This Eastertide, we present a series of reflections on the events of Holy Week. Today's reflection is by Mthr Melanie Marshall, and is taken from her Holy Week addresses at St Nicholas, Chiswick.
Do you watch Call the Midwife? I’m sure you know it features the same order of nuns who now live in this parish. In a favourite scene of mine, the redoubtable Sister Evangelina chides nurse Miller for buying dolly mixtures for the children. “Barley Sugar twists I said! Take all the jujubes out of there. They're everyone's favourite, and we don't want a riot on our hands.” Older and wiser, she understands that a sweet is a treat. A choice is a recipe for dissatisfaction.
But we are not children. And when it comes to what is good for us, who knows better than we do ourselves? We not only expect a choice, we demand one. We remember the queues outside the bakeries in Russia and Poland and the GDR.
There’s been rationing here, too, of course. I was at a college reunion recently where the men reminisced about handing in their ration book to Chef. There were 100 guests at this dinner, all octogenarians, many in shaky health. How many special dietary requirements do you think that called for - vegetarian, vegan, gluten free, dairy free, no nuts. Total number? Zero. They all ate what they were given. One gentleman recalled arriving to the first bedroom he’d ever had to himself. I doubt he was complaining that someone else’s room was bigger. But times are different now. We expect, and we demand a choice.
No matter that all the psychological research - large numbers of robust scientific studies - prove that more choice makes not better decision, but worse. Options ramify. Possible combinations boggle our minds. We forget what we first wanted. But never mind that. We want choice and we will have it.
This is not just about skirts and cars. It seems we no longer make lots of friends and wait for romance to blossom. For people my age, their network is the web. Actual people are replaced by a 200-word profile and a blurry snapshot, so they can be processed, by the hundred, for the greatest possible ‘choice’. We’re busy. Working, hard, to get money, to get promotions, to get a bigger house in a nicer area, which is in every way more important than…?
Politicians aren’t stupid. They tell us, the tax-payers - that is, the consumers – that we want choice. But we don’t want to choose between twenty schools and hospitals. We want the nearest one to be decent. But make everything a choice, and if we are dissatisfied, we should have looked elsewhere. We must spend hours filling in forms and at open-days and interviewing and paying for tutors and lying about where we go to church and how often. If we are dissatisfied, it is our fault. It is we who have chosen poorly, and not at all they who have provided poorly.
By way of contrast, Jesus, this evening, offers us - no choice. There is no menu at the last supper. A mandatum, a Maundy as the word becomes is a command. Take. Eat. Yes, I know you are full of ideas about what will make you happy. But I am God, I made and I know every atom of your body. Forget being a consumer. Consume me.
And there are people who do. Not people we tend to envy. Subsistence farmers – that’s most of the world - live on this land and must eat whatever this land will yield. And hope the energy the food provides will just about equal the energy it expends. We don’t envy them. Although they know about care for the earth and its creatures, about sheer depth gratitude, of wonder, that we will never know. Those living from the food-bank, soup-kitchen, hostel, those too frail to shop and cook, they know something we don’t too. They know that there’s no real difference between one thing and another thing. The only real difference is between something, and nothing. Between the nothing of uncreation and the gift of something. Between being sustained, and not being.
But no one would choose to live like this. Except, those who do. Those nuns. The monks and friars and sisters who through all the Christian centuries have run towards poverty, who beg or grow their food. Like those today in L’arche communities, and communes, like Quakers, who have forgotten that they once had choices. Who needs choice when you have that gift that two thirds of the world envies, that astonishing gift called: enough.
On this day when Jesus washes his disciples feet, my granny is dying, very bravely. She lives in the Highlands and can’t understand why it’s so hard to get carers. We told her: because there are no immigrants, granny. Feet, bottoms, armpits, urine-soaked sheets and dirty nappies: we delegate the care of bodies to those who have - no choice. No marketable skills. No savings, or investments. Those in necessity. And of necessity, they also do it for their own disabled son or elderly mother, to outsource the dirt takes money and money is what they don’t have. What they do have - the poor, who wash our clothes, and scrub our showers, who work in dismal factories bagging our machine-chopped vegetables so we can stay ten minutes longer at work or on the phone - what they do have is our humanity. The humanity that would be ours - if we chose it. Christ takes on the brute physical fact of bodies. Just as the poor do. We could be the ones growing in patience, and gentleness, and loving care. But we have somewhere else to be, so we load that on the poor. They take on the weighty burden of the human body, as Christ does.
