Wednesday, 30 December 2015

Blessed Is The Fruit of Your Womb...

There's a line up of Christmas cards hanging on my wall with scenes like the one above. A quaint wee stable. Friendly animals. A healthy baby and a well scrubbed set of young parents gazing at him in adoration. They leave me a bit cold, to tell you the truth.

Partly that's because I am privileged (or cursed) to read the Gospel of Luke in Greek and know that the scene above isn't what is described there. "καὶ ἔτεκεν τὸν υἱὸν αὐτῆς τὸν πρωτότοκον· καὶ ἐσπαργάνωσεν αὐτὸν καὶ ἀνέκλινεν αὐτὸν ἐν φάτνῃ, διότι οὐκ ἦν αὐτοῖς τόπος ἐν τῶ καταλύματι."

Bear with me here. It's important. "And she gave birth to her firstborn son and bound him, and laid him in a Phatne because there was no room for them in the katalumati". A Phatne is a niche, a hollow carved into something else. It is sometimes a manger of a particular type,  i.e. one that is a hollow scooped out of a piece of wood or stone, but  more usually it refers to a niche set into the inside of the thick wall of one of those little first century houses of pressed earth construction. The usual word for an inn is πανδοχεῖον (pandochion), and by contrast  a kataluma is usually an extra room added onto a large house. (The upper room where Jesus ate the last supper was a kataluma.) So a fair reading of the Greek would suggest that Mary had her first born  in a house large enough to have an extra room; that the extra room was already filled when she arrived, probably with other guests in Bethlehem for the census, and that she and Joseph lodged in the main part of the house with the stove and the stores and perhaps the family animals. She wrapped her baby in bandages, in the usual way, and laid him in a storage niche carved into the wall in this lower part of the house. There was, in other words, no manger; no inn. There was the large house of a wealthy member of Joseph's family, and Jesus was born surrounded by his whanau.

The bit with the inn and the manger are the projections of the men who first translated the Bible into the common languages of Europe, and reflect the expectations of travelers in the middle ages and not those of first century tribal people traveling back to their turangawaewae. And the story has grown with the telling over the years, with a donkey, innkeeper, little drummer boy and Uncle Tom Cobley and all, with each bit of it reflected the cultural biases of the storytellers and each one building a story that is somehow sanitised. Each misses the wonderful reality of family and childbirth and each builds a story which, while it reflects our cultural prejudices, paints a scene that is removed from the real experience of all of us.

Just before Christmas I came upon another nativity, and it pulled me up short. Took my breath away. Caused me to stop and look and think and pray. Here it is:


It is a painting by Sara Star called Crowning.

Here at last is a nativity scene which takes seriously the human condition and the astonishing truth of the incarnation: the word became flesh. Recently I watched a wonderful series on the Middle Ages written, produced and presented by Dr. Helen Castor. The first of the series was on birth, and I was astonished to learn that there are very few written sources on birth from the middle ages. There are plenty on warfare and trade and diplomacy and the doings of the royalty, but what little there is on this most profound of human experiences was written by men, none of whom had ever actually witnessed a birth.

Birth was women's work, so it was ignored.

So our accounts of the incarnation and our pictures of it in the middle ages, and pretty much ever since, have all ignored the most important part of the word becoming flesh: Jesus was born. In doing this we have undermined the meaning and power of the incarnation, and by making Jesus' birth different from the births of the rest of us, pushed Christianity towards Docetism.

I find Crowning a powerful image, but of course even this is sanitised. There is no blood and the mother and baby are both unnaturally still and peaceful: it is an ikon, after all. It has been my life's privilege to be present at three births; each one pretty bloody and pretty painful, but each one ranking amongst the peak experiences of my life; each one different but each equally exciting and powerful; each one holy. I can remember almost every minute of those three events; and they are all reflected and held and celebrated here by Sara Star.

The word became flesh and dwelt amongst us. Thank you, Sara Star, for reminding me of this, and deepening my appreciation of this central tenet of our faith. 

Tuesday, 22 December 2015

Good Hearted


At the end of every year I attend the St. Hilda's prizegiving service and the leavers' service and see a string of young women cross the stage. All of them are big fishes in this particular small pond of the school where they have spent the last five or seven years of their lives. They are making the journey we must all repeat a hundred times, that of becoming a small fish in the next pond, whatever it may be. And at every service the school hymn is sung: Blest Are The Pure In Heart.

Whoever, back in the day, chose that hymn to be the one that defines the school and its relationship to the almighty had a particular idea of the what a girls' school should aspire to be, and what a girl should aspire to be. I'm guessing, of course, but I think that vision would have to do with all the characteristics we attribute to the heart: feelings, loyalty, relationship, emotion. With that vision in mind, the aspiration is one of pure and chaste behaviour springing from undefiled and clear feelings, which is, of course, a laudable goal. But it's not what Jesus meant in the saying upon which the song is based.

For first Century people, of which Jesus was one, the heart was not the seat of feelings. Feelings originated, so they thought back then, in the liver, not in the heart. If we had persisted with this idea we would not be saying,
but we would say, instead,
Which I think you would agree, lacks a certain poetry.

The heart, so Jesus and his contemporaries thought, was the place where the will resided. It was the seat of intention and purpose. Which brings a whole different set of meanings to Jesus' saying Blessed are the pure in heart, for they shall see God. It doesn't mean, as we usually suppose, blessed are those who have got their emotional life sorted out, but rather, blessed are those whose intentions and purposes are clear.

