THE TESTIFIER (Matthew 15.21-28 / Luke 21.12-19)

January 29th, 2017

St. Botolph’s Parish, Sunday of the Canaanite / New Martyrs of Russia, 29 January 2017

This will be a time for you to bear testimony (Luke 21.13).

Switch off the light, if it bothers you. Swaying unsteadily, straining to rise, you grab the edge of the dock. From the jury box, in the bright red scarf and white blouse of the Komsomol, the pitiless face of a Communist youth shoots a stare as you reach toward the nonexistent bulb. Old prison habits die hard. Bald, bloated Party stoics in uniform grey suits and monochrome ties never once blink. That stolid, socialist frown indelibly etched into every immobile muscle. ‘Accused Kresteniuk, do you plead guilty to the charges brought against you?’ A blurry aura of dots on your iris, radiating from where the electrodes attached to your temples. ‘I … I’, you stumble. ‘Accused Kresteniuk’, the voice insists, ‘are you not a reactionary, Trotskyite tool of conspirators against the workers and peasants’ soviets?’ Your dazed, sleep-deprived cornea now sees no Party stooges bored with the ritual. No Comrade Rubin atop his judge’s bench, hungry for a priestly carcass. Only the 100 watt bulb in your prison cell that no one switches off. Day or night. Jerking in, out, back arching, from the first volts passed through your brain in that NKVD hospital, your muscles feel the voltage rip into your cerebral cortex. The yellow stream, leak down your cassock. Finally, your brain breaks. ‘I plead … utterly guilty … of the heinous crime of …’ Your well-drilled, well-rehearsed confession fading, the judge arches his brow. ‘Of undermining … the People’s, people’s …’  But your only crime is being a priest.

You do not hear your last word hobbling off. On feet crippled like yours, where toenails used to be. Are you still the priest, Vasyl Kresteniuk? Sacrificial goat on the altar of the People.

‘Switch it off, if it bothers you’, Fr. Bob tells fifteen-year-old Marcie, watching tortured faces in black and white in the TV documentary. News clips from the 1930s. ‘It’s about Russia’, she explains. ‘Remember’, he hastily grabs the remote, ‘we’re Antiochian Orthodox, not Russian’. ‘But Dad’, Marcie asks, ‘what did those priests do? What were those trials?’ ‘Show trials’, you answer. At age ninety-five, body crippled seven decades ago, your keen mind still unscarred by electric volts of terror, time, and converts’ denial. ‘Uh, uh’, Marcie’s Dad passes the buck. ‘Old Fr. Bill, over there. Ask him. I have that interfaith group with Rabbi Rubin and Reverend West from Seventh Street Methodist. You know, my old buddy before we became Orthodox? It’s all the same God, after all. ‘Sides, Fr. Bill, I think you knew Rabbi Rubin’s grandfather. In Russia or someplace’. You stare. Impassive. The cheery convert beats a hasty retreat. That insipid, bourgeois smile indelibly etched on his lips. ‘Fr. Bill’, Marcie nudges you. ‘Fr. Bill, are you awake?’ Smiling drowsily in your wheelchair, you lean in forward. ‘You know, Marcie. My name was not always Fr. Bill Cross’. ‘But Dad always …’ ‘Your father and I are brother priests but there is much that he does not know. Much that he does not care to …’ ‘The show trials’, a sudden, youthful insight flashes across her mind. ‘You were there, weren’t you?’ Offsetting the tragic smile of age, a tear sinks down deep furrows as you drift off into sleep.

Dreaming of 1945. A young priest in Ukraine, Vasyl Kresteniuk. Suffering all, all for Christ.

Who are you to take your place among them, Fr. Vasyl, alias Fr. Bill? Bishops buried alive in the black soil or strapped to the paddles of steamboats for blades to mangle red. A starving peasant gnawing her own dead baby, since ‘the People’s’ Army confiscated her last grain of buckwheat. A seminarian coughing up tubercular lungs in Magadan, or Yakutsk, rather than simply urinating on the icon of Christ. A novice nun strapped in a chair, losing her virginity to a full dose of electric volts. Who are you but one of the countless, the faceless, ritually tried, while cameras flash, film spins, and juries render a verdict pre-ordained? When your time of testimony came, how did you plead? ‘Utterly guilty of the heinous crime of …’

Your faith? What are you but a yelping dog, eating crumbs falling from holy martyrs’ tables? But they fall from the Master’s table – and as low as you fall, so high he lifts you up.

In the coastal country south of Mount Lebanon, a Palestinian woman bows low. At the feet of the wandering Jew. ‘Son of David’, she shrieks, ‘have mercy!’ Jerking in and out, her muscles in spasm, her fifteen-year-old arches her back. Foaming, growling, rabid as a desert dog. In her face, a face that no mother can love. ‘Send her away, if she bothers you, Rabbi’, pitiless voices advise. ‘A feral Esau, lips wet with pig’s blood. Some dog of a Gentile, nipping at your heel’. Swaying unsteadily, grovelling in the dirt, a yellow, yelping dog falls as low as she can. But will she withstand the trial? Put her to the test. ‘I am sent only to the lost sheep of Israel’, that first volt crosses her brain. Still, she will not go away. Crank up the voltage. ‘Is it right to throw the children’s bread to the dogs?’ the Master asks. Quivering lips curve into the tragic, sardonic smile of one with nothing left. ‘Even the dogs, my lord, eat the crumbs that fall from the table’. Lifting her up, looking deep into her eye, the Master declares: ‘Great is your faith, woman of Canaan. Greater than all they who hear only what they want to hear and see only what they want to see’. At home, she finds a mind, unscarred. The face that she knows. She has survived the trial that is true faith. Her time of testimony has come.