Christ, who washes his own disciples’ feet. He doesn’t say ‘do this’. That implies - a choice. He says nothing. His actions say: ‘I am not one of the choosers. God is with those who cannot shirk the human. He is one of them, not one of you.’
Here is a secret. A secret you can never discover from Westfield shopping centre or the Ocado website. That everything we need has already been given, and everything to be done has already been done. God in Christ has done all, and he offers us all. Love one another. Feed on me.
Some of God’s children are already living this secret. And some are not. Perhaps you’ve seen descriptions of what prisoners in America choose as a final meal. Mountains of food - burgers and chips and pizzas and whole pots of ice-cream. As if consumption and choice could help us in the face of: death. Thomas Cranmer, the author of the prayerbook, was offered a final meal. He asked for a ripe pear. Tonight is Jesus’ final meal on earth. He needs nothing. He feeds us.
There is a choice, but only one. We can refuse, as Peter tries to. Refuse the foot-washing and the bread-eating, that bring us down, bump, with the weak, the sick, the poor, with every body. Or, more frightening: we can embrace it. The pity, the sorrow, the waste, need, pain, tenderness, helplessness, frustration, the exhaustion. The end.
God embraces it. He gets down on the floor, bump, and embraces the grimiest parts of being human - the parts down there, the parts we ignore, cover up, outsource. Feet in the Old Testament sense – look it up if you don’t know what I mean. He gets on his knees and caresses them.
And while he’s at it – he offers us himself. Perfect humanity, divine life itself, peace, mercy, reconciliation, eternity. All that he has accomplished for humankind, he offers us, in a morsel of bread.
We don’t want it. We don’t want to admit that we, too, are dying. That we need each other’s care – to give as well as receive it. That we need God. That we are nothing without him.
Ah, but then - those are the facts. Mortality on the one hand. Grace on the other. The dirty feet, and the tender washing. The empty hunger, and the true bread. Jesus offers us the bitter truth, and the heavenly remedy, but they come in one and the same mouthful. If we would take either then we must take both. Take. Eat. The easiest action in the world. And the very, very hardest.
In the Church, it’s the ultra catholics. And the fundamentalists. Who hate women and hate gays too though they are almost certainly closet gays themselves or why would they be so angry? And who are all just using the Bible as an excuse because they would hate women and gays no matter what the Bible said. I can say all this, because my theological positions are spiritually and intellectually unassailable and in no way influenced by my secular values or my social sphere. At all.
In the right-wing press, it’s benefits scroungers. They’re not ill, they’re just feckless and don’t know how to use an alarm clock. They are happy to let other people work all day and then live off their taxes, watching Cash in the Attic and eating Jinsters pasties, and teaching their children to smoke. So that we, who never drink or eat foie-gras or do anything else that could be bad for us, have to fund an over-stretched NHS to sort them out. We, who are always productively employed during every moment of the day, especially at work, and never waste money on anything frivolous, and set our children only good examples, and on trains don’t glug cider and swear, we read books. Or at least magazines. Or at least fiddle with our phones with the sound off.
In the left-wing press: Brexiteers. Those bestial creatures in Sunderland and Stafford, who have screwed up everyone’s future with their moronic choices, racist probably, certainly ignorant, blinkered and selfish, turning the UK into a massive version of the Cayman Islands, which we can’t abide, because we have never voted selfishly, or thoughtlessly, or tribally, all our opinions are perfectly considered and informed, and we have no investment in the global industry in usury which is about to take off in a big way, and definitely didn’t vote remain to hang on to our cheap holidays, and we have never had a bad thought about immigrants, ever, not even when the train stops at Southhall.
One bishop said publicly that we should to talk to people who had voted Brexit, find out why, and take their fears seriously. Cue: howls of derision. Heaps of opprobrium, from outside and inside the church. How dare he suggest that we treat those people as human. Oh, and he doesn’t approve of women priests. Crucify him.