And it brings some light to a phrase whose poetry has intrigued me for years: Mary's words to her cousin Elizabeth as the two women incredulously enthuse over God's seeming predilection for those who are not doing as well as other people think they should. He has scattered the proud in the imagination of their hearts, says Mary. Which when you think about it, is a rephrasing of the saying her son would later include in the Sermon on the Mount. The proud chase every which way, following the dictates of a will which is informed not by reality but by their own imaginings. The poor and excluded, with nothing to protect and no pipe dreams to follow, are free to see things clearly; to be pure in heart.

They are the ones who are most likely to see what is really at the heart of the universe.

And here is the meaning of Christmas: this universal heart is given to us in a living breathing metaphor. An unmarried peasant girl and her fiance. Pain and sweat in the night. An umbilical cord and placenta and damp shining helplessness and a tiny mouth crying for the breast.    

Friday, 18 December 2015

Ain Karem

When we were in Spain we heard a group called Ain Karem. They are popular in Spain but little known outside of the Iberian Peninsula. The group is named for the village where, according to tradition, The Virgin Mary conversed with her cousin Elizabeth while both women were pregnant. The group contains a priest, but is otherwise a womens' group, originating in the Carmelite order but now containing lay women as well as nuns. Their music is usually about issues of justice and the above clip is an example. What I really like is the juxtaposition of the cheerful 60's folksy Singing Nun ambience of the music and the radical, revolutionary lyrics. Sort of a 21st Century Spanish incarnation of the Magnificat

We have a CD of theirs playing as Advent draws to a close. If you're looking for "the real meaning of Christmas", here it is.

The women and the children do not count,
Those who wander on the margins do not count,
The poor and the sick do not count,
Nor do the crucified ones count.
They do not count who have no work,
neither those who are addicted,
or those who speak a different tongue in a strange land,
or those who are a different colour.

But for you,
They are the ones who count,
These are the ones who sing of God's glory.
They are your face, O Crucified Lord,
They are your face, O Risen Lord,
They are you.
But for you,
They are the ones who count,
These are the ones who sing of God's glory.
They are your face, O Crucified Lord,
They are your face, O Risen Lord,
They are you.

The child soldiers have no name,
Neither do the girls who are sold into slavery.
Those who are dying of hunger don't exist,
and they are ignored who suffer alone.
The women and the children were not counted
And even today the smallest count for nothing.
May I make my sibling's pain my own,
and in justice share bread with them. 

But for you,
They are the ones who count,
These are the ones who sing of God's glory.
They are your face, O Crucified Lord,
They are your face, O Risen Lord,
They are you.
But for you,
They are the ones who count,
These are the ones who sing of God's glory.
They are your face, O Crucified Lord,
They are your face, O Risen Lord,
They are you.

Wednesday, 16 December 2015

Violence and difference.

During the troubles in Northern Ireland all those many years ago, those of us on the sidelines looked on with incredulity at what was happening between Protestants and Catholics. The news was dominated by images of bombings and fires and assassinations, and, from this distance, no one was quite sure which side was doing these terrible things or why; radical Catholic and Protestant groups seemed to be pretty much indistinguishable from each other in their barbarity, their strategies and their modus operandi.

And so it is with all conflict.

Rene Girard describes conflict as "a subtle destroyer of the differential meaning it seems to inflate", and when I first read that sentence a week or two ago I had to go for a bit of a walk and think about it for a bit. Girard is right, as he is about so much, and what I think he means is this:

We learn pretty much everything, says Girard, by copying from other people. This applies to skills and behaviours but also to attitudes and desires. We learn what to like and what not to like, so he says, and I think he says truly, by seeing what other people like or not. This process (he calls it mimesis) helps build communities by ensuring that all the members of a group have shared desires, aims and objectives but it also means that all communities are potentially conflicted because mimesis will inevitably lead to competition. And when two individuals or two groups become conflicted both will begin that conflict by carefully establishing and cataloging the way the other side is different. So the differential meaning is inflated. There is a THEM (and you cannot believe how different they are from us in every important way. And do you see how scurrilous those guys are!) and an US (and anybody with half a brain can see the superiority of almost everything connected with us!) And so the conflict begins, usually with posturing and name calling, and escalating through the well worn stages of ever more barbaric violence and ultimately death. As the conflict escalates, the original difference between the parties becomes less and less of an issue and the conflict itself becomes more and more the issue: there is a test of strength that WE SIMPLY MUST WIN. And as both sides become more and more consumed with winning, they mirror one another and become less and less distinguishable from each other until finally no one can really tell the unionists from the nationalists.

And so we in the West look in horror at ISIS. We are shocked by their barbarity and violence and all the more so because it is so different from our considered, civilised, democratic norms. They indiscriminately kill and maim and destroy, and we cannot, in the name of all that we hold dear, tolerate this. So we fly in the jets and our bombs fall,  violently and destructively on the ISIS fighters and indiscriminately on the people held captive by them. In order to preserve ourselves from destruction and barbarous slaughter we inflict destruction and barbarous slaughter. Conflict becomes the subtle destroyer of the differential meaning it seems to inflate.

There is another way, a way which transcends all our violent ways, or so says Rene Girard. It's not easy, and it involves paying close attention to another conflict; and to the act of violence that was supposed to end it; and  to the empty tomb which followed it, and to the birth in a stable which proceeded it.  

Monday, 14 December 2015

Back Again

Since synod my life has been.... busy and what with the pressing demands on my time and with my head being filled with things I couldn't talk about, I have just had to keep away from here for a while.

But I'm back. This last week I've even taken a few photos




And read a few books.

I intend to start blogging regularly, I hope twice a week. I'll be posting also to a Facebook page called, surprisingly enough, Available Light. Keep in touch. I will if you will.