Beloved in Christ: passing those doors, you find a multitude of lights. Candles dance merrily on the mounted icon prints, on silk meadowy-gold, silvery-white … or martyrs’ red. Switch off the light if it bothers you. Hide behind a blurry aura of converts’ fantasy, the bits and bobs of a cherry-picked gospel, and spin-spiced, Ortho-fancy faith. When your fifteen-year-old asks: ‘Who were those priests? What were those show trials?’ feign forty-something ignorance.

Avert your eyes from an old priest’s wheelchair – and the fifty million martyrs all around it.

Sinking steadily, into soul-tossing, troubled sleep, you sense breath grow ragged and pulse, unearthly slow. A wandering Rabbi stands before you. A gold crown in his hands. ‘Who am I to wear it?’ your arid, parched lips ask. ‘Did I stand in the dock and expose the lies? The lie. Hammer and sickle, swastika, Brioni suit, bright red necktie – and all the senseless evil done in the name of the People? Give me crumbs, Lord, not a crown’. ‘You never once renounced my Name’, says Christ. ‘When your time of testimony comes, you will not be afraid. If all men forget the Cross that you have borne, I, the Testifier, will remember’.

Holy new martyrs and confessors of the Russian lands, pray unto God for us!

RAM’S HORN (Luke 19.1-10)

January 22nd, 2017

St. Botolph’s Parish, Sunday of Zacchaeus, 22 January 2017

I must stay at your house today (Luke 19.5).

Face unseen, a hushed, humped bundle in black huddles against the three-foot tall ruins of the old Roman wall. Slippery mist from the Thames glazes a blotchy brown claw, from time to time reaching out from under a woollen blanket to touch a penny in an upturned fiddler cap. Reeking of Old Speckled Hen, plus five or six chasers of Chardonnay, the Armannied gentry of the Square Mile stumbles out of the Fox and Pheasant. A Gucci toe trips over the bundle. ‘Bleedin’ ‘ell’, exclaims a City worker, ‘it’s one of ‘em Ro-, Rom-, … innit? Like Nigel says, you want one of ‘em livin’ next door?’ ‘Just a matter of time’, brick-red cheeks wobble beside him. Palms high-fiving, the tipsy voices chime: ‘Brexit!’ as they lunge off into the dark. Living walls, intact, against immigrants legal or illegal. ‘So’, a smooth tone in Dolce and Gabbana asks his colleague in a J Crew Crosby royal blue suit, locking up. ‘Anything, this weekend?’ ‘Wedding Saturday’, stony lips yawn. ‘Wife’s niece’. ‘Load of rubbish, if you ask me’, Dolce & Gabbana scoffs. ‘Wild mad-eyed zealots. Who needs a church wedding to keep from cheating on his’, nudging, winking: ‘his … taxes?’ ‘Not like I go, um, regularly’, Crosby blushes. ‘An occasional wedding. A christening, maybe. Tenner for the concert, fiver for the flower service. Give God his due, eh?’ Flinging five p into the cap, two City middlemen head into the tube. An arthritic spine pressing against the wall, the bundled beneficiary of a Christian isle utters unfamiliar words.

‘Doamne Iisuse Hristoase, Fiul lui Dumnezeu …’ ‘Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God …’ Fondling her woollen rope, she feels two banknotes gently slip into her palm. One hundred pounds.

Lifting the slick, sweat-soaked wool from over her flooded eyes, the woman notices no face. A small, slight man, scarcely taller than a child, hovering in his hooded Middle Eastern robe. ‘Why you give to me?’ she kisses his hand, rubbing a wet cheek against it. ‘Are you so rich?’ Inside the hood, the figure lowers his face. ‘Once’, he says, ‘I wore a robe of royal blue linen tied with a red silk sash. Golden turban. Ruby-inlaid straps on my sandals. I gave it all away. Many, many years ago’. ‘How, then …?’ She holds up the notes. A block away, gentlemen of the Square Mile, in Gucci and Armani, go staggering into a lamp post. ‘Do you see those men? They hide behind a stone wall at the base of a hill, warding off migrants. You, and me, … and him. They will not let him in’. Two blocks ahead, middlemen in Dolce and Gabbana disappear into the tube. ‘Do you see them?’ the hooded figure asks. ‘They hide behind a wall of bricks and mud, atop a smooth, slippery, certain slope into unbelief. Idolaters of pound and penny, content with religion on tap. An occasional Shabbat supper. Passover candle, maybe. But never …. him’. ‘Who?’ the beggar asks. ‘He who calls me by my name’. ‘How do you know about these men of the City?’ she wonders. ‘Believe me’, replies the figure in the hood. ‘I know’. ‘But if you are not rich …?’ ‘I have nothing but what I give’, he states. ‘Half of all my goods. Four times what I scratched, and seized, and stole’. ‘Is it your curse to give all away?’ she asks. ‘My blessing’, he replies. ‘But why, why me?’ the weeping immigrant kisses his hand.

‘You have nothing’, the hooded figure explains, ‘but when the Master calls, you let him in’.

A modest faith, some call it. Sensibly small. Pocket-sized and part-time. Tailored for the busy City worker, beer-breath cursing a bundled arthritic limb trodden upon outside the pub. Little faith, fit for the Armannied executive, his retina shot blind by hours at the PC screen. Unable to see an angelic light shining from an abyss of hopeful, homeless eyes. No fire and hail, ice and blast of tempest shattering a night sky. A low-profile understated faith, befitting unbelief. Stroll into a City church on your lunch break. Tenner for a concert, icon show free of charge. Once home, your door is locked. Against all claims of mad-eyed zealots and meddling gods. Religion on tap, only thirty pieces of silver. Walls of brick, bigotry, and neglect, fully intact.