Then, there’s the Archbishop of Canterbury, who one week ago said, and I quote: ‘If someone has been an abuser, they can never be trusted again. You will never take a chance on them again.’ We like that. Rage. Dehumanisation. Condemnation. The open denunciation of the gospel message of forgiveness and redemption. AND he thinks the church is a business. Make him governor of the province. Make him High Priest. Oh - we already have.
It is so easy, isn’t it, to condemn. Because we are not damaged people, only child abusers are. We have never had intimate encounters that were careless, or heartless, or dishonest. We have never objectified or dehumanised a partner or potential partner. We have never watched the pornography in which three quarters of the adult female participants were victims of incest in childhood. There is no manipulation, no exploitation of any kind in our relationships. And especially not with children.
The torture of little ones in sweatshops all across the world to make our clothes is completely different. The brutalised child soldiers in regimes supported by the price of our earrings and engagement rings. Completely different. Cockle-pickers. Amazon workers. Ex-offenders who I’m sure are great people but just don’t have the right profile for this job. Single mums. The kids of the single mums, whose schools are getting worse and worse because no middle class parent will support it by sending their kids there - we can’t be responsible for them. They are elsewhere.
And that is how the world works. The guilty? Is someone else, not me. And my victim? Is far away, where I can’t see them. That is how we remain sure that we are good. And that is how we remain - not good.
And then, there is Jesus.
Who bears our sins in his body on the tree.
Who transforms everything he touches.
Today, Christ is executed in a rubbish dump. Because he is a rubbish dump. If we have something nasty to get rid of, today, we make it okay by dumping it on that person, that group.
Today, Christ is executed outside the city, because he is outside the city. If we are hurting or victimising someone, today, we make it okay by banishing them to outside - outside our country, outside our street, outside our line of vision.
The good news is that our scapegoat is always Christ and none other. The good news is that our victim is always Christ and none other.
Good news, because sin and death and hell every be the same again once God has got in there, right inside them, with his love.
The one we make guilty, today is shown to be innocent of our accusations and helpless. If we would call anyone that chav, that bigot, that loser, that animal, then we must call Christ those names. We must say that of the gentle one, who is love.
The one we victimise, today is shown to be with us always, even to the end of the age. If we would banish them from our sight, we must banish Christ from our sight. We must lose the gentle one, who loves us.
If we can see that it is Christ, the gentle one, who loves us, on the tree, then we can see all things. That we hurt other people. That we deny hurting them. That God forgives us both for the hurt and for the denial. That everyone hurts others, and everyone denies it. That God forgives all of them.
That it is accomplished.
That we must go, and do likewise.
The way of the world is to consign the cross to the rubbish dump outside the city, where no one has to see it. But we - have been called to follow. To walk behind the cross, to leave the city, and stand in the rubbish dump. To keep our faces fixed on the cross. Until we see that it is love that hangs nailed there. And we who have driven in the nails.
Behold the wood of the cross. We take it into the depths of our hearts. We wear it fashioned in precious gold around our necks. We fall to our knees and worship.
We do not want to be happy. We want to be unhappy in familiar ways.
We have encountered someone strange and wonderful who has turned us upside down. Who has shown us new possibilities of life, of grace and relationship beyond what we had ever imagined.
But such people attract unwanted attention. They disrupt things. Like, normal life. The neighbours’ approval. The comforting platitudes at the school gate. The submitting, agreeing, going along with the known and the safe, the consensus. If we side with the dazzling weirdo, what might become of us?
The pull of the familiar is strong. And we are weak.
So we tell the authorities where to find him. When they arrive, we leg it. We prefer to be sleeping, oblivious of the conflict at hand. If pushed, we claim that we never knew the man. Before we know it, he is condemned, and executed. It is finished.
Of course we feel guilty. And sad, too. Those possibilities, the way we felt when we were with him. It’s gone, and we can never forget it. Or, not quickly. But… there’s relief in there, too. Here is normal life again. The neighbours’ approval. The finishing nets just where I left them. It has limitations. We might say something is missing, we might even say something isn’t right. The memory of what we did to him… But we did what we could. The Romans had it in for him. Terrible, but no point in all of us getting crucified. At least now I’ll get to die in my bed.
