Wednesday, 20 November 2013

The King of paradox

In my school assemblies at Victoria and Thomas Coram schools on Wednesday, a round of questions to the children quickly established what a king should be. He should be born in a palace or castle, to rich parents who were themselves king and queen, and should learn martial skills, such as riding, so that he could eventually lead his armies to glorious victory over enemy nations. 

I then asked what kind of king Jesus was. The children got the point. A very different sort of king, born not in a palace, but in a cave behind a pub, and not of noble parents, but to a poor woman. A king who spent his younger years doing the quite ordinary job of a carpenter. A king who rode into Jerusalem not on a warhorse, but on a donkey. A king who, when His disciple Peter took up arms on His behalf in the garden of Gethsemane, told him to sheathe his sword. 

Jesus is a king of paradox: the paradox first of the Word made flesh, God beyond all being entering into being, the creator walking among his creation. But surely more paradoxical even than His birth is His death; for by dying He conquered death, and gave us eternal life. His is a victory won not by force of arms, but by loving self-sacrifice, and a victory worth celebrating, as we do this Sunday and every time we offer His body and blood in the Eucharistic Sacrifice. 

Monday, 11 November 2013

Imagine: a Sadducee Remembrance Day?

It's just as well the Sadducees didn't win the intellectual argument in ancient Jewish thought. As Luke tells us, they didn't believe in the Resurrection, you see. As far as they were concerned, there was nothing more to "eternal life" than going forth and multiplying: you lived after death in your children, and your children's children, and your children's children's children - you get the message. I suppose, were it not for the more pharisaical strand of Jewish thought, the one that did insist on a resurrection and an afterlife, the Son of God would have had to be born to some other race. But "what ifs" don't get us very far in discerning the economy of salvation. As it happened, there was such a tradition, and it was this tradition that Jesus inherited, expanded and ultimately fulfilled. And for Christians, "as it happened" is more important than "as it might have happened but didn't." Ours is an historically rooted faith. 

Still, it makes me wonder. I don't think there could be such thing as a Sadducee Christianity - Christianity without the Resurrection would be a pretty dismal affair - but the Sadducee denial of eternal life has certainly not gone away. There are Christians who fondly imagine that we can strip away all the supernatural elements, the virgin birth, the angels, the miracles and so on, and still have something worth keeping and worth calling "christian" at the end of it, I know; and there are those who don't think that the truth of Christian claims matters - even about, say, the existence of God - as long as they can continue to espouse that rather nebulous code they call "Christian values." I don't (and really, as a priest, I don't think I can) hold much truck with such views, but I can grudgingly tolerate them up to a certain point: and that point is the Resurrection. Whatever you strip away, whatever you find it impossible to belief, I just don't think Christianity without the Resurrection is worthy of the name. 

To give you a "for instance," as Victoria Wood likes to say: just try imagining a Sadducee Remembrance Day - a Remembrance Day with no promise of the Resurrection. It's possible, and not entirely useless. It would be a matter of "remembering" in the purely secular sense, calling to mind those who have died for their country and thinking about their acts, and this has its value, let there be no doubt of that. But "remembering" for a Christian has quite a different meaning. A more profound meaning, I would say. 

"Do this in remembrance of me." Our Lord's words at the Last Supper. Jesus wasn't talking about just thinking of Him, calling Him to mind. He was pointing forward to His death on the Cross and to His Resurrection. And when the priest repeats His words in the Eucharistic prayer, by "remember," we mean quite literally "re-member:" re-constitute His body, the body of His Church of which He is the head, bring us, all of us, His scattered members, back together into unity, just as the scattered grain makes one bread and the grapes make one wine. We, the many members of the body of Christ, are re-membered back into the primal unity of the godhead from which we all derive. 

And so it is with the dead. When we "remember" them in prayer at the Christian altar, we are united with them, re-membered with them, because they are still members of the Body of Christ beyond the grave and they feast in heaven at the same mystical table we feast at here on earth. We feast together, the living and the dead, the joint Kingdom of heaven and earth, with all the saints and angels, all our faithful brethren who have died for what is right and good. 

And why? Because of the Resurrection. Because of the promise of eternity won for us by Christ crucified, risen and ascended. Because He has gone before us and shown us the Way and because we walk it. Today, at this altar, we make no insipid memorial, but full and true remembrance of the real, historic sacrifice made for us by Christ, and shared in by the real, historic sacrifice of our war dead; and remembrance of the hope in which they died, the hope of unity with Him, re-membrance in glorious Resurrection.