If this is your faith, you will never hear the ram’s horn sound. Calling you by your name.

Grown tall on exports of balsam, the walls of Jericho stand secure. Atop a massive mound of debris dating to Neolithic times, a rampart of mud and red brick rises against the migrants in from the desert. Wild mad-eyed zealots of an unseen God. Forty-six feet of smooth, slippery plaster, sloping down from the mud-brick rampart to the stone base wall. A city impregnable.  Inside its walls, caravans carry cumin and myrrh. Cedarwood of Sidon, ivories from Ethiopia. Jericho, mecca of the middleman. Zakkai, his name. His golden turban, atop a robe of royal blue tied with a red silk sash. Ruby-inlaid sandal straps. He takes his cut of taxes, of course. Half a shekel to the Temple means one drachma for the High Priest, one for him. Twenty per cent Roman ground tax lines his robe. Give God his due, he figures. An occasional Shabbat supper. A Passover candle, maybe. A modest, low-profile faith. Religion on tap, like all those in the City. Now, rumour has it, ‘he’ is passing by. The zealot of all zealots. A homeless rabbi, worker of ineffable mysteries. Climb up into a sycamore tree. See this fanatic from Nazareth. Passing under, an eye looks up. Zakkai cannot bear it. ‘Zakkai!’ His name resounds, like the ram’s horn on the day of Jubilee. ‘Come down’, Christ says. I must stay at your house today’. Something shatters inside. ‘Behold’, he declares. ‘Half of all my goods, I bestow on the poor. If I have cheated anyone, I restore it fourfold’. ‘Zealot’, sensible gossips murmur.

‘This day’, declares this New Joshua, ‘a son of Abraham sacrifices his all. By the ramparts of prejudice and pride, a ram’s horn sounds – and sends the walls of Jericho crashing’.

Beloved in Christ: who knows what becomes of Zakkai, middleman of Jericho? Sly disciple of an all-or-nothing zealot, who leaves the City and the City’s wall behind? Bishop of Caesarea Maritima, on the shoreline of the great Sharon Plain? He whom the Gentiles call Zacchaeus. Perhaps he roams the City by night. Face hidden modestly in a Middle Eastern robe. Giving four times his undisclosed assets to those who call upon him, who calls him by his name.

He no longer hides in sycamores or behind City walls. Even the tallest wall tumbles in time.

By the ruins of an old Roman wall, by walls impregnable to mercy, Zacchaeus reaches down to a migrant claw feeling a woollen rope. He slips in two banknotes. A week or two in shelter. Warm food. A blanket or a robe, to keep out the chilly mists rising from the Thames. For the pure heart of Jericho, no modest, part-time half-belief shall ever do. He has heard the ram’s horn sounding – and the last wall comes tumbling down.

GARMENTS OF SKIN (Luke 17.12-19)

January 15th, 2017

St. Botolph’s Parish, Sunday of the Ten Lepers, 15 January 2017

Where are the nine? (Luke 17.17).

‘Flesh and blood’. A faint Missouri twang to the accent. ‘Pardon me?’ you glance up from the porcelain sink. Drying his hands, combing his hair, the stranger beside you in the washroom never moves his lips. ‘Flesh cleaves to flesh’, you hear again. ‘Excuse me’, you ask, ‘did you say something?’ Quizzical, rather startled, the stranger shakes his head and leaves. Whose voice was it? In that old courthouse washroom, bevelled glass, cracked marble send echoes you could swear came from beside you. ‘You hear me, boy’. No echo from the newly-painted stalls, the counter. The glass. ‘You’re my own flesh ‘n blood. You gonna testify ‘gin your own kin?’ Rattling a finger in your ear, you wriggle your cheeks. Fogging the mirror, you wipe the smudge, then straighten your tie and smooth down your lapels. Only the preliminary hearing, after all. It may never go to trial. 1953, a world before Facebook, Twitter, or Panda 5. As you slide open the door into the hall, a faintly furious panting from behind. ‘I’m talkin’ to you, boy. You, y’hear? You remember a little town in Missouri, that summer? The drought, the dust. A cloud of yeller an’ black, blottin’ out the sun? You ever seed what locusts can do, in less ‘n a day?’ Shutting the door, you listen. ‘That crusty, white-faced nigger, befoulin’ our women folk. Ten of us break into the jail where they got ‘im chained up, an’ we … We defend our own. Flesh ‘n blood, y’hear? But you, boy, some sixty year on, you dig it up. All over again’.

Wiping sweaty palms on a Brooks Brothers cuff, you open the door into the courthouse hall. ‘Mr. High ‘n Mighty, with your big city airs’, you hear, ‘testifying agin’ your own … Daddy!’

Preliminary hearing having set the trial date, you board a taxi up North Tucker Boulevard to your downtown hotel. Teen couples, white arms entwined in black, exit Starbucks under that ubiquitous billboard: ‘Trumball for Governor. Take back our borders’. Firm tuft of yellow hair, atop the square-jawed, pouty-lipped profile of a populist. Spreading out wallet, key, cufflinks on the table under the TV, you slip under the covers. If only you could stay awake … Drifting drowsy, yet unable to settle, you find yourself on the bank of the Osage River. Quizzical, yet startled. So many. Ice-cream suits, with straw boaters. Denim dungarees, necks wrinkled red in the searing, noonday sun. Sun bonnet and gingham print, spreading bright plaid blankets for a picnic under a flowering elm. Dangling from a branch, something not quite … black. On its torn cheeks, below holes where ears once were, a thick, white crust. Rolls of snowy flesh. Twisted leprous lips hang loose, under the red root of a tongue. Burnt craters where human eyes should be. A pool of blood just below the belly. Grinning citizens pass plates of country ham, crunchy drumsticks, and cracklin cornbread. Washing it down with pitchers of iced tea. On the blanket, your sister, only four, buries golden curls in her mother’s lap. ‘No, no, honey child’, says a sweetly patriotic tone. ‘You gotta remember. They caught the nigger’. Fourth of July, 1953. Hanging on an elm, a thirteen-year-old leper no longer has eyes for white ladies. Posing for the camera, your Daddy boasts: ‘We stand by our people. Our flesh ‘n blood’.

Of the ten ringleaders, nine are dead. Only a boy, now age seventy-five, has dreams every night.

Flesh cleaves to flesh, you hear again and again. Race to race, nation to nation, like to like. From scrap-yard workers to war-scarred veterans, wandering past locust-levelled fields and blade-bloodied streets. Impoverished minds, no rags to put on but Adam’s garments of skin. In seventy-five years, nothing changes. White legs shift seats in a bus, should black slide in. ‘Go back where you came from’, a cry arises whenever the latest stump-speech demagogue cajoles them: ‘If you want your jobs, your families, your country back, vote for me!’ Recoiling from Polish accent or Nigerian face, as from a leprous limb, what mantra does a demagogue need but ‘the People’? The voice, the will of the People. That mindless mob, swarming out at the latest feared foreigner.

Sixty years after the lynching, were you to find one spirit, wise enough, generous enough, to look beyond a skin leprous pale or sooty dark, would you not fall face down at his feet?

Somewhere in the hill country between Caesarea and Shechem along the border of Galilee,  a stream befouled by floating faeces leaves all faces foreign. Limbs twist, nerve ends break. Gaping cavity where a nose once was. Arm of snowy flesh. From a distance, nine voices call out: ‘Yĕhôshú’a, Rabbi, have mercy on us!’ Trailing far behind the nine, a tenth leper. A frail, faint voice, as if afraid of being heard. ‘Go’, says the Master, ‘show yourselves to the priests. You are clean’. Rushing off on legs newly limber, nine lepers never once look back. Only the one faint, frail voice. Falling on his face at the Master’s feet, he cries in a Samaritan accent: ‘I thank thee, Rabboni, I thank thee!’ ‘Where are the nine?’ the Master asks. ‘Is there no one left giving thanks to God but this’, he hesitates, ‘this … foreigner?’ ‘Am I not “foreign” still, my Master?’ the poor man asks. ‘There is no longer any such thing’, the Master replies. ‘When my own kind leave me, are you not faithful still? When the older generation forgets, do you not remember?’ ‘Blood is thicker than water’, the Samaritan says. ‘Flesh cleaves to flesh, skin to skin. Will not men always fear everything except the familiar garment of skin?’

‘Go’, says Christ. ‘I cast off garments of skin. Your faith alone has made you what you are’.

Beloved in Christ: like the swarm of locusts devouring a field, a lynch mob has no mind. The furious flexing of jaws, the flapping of a hundred million wings, begins when hind legs brush. Serotonin soars. A cloud of undulating yellows and blacks blots out the sun. But remove one solitary grasshopper, Locusta migratoria, from the middle of the swarm – and he is harmless. Even so, one boy, one caring mind and heart, set free from the bigotry of ‘the People’.

In truth, there is no People. Only persons. Those who face the truth and those who do not.

Over the door of a St. Louis, Missouri, courthouse, a bronzed plaque reads: ‘Vox populi, vox Dei’. Voice of the people, the voice of God. Or … is it? ‘On the Fourth of July, 1953’, the last surviving witness hears, ‘were you present at the lynching of one Jim Stiles, a Negro, age of thirteen?’ ‘Flesh ‘n blood’, echoes a dry voice. ‘Will you turn on your people, your race, your own flesh?’ But whatever is born of the flesh is flesh – and flesh and blood shall never inherit the kingdom of God. ‘Yes’, the old man testifies. ‘I was’. How many generations must pass, he wonders, before the label foreigner is forever abolished? How many generations, before the smudge of race is blotted out from the mind of man?

Sometimes, only one.

THE AMNIOTIC SEA (Matthew 3.13-17 / 4.12-17)

January 8th, 2017

St. Botolph’s Parish, Holy Theophany (deferred), 8 January 2017

Light has dawned (Matthew 4.16).

Whirling, wriggling, waterlogged wings no longer beat the surface. Water flows outwards in wider and wider circles, as a pale blue damselfly no longer struggles to free herself. Smooth ripples carry signals behind the grassy bulrushes to the dark, shadowed corner of the pond. Stiff bristles pick it up. From the muddy roots of marsh marigolds, bark-brown cylinders glide comfortably over the water. Mosquito mouths pierce the damsel, salivary enzymes dissolving Inner organs. Until the last beak sucks her dry. ‘Jesus bugs’, your Grandmother called these water-striding insects. From the rusted ease of a wrought-iron Edwardian settee, you discern a serpentine shape slithering below. Up from tangled pondweed and swan mussels, mired in the mud, a gigantic set of jaws opens wide. In an instant, predator and prey vanish beneath. ‘You always notice’, the voice rustles in your mind. ‘No one else ever notices. No one else cares’. Hollow and hard, that voice. ‘Never mind’, it counsels. ‘Water strider catches damselfly. Carp catches water strider. Death is nature, nature death’, the voice mocks the poet Keats. ‘That is all ye know on earth and all ye need to know’. Sitting in the rusty chair, you hear no voice but his. You see no image behind your closed eyelids but his waxen skin, tightly drawn, over his lean, lank skull. As night yields to dawn, you meditate on the lessons of the pond. Never make ripples. Never break the smooth surface. Never look beneath.

Ironclad motto of generations of those pale, punitive escapists known as … Christians.

Last bastion of Christian values, he calls it. No booze, no boys, no rock’n roll. No short skirts or skintight jeans. No feminists in clergy collars. No Adam and Steve, strolling hand in hand. Orthodoxy, last refuge of a disgruntled puritan. A bit much incense for his low church tastes. Too many silks, transporting antiquarian scribes to doctrines undigested and saints unseen. All in all, fine, respectable religion. Rules to reassure the most vexed Pharisee that he is not like other men. From the bay window overlooking the pond, your clergy-collared father tucks into burnt roast beef, grey carrots, and Chateau Cheval Blanc ‘66. ‘Well then, isn’t this nice?’ he toasts your empty glass. ‘A father, a daughter – and the Good Book’, laying a fleshy palm on a worn-out Bible. ‘D-Dad’, you stutter. ‘I c-can’t stand it. We never talk about –’ ‘Enough!’ he flings it open. ‘Whatsoever things are pure, whatsoever things are lovely …’ Each smooth syllable pierces you, salvific enzymes dissolving your spirit. Until the last word sucks you dry. ‘We do not speak of certain things in a Christian home’. Drawn to its lank, lean skull, a skin, waxen-smooth as his tongue. Piety forbid, he ever look under surfaces. At age sixteen, your blossoming body wriggles in the tight straightjacket of a child’s pale blue chiffon dress. Your anorexic legs bear welts of his leather belt, one stroke per inch above the ankle. Every night before visiting the pond, in dreams you venture out into unfathomed water. Your foot grazes the smooth dorsal of a fish. Or is it … a small, red, unborn mouse plucked from your womb? The forbidden memory. Bury the memory. Submerge it under smooth, evasive religion.

Drown it in the amniotic fluid of the womb. But from unsettled, surging waters, truth is born.

In the lightless deep of human memory, under a grave of still smooth words, hearts lie dead. A rustling nightgown, rising from a fearful sleep, strolls to the surface of an Edwardian pond, searching below. Will she ever find what she seeks? Hold the small, red foetus to her breast and suckle it with a mercy that she has never known on earth. Or will her waterlogged wings no longer struggle? Yield body and soul to the finger-wagging Pharisee, a naysayer nesting in an Orthodoxy of rituals and rules. No more akin to Christ than a cancer-bearing cell. Eyes averted, from every twinge of pain but the light blue intruder, disturbing the surface. Nestled in murky weeds, the serpent of denial waits. Drinking tears of shame and sunken grief.

It is to crush that serpent’s head that Mercy descends into the waters today.

The murky waters of Jordan have seen many an intruder. Staff of Moses, blade of Joshua in a blazing noonday sun. Fire from the spokes of Elijah’s wheels. Mad Yohannan the Baptizer, fists flailing against the merciless Pharisees. ‘Vipers! Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come?’ Then Mercy sinks his foot into the mud. ‘How can I baptise you?’ asks John. ‘Shall the lamp illumine the Light?’ ‘Let it be so’, replies Mercy. ‘I come to fulfil all justice. All justice’. The sole of his foot sends ripples across the smooth surface. Up from deep fears entangled in rage, mired in hopes unfulfilled, in terrors half-submerged, in a grief that has no name but howls helplessly into the night, gigantic jaws open wide. Mercy sinks ever downward, ripping and rending the ocean floor, dispelling the shuddering deep. Until at last, he bursts open the serpent’s lair. Shards of sunken anguish, rubbles of agony that no hypocrite dares to name, come floating up to the surface – with the sallow, waxen scales of the serpent. His long, lank skull trampled underfoot. When Mercy rises into the sun, his feet are dipped in the blood of his enemy. For the sake of every creature that suffers.

A Voice parts the heavens. No hollow tone but resounding with life: ‘This is my Beloved Son’. Those content with living on the surface will soon forget the Voice, ringing in the raven-black deep … and the Spirit of Life, alighting over the head of Mercy. In the form of a dove.

Beloved in Christ: dramas of death and life play out, hour by hour, minute by minute, among the roots of marsh marigold, of sedge and bulrush and torn, tangled weeds at the bottom of the pond. Come daylight, surface waters appear deceptively calm. Those content with living on the surface shall never know the price of staying alive. Peevish Pharisee and silly scribe, seeking piety and finding only Christ. Skimming the surface, never entering the depths.

Mercy could not bear that. He plunges down to the serpent’s den, rending the sea in twain.

When the floods recede and seas withdraw from the land, Noah, forefather of Mercy, cracks open a slit the ark. He releases the raven to seek dry ground. Never again is the scavenger seen. Only the dove returns. In her beak, an olive branch. Its blossoming fruit, mixed with oil of myrrh, is chrism. Worthy of anointing a Christ. From the stormy banks of the river Jordan, from the murky depths of sunken agony and buried loss, of unbearable memory gestating in misery, a New Life appears. For those who sit in deep darkness and in the shadow of death, a winter Pascha. Born, fresh and new, from the amniotic sea of the soul.