We do not want to be happy, so we have killed God. And without God, we have nothing.
Our past - gone, and in place of it, an elaborate fairy story. Not the true story, the complex and graceful story our maker would tell. The truth, that might teach us something, that might redeem us. No past. Just a desperate and ludicrous fantasy of our own innocence.
Our future - gone, and in place of it? No idea. Toil, I suppose, since we’ve murdered gift. Nothing left but to concoct a belief in our own power and control, our rights. And live on whatever withered fruits we can produce our closed and anxious strivings.
Our selves - gone. God made us, God knows us, God called us by our names, we are God’s.
But we have killed God. And so we have nothing. Not even his corpse. The emptiness of the tomb is like the emptiness in us, an absence, a ‘nothing’ that should terrify us. Like the formless void before there was ever a world.
And then - there is Jesus.
How can this be? How can this be, marvelled the Virgin Mary when she was told that Jesus would come to her. That’s impossible.
How can this be? We marvel. There are only two things in life we can be sure of, but death is one of them. He is dead, so how can this be?
We don’t know how. But impossible is where God gets started. And nothing is his very favourite place to begin.
So there is Jesus standing before us, the darkness of the tomb behind him, the daylight just rising, the very first day of the week. There he is.
Well, back comes our past. Not the most comfortable thought. We nailed that past to a cross in a rubbish dump outside the city, and all our inadequacy and guilt and shame with it. We’re not keen to see that lot back again. But, when Jesus, our victim, appears to us he brings no hint of blame or punishment. He breaks bread with us. He asks us: why are you weeping? Says ‘Peace be with you’. He comes not to haunt us, but to show us our real past and to show us it is forgiven. We are reconciled.
And back comes our future. It’s a slightly scary future, since we’re not in charge of it any more,. But in the gift of our past we saw that he is truthfulness, and he is faithfulness, and he has give us a share in those things too. Wherever he sends us, we have his spirit. We have hope.
And back come our selves. Restored to friendship, to a place at the table. To the dignity of being loved and searched for. To the honour of being entrusted with a job to do - the unique and personal job which God asks of me, and no other. To joy.
God is the one to whom all things are present - every second of our past, every moment of our future, and every last atom of every part of his creation. This morning, we are in his presence, and all those things are present to us, too. And we have courage to behold all of it without fear, because he is with us.
But: we cannot hold on to him. He cannot be controlled. Our risen victim, the living reminder of our cruelty and failure - pops up in the most unexpected places. From now on, we will live at all times on the look-out for the face of Christ, in every locked upper room, in every vagrant on the road, to Emmaus or wherever. We never know where or when our salvation will appear before us. But when we recognise it, we will be ready. Ready to walk towards it, and embrace it, and to encourage others that they can do this too. Because we have seen the Lord. And we know that confrontation with our past victim holds something out to us - not the threat of condemnation but the promise of peace.
Have you ever reached the end of the line with a someone? A connection so damaged and fraught that it cannot be repaired? So angry, and so tired of being angry, that all you want is to be rid of them? It is finished.
And then, found, to your astonishment there was something there. Some common ground. Some residue of pleasure, or care. Something between you, that looked nothing like your broken past, and nothing like your fantasy future either. Unrecognisable. But there it is, glorious, confusing, sheer gift, unexpected, unearned. The past is real. It isn’t erased or forgotten. But the pain inflicted and suffered, that almost-ruin transfigures this new thing – it is even more precious, more beautiful, a true wonder, because this love was over; it was dead, and yet it is alive. And what you cradle in your hands is the very thing you once called impossible.
How can this be? God gives only one answer. It is. I am.
Of course we want to stay in our habitual mistrust, keep our distance from this so-called free gift. We want to go it alone, to be the makers of our own sins and messes, of our own past, our own future, our own selves. We do not want to be happy. We want to be unhappy in familiar ways.
God is not satisfied with that. And so:
Christ is risen.
With forgiveness, with reconciliation, with hope and with joy:
Christ is risen.
Christ is risen.
And he can only give us everything.