One is a scene of hope, a new-born child; the other, a scene of death. Yet at another level, why don’t we? These are, after all, the two pivotal points in the Story we tell year after year.

Golgotha is every bit as crowded as Bethlehem. Yet when we distil it all down to a crucifix – or, worse, an empty cross – we lose so much. Even the Stations of the Cross, with their discreet episodes, don’t create a tableau.

For one thing, Jesus does not die alone. He is hung on an execution scaffold with two others, one on his right, the other on his left. John’s Gospel makes it clear that this is Jesus, the king of the Jews, taking his throne, surrounded by his people.

Who are these subjects? Are they ‘bad’ men, deserving of death? Or are they desperate, downtrodden men, who rolled the dice in throwing off whatever burdened them – a thief, against inequality? a rebel, against Occupation? – and whose gamble failed, leaving them to pay the price? Are they a problem to be exterminated; or, ultimately unable to save themselves from circumstance, are they objects of worldly wrath and heavenly compassion?

The truth, of course, hangs between the view from the Right and the view from the Left; pointing to both, holding them together.

Sunday, March 23, 2014

Friday Art Class

Week 4

Week 5

Week 6

Week 7

Week 8

Recently, I have started going to an art class group on Fridays, my regular day off.

I was looking for an art class that I could join, and to be honest this wasn’t quite what I had in mind. I had in mind a group where we might paint something 3-dimensional – a still life, or a life model – but at this group we are asked to work on a piece over 10 weeks (2 hrs/wk), in a venue used for other things in between, and so we must choose a photograph or drawing to reproduce. And, as this is my first term, I have been started out on pencils, rather than paint.

It wasn’t quite what I was looking for, and at first I was undecided whether or not I would continue beyond the first term. But I have come to enjoy this point in my week, and to value the class for several reasons, including (but not restricted to) the following:

The class creates a predictable pattern in my week. Predictable patterns matter, because they anchor our lives in such a way as to ensure that life is manageable in those times when life is at its most unpredictable: when circumstances hit us hard and without warning. Even spontaneity requires the structure having certain predictable patterns provides, because it is not possible to be spontaneous if one is battling with a chaotic lifestyle.

Drawing focuses my attention in time and space. Everything slows down until I am fully present. Of course, worry has always got in the way of people living in the present; but in the age of the smart phone, we can split ourselves into not really being present, not really alive, in multiple locations at once – like horcruxes, for those familiar with Harry Potter. Indeed, with a smart phone it is almost impossible not to live in this way, which has both gain and cost; and if the phone is to be a tool rather than a task-master, it will take intentional resistance.

Related to this, drawing also focuses my attention on detail, on looking at what is – and seeking to represent that accurately – rather than what I expect to see or think that I should be seeing. An intentional resistance to ‘lazy looking.’ Again, we are conditioned to look lazily, giving just enough of our attention to confirm our prejudices. Especially when it comes to other people. So the discipline of ‘close looking’ – like the discipline of presence and the discipline of predictable patterns – is a theological discipline.

I am not good at these disciplines. That is why I value, and indeed need, my Friday art class.

Sunday, March 02, 2014

Church And Related Things

Church is a community of people. I belong to the Church. I am part of a local church.

The community of people that is the church often gathers at a particular building. I go to Sunderland Minster. At previous times, in previous places, I have gone to St Peter’s, to St Andrew’s, to St Thomas.’ As my working role is currently based at Sunderland Minster, I go to the Minster most days.

One of the many things the community of people that is the church goes to – gathers at – their communal building for is to participate in services of worship. I attend, and participate in, services. As I belong to the local (in this case, local being city-wide) church that gathers at the Minster, this is where I most often attend and participate in services; but sometimes I attend and participate in services at Durham Cathedral, or at other buildings where the Church in her different localities and traditions gathers together.

The building is also a base for other activities, and a base from which the church, having gathered together, may be sent out. A base from which the city is prayed for, the hungry are fed, school uniforms are recycled, the highs and lows of life are celebrated and lamented, hearts and minds are inspired and challenged through visual and performing arts…

With a short interlude, when Vikings invaded Sunderland and turned the site into a place to gather to worship Thor, there has been a Christian community gathering to worship at what is now known as Sunderland Minster for over a thousand years. First in a wooden building, then in a stone one, built and rebuilt many times, significantly rebuilt in the 1930s and internally re-ordered at the start of the 1980s. The process continues.

For a long time, there were no seats in the building. In Elizabethan times, seating in church buildings was even considered a pernicious ornamentation of the corrupt Roman Church…Later, at a time when it was again considered right to make church buildings beautiful, the men of the church worked together to make pews, long seats on which the community sat together (rather than as individuals on individual chairs). Men working together to provide something for the community that increased a sense of ownership of the building. This tradition has continued: the member who made bespoke furniture; the members of the youth group who assembled IKEA sofas for one of the smaller meeting rooms (we made peace with the Vikings). The current pews are falling apart and will, at some point in the future, be replaced with chairs (a move that will both gain some positive things and lose some others).

What we do and how we do it has changed many times, but there is continuity as well as change, in lasting presence.

This morning when the church was gathered together at the Minster to participate in a service, I spoke thanking people for the many ways they invest in what Jesus is doing to build his church in this place – the different ways in which they participate in services and other activities of the church that go on in this building and beyond. If you are interested, you can read what I said, here.