SOLSTICE (Luke 2.20-21, 40-52; 6.17-23)

January 1st, 2017

St. Botolph’s Parish, Circumcision of Our Lord / Saint Basil, 1 January 2016

After three days they found him in the temple (Luke 2.46).

A play of sun and shadow. From green leaf and smiley face to googly eyes and angry birds, your idle pencil searches for a fresh image to doodle on the margins of your notebook. Bars on the window cast long, thin shadows over the puddle of sunlight in front of the class. Days are growing longer. Nightfall still blankets the ground in cold, Winter’s frosty finger tracing its lace on the window pane illumined by a crisp, clear morning sky. ‘Attention, class!’ the syrupy voice of Sister Mary Bonaventure announces. ‘Today, we are very honoured to welcome the Reverend Father -’ ‘Nein, nein’, a German accent pipes up. ‘Call me Herr Doktor. Better still, Helmut. Ja, ja, call me Helmut’. Muffled giggles from the last row of desks mingle with clicking smartphones, hastily searching for images more ‘explicit’ than the Blessed Virgin on the wall. ‘Father – um, uh – Helmet’, Sister strains, ‘is a member of our Order, who earned his Ph.D. in Germany. He is an expert in Biblical Criticism’. Bewitched behind a veil of multisyllabic words, Bernadette, at age eleven, fixes her baby-blue stare on the shock of yellow curls rising from the chipped, sawdusty desk. ‘Fa-, um, Doctor, Helmet is here to explain the Apostle’s Creed’, Sister states. ‘To tell us what it means for us today’. Visible from the front row, you erase the pencil sketches in the margins and lean forward in your desk. ‘First of all’, the scholar’s eyes meet yours, ‘we must, uh… deconstruct …’ Like an ebbing shadow, his voice fades.

Your eye never blinks. Already at age twelve, you have heard it all before.

‘Before all else’, the scholar averts his face, regaining his ease, ‘we must analyse the words, “God the Father Almighty, Creator of heaven and earth”. This of course runs contrary to the principle of science and of interfaith dialogue’. Resting her Middle School chin on her palms, Bernadette gazes admiringly. Grinning, Theresa slips a sketch of that suave, learned, liberal priest. ‘We must bend to the theory of evolution – and, to be sure, never offend our Buddhist brethren’. Curling up the corner of your lips, you bide your time. ‘Better, I think, to call “God” the Supreme Being’, says the cassockless, collarless priest in a royal blue business suit. ‘Or perhaps the First Principle. Thus, we remove the next problematic phrase: “Jesus Christ, his only Son”. Surely, Mohammed is also his son. Or Lao Tzu. Or my old professor in Tübingen, Dr. Seelenfresser, who was taught by Dr. Jonas, who was taught by Dr. Bultmann. How shall we cling to that anti-Semitic slogan, “Only-begotten Son”, in our ecumenical age?’ ‘Why then do we say it at Mass?’ you raise your hand. ‘The Mass is for the old ladies’, Dr. Helmut says. ‘It is the temple, not the university’. ‘So what we say in worship is not true?’ you ask. ‘My boy, truth is … negotiable’, he ventures. ‘Three days, three nights in the university shall cure you of this fundamentalist notion of truth’. ‘So, Christ is not born of a Virgin?’ you enquire calmly. ‘What do you think?’ the scholar coos under a veil of word play. ‘If Christ is the first and last, the Alpha and Omega’, you answer, ‘he is not there to be analysed but seen. He is not to be talked away but tasted’. ‘Who has taught you this?’ the scholar wonders.

Sister shakes her head, embarassed. At age twelve, you sit and watch old shadows fade away.

Heresy is the play of sun and shadow. ‘First Principle’, inoffensively abstract – not the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. A priestly scribe in benign banker’s blue – no black-robed mind, stretched on the paradox of the Cross. Holly, ivy, mistletoe, old man Winter’s fire contentedly crackling away – no fire of a twelve-year-old spirit, unquenched by religion’s easy answers to faith. Heresy is Janus, the two-faced god of passageways. At once facing forward and back, stony as the head hungover in the small hours of the New Year. Able to look, unable to see. When childhood begins to ebb at age twelve, the mind looks forward, backward, all too easily settling for what seems, not what is. For idle minds, the easiest answer will do.

Let the Sun only extend over a longer, deeper stretch of soul. All the shadows will flee away.

Three days, three nights, they scour the Holy City. In the shadow of the Passover, searching bales of Egyptian cotton, behind baskets of Jericho dates. ‘He’s no infant newly circumcised, no newborn’, the old carpenter insists. ‘He’s twelve. He’s almost a man’. Hiding her pounding temple and racing heart, the mother swears: ‘He is here’. In the Court of Israel, on the steps, among greybeards in musty, scholars’ robes, the Boy sits quiet. Hiding behind a column, his mother overhears. ‘Is this not Aleph the first letter? What sound does it make?’ the twelve-year-old asks. ‘None at all’, says Rabbi Yahaziel ben Yair. ‘But is it not the first letter of the Holy Name of God?’ ‘Indeed’, Yahaziel states. ‘The holiest of letters, the silent mystery’. ‘You see, my boy’, Rabbi Gershom ben Hadar grins contented. ‘Truth is debatable. So says my old teacher, Hanoch ben Guriel, who was taught by Ezra ben Elimelech, taught by Yonah ben Matzliach’. Behind a dense veil of name-dropping, the Boy discerns the flaw. ‘Teachers of Israel’, he challenges, ‘behold two flames astride one bar. Elohim and Teshuvah, first letter and last. God is unknowable, yet is known. He is not What but Who. Infinitely unknown, yet closer to you than your own breath’. ‘Who has taught you this?’ asks Gershom, wonder gnawing at his mind. ‘My son’, his mother grasps his arm as he descends the steps. ‘Where were you these three days?’

‘Where should I be’, the Boy replies, ‘but in my Father’s house?’ Three days, three nights, in the belly of the fish. Three days, three nights, in the tomb. Three days, three nights it takes. To dispel the frosty formulas of dead religion and roll away the veil of scholastic deceit.

Beloved in Christ: after the dark midwinter’s night, the days grow longer. Nightfall still drapes the ground in frost – but the sun’s rays extend beyond the bars and gates of old man Winter. Young blades shoot fresh and green from beneath the frosted soil. Horned Hathor, goddess of Egypt crowned with a sun-disc, gives birth to falcon-headed Ra. Grian, goddess of spring, rises far over Celtic hills. Rome bows to Sol invictus, unconquerable god of the Solstice – and a twelve-year-old Boy confounds the decaying debaters of Israel.

He is the Solstice, not What but Who. He whom we cannot talk away but only taste and see.

Leaving his religion class, a twelve-year-old schoolboy finds his answer where it resides: not in the university but in the Temple. Leaving the Holy City, homeward bound for Nazareth, the twelve-year-old Christ obeys his mother as he obeys the Law. But in her heart, where silently she keeps these things, she understands that everything, everything now has changed.

HOPE IS BORN (Luke 2.1-20, Matthew 2.1-12)

December 18th, 2016

St. Botolph’s Parish, Nativity of Our Lord (Christmas) (by anticipation), 18 December 2016

Mary kept all these things, pondering them in her heart (Luke 2.19).

Climbing up through the branches, limb by limb, leaf by leaf, you start to sense the shimmer. A kind of comet, shooting above the crack overhead. No light bulb shone so clear. Flashing, once, twice … it vanishes. A fir branch blocks your sight. Stubby, brown arms shove it aside, fading needles clinging to your mohair coat. From the broad branch in the middle, drips and drabs of Christmas cheer come tumbling down. A plastic ring in a crumpled cracker. Torn bit of tinsel, caught on a cranberry fossilised in brandy butter. A hunk of rancid bacon, dribbling off a watery, grey sprout. Something heavy lands on your face. A mouldy raisin maybe, from a stale mince pie? A lump of plum pudding moistened with treacle, held together by egg and raw mutton suet? Odours invade your nostrils – mulling nutmeg and Glenlivet single malt, fat from a liver and giblet stuffing – until you almost loose your foothold on a lower branch. Your glassy, black eyes gaze up from the dark recesses of your cave. You make out that object. It is a sliver of glass from the star atop the tree. No sharp edges, just enough surface to catch the beaming light. Now past the centre, the topmost branches are short and thin. Round ear and furry forehead push up, lifting the lid. Surveying above the bin, your nose wiggles. Wind whistles in the bare branches but no crisp, clean snow blankets the earth. Only a cruel frost. Inside the house, you hear glasses clink. Stiff, raucous voices. Unable to believe …

A teddy bear discarded in a bin, come to life. In time to see what they cannot. A shining star.

On the night after Christmas, the punch still flows. The star above the tree lies broken in the bin. ‘Wasn’t it a lovely panto in the parish hall?’ asks Aunt Penny, picking a crab-and-salmon parcel from between her teeth. ‘St. George and the dragon’. ‘I prefer Dick Whittington, to be brutally frank’, Uncle Alfie belches aloud as he cuts another sliver of Beef Wellington. ‘Damn fine singing, eh, Maria?’ From the lid of the bin, you watch Maria. Standing by the window, in the dim light, she stares vacantly at a bright nova overhead. Bedelia, first cousin once removed, piles rolls of dates and mango chutney, wrapped in bacon, in her Wedgwood platinum plate. ‘What do you call these, Auntie Penny?’ ‘Devils on horseback, of course’, Penny replies. ‘An old family recipe’. ‘Pass the parsnips’, growls Ainsley’s wife Gert, shooting Penny an ill stare. Refilling her glass, Penny chides: ‘Never mind, Gertie. Now behave. It is Christmas, after all’. Maria never moves from her window. Blank eyes fixed on an evergreen, already left in a bin. ‘Maria, do join us’, Aunt Penny invites. ‘At least have some trifle. Amontillado trifle. You used to enjoy it after playing Aladdin. Lovely sleeveless dress. Why don’t you wear it these days?’ ‘Yes, Maria’, Uncle Alfie smirks. ‘Lovely’. But Maria wears no short sleeves ever since a night fifteen years ago. She held you all night, her only friend. Your teddy-brown arms around her neck, your furry forehead against her cheek. Not as Uncle Alfie held her. She shows no one the scar on her forearm where the razor cut from the artery to the heart. When all the family gathers at Christmas, mum’s the word. Peace and joy. And a tale never told.

‘Brownbear’, your name escapes Maria’s lips. Up from your man-made bin, your cave, you appear.

Winds whistle wild and wet through barren branches in the season that men call Christmas. An evergreen fir left rotting in a bin, with dribbling dainties and furry memories of yesteryear. Under a sprig of mistletoe in that overheated parlour, lips kiss that you detest – while high up in the trees, anguish unspoken howls in the frost. When bottles are empty and mental wards full, the scar on a thirty-year-old wrist, a fifteen-year-old soul, starts bleeding. All over again. How long will you endure it? Joy fossilised in brandy butter. Peace, moistened with nostalgia. Held together by codes of silence and raw rancid lies. Devils on horseback – or should I say, pigs in blankets? Wrapped warm and cosy, in comfy, contemptible content.

In the recess of her mental cave, a child grown up in abuse clings to Brownbear in the night. For fear of Christmas. But it is in such a desolate cave that Christ our King is born.

Cruel frost glazes the stubble on the dry plains outside Bethlehem. A shepherd boy shivers, his coarse, wool cloak swaddling a starving lamb. His belly groans, with a hunger that barley cannot feed. Cracking open the midnight sky above, the brightest beam flashes once, twice. Then vanishes. No star ever shone so clear. Lifting bloodshot eyes, the shepherds hear the song. ‘Do not be afraid’, the voice in that light proclaims. ‘This day, in the City of David, he is born who saves you from death’. ‘Who but a rich man or king can do this?’ a shepherd asks. ‘What king ever would?’ ‘You will find not him in a banquet hall’, the angel replies. ‘No castle, but a cave. You will find him wrapped in swaddling clothes and lying in an ox’s trough’. At the mouth of the manmade cave, hewn out of a rock, they look inside. The ox gently nuzzles the makeshift cradle, the elderly carpenter from Nazareth looking on. In the straw, the Dayspring from on high that worlds cannot contain. Chilly mists from the Jordan valley cling to the cold, bare walls of the cave. But the Baby never cries. His Mother, all of twelve, thirteen, looks up. ‘We followed the bright beam in the sky’, says the shepherd boy. A lamb, gamboling gaily at his feet. ‘So did we’, say three Persian astrologers in royal robes, bowing brows to the earth and laying before them boxes of kingly gold, godly incense … and oil of bitter myrrh. A resin to wet the eye that cannot weep and to anoint the bodies of the dead.

Outside, frosty winds die away. A crisp, clean snowfall shelters the lonely Judean hills. Inside the cave, a Virgin named Maria ponders the mystery of loss and love deep in her heart.

Beloved in Christ: in the season called Nativity, we tell stories. Glassy, black eyes, coming to life, when the voice of a vacant heart calls out a name that only she knows. A soft, plush toy, forgotten, that never forgets. A Birth inside no quaint crèche but a stone-cold cave of death. In the fiery furnace of griefs unhealed, these are no stories. They are the icons of hope.

Hope is no trifle soaked in denial, suspending unbelief. It is the joy of those who weep.

Only those who weep can truly rejoice. Only those who fast from denial can truly feast. Only those who despair can truly hope. They alone know the price. Reaching into the caves of memory, cradling a teddy bear – or the Baby, begotten before the morning star. No nova, exploding in the heavens. No comet, propelled by sun and solar winds. The wondrous light that beams in a maiden’s eyes is Hope himself. Unfading. Unending. Since the day Hope is born.

EMMANUEL (Luke 14.16-24, Matthew 1.1-25)

December 11th, 2016

St. Botolph’s Parish, Holy Forefathers of Christ (by anticipation), 11 December 2016

His name shall be called Emmanuel (which means, God with us) (Luke 14.23).

Twirling, twisting, rising high as it spirals in the frosty air, a cloud of breath dances in front of your eyes. Warming her mittens, your mum rubs her flabby, rosy cheeks. ‘Mum’, you ask her timidly. ‘Call me Moonjava, eh? Mum is, like, so yesterday’. Standing outside the grey, stone edifice, she grips her mimeographed carol sheet in her quivering fingers. Under the faux fox collar of her Burberry mink, the psychedelic blues, pinks, and yellows of an old tie dye t-shirt. ‘Mum’, you tap her elbow. ‘This just doesn’t seem right’. ‘So you’re all of twelve, eh? And you think you know what’s right? I do what I want’. Frozen fingers fumble among the song sheets for the right one. ‘Besides, my name’s Moonjava. Moonjava!’ A hot blush burns your cheeks, rising up to inflamed red eyes. As the Winnipeg wind blows minus thirty in your face, a nasal voice belts out: ‘O come, o come Emmanuel …’ Shooting furtive glances, you hope that your fellow carollers drown her out. ‘I’m doing this for you, eh?’ she interrupts. ‘But above all else, for me!’ Veins bulge purple on her liver-spotted, wrinkly hand, intrusively stroking your neck. ‘Do you want him jerking you around, too?’ ‘That priest never did anything to me’, you affirm. ‘Well, he did something to me, to me! Telling me I’m not allowed to take Communion, just ‘cause I’m not Orth-, Ortho-’ ‘Orthodox’, you correct. ‘It’s Christmas!’ she yelps. ‘Peace! Peace on earth!’ Storming the church door, she bangs it until chips of paint come flying off.

All that you hear inside are bells on the censer and the ancient rhythms of Byzantine chant.

Moonjava’s cheeks glow as red as yours. Not with shame. Shame is a tool of patriarchy, that male marsh of priests, one-night stands, and sperm donors. Like the father you never knew. In the icy grass, in front of the church, a hole. Where someone once burned a Cross. ‘Storm the citadel!’ she shouts lustily. ‘If he won’t come out, we’re going in! Power to the people!’ Her hands thrusting open the doors, she sees … no one. Twirling, twisting, rising high in spirals,  in that still, sacred air, the cloud of incense dances in front of her eyes. ‘For Chrissake’, she swears. For Christ’s sake, indeed. Christ is the name unmentionable in her house. Lao Tzu, Buddha, Krishna. Never Christ. ‘Last bastion of male privilege’, she growls. ‘He’s the reason, you know, I’m supposed to feel guilty for having it all. Five-bed condo in Miami, five portfolios of gold, wine, armaments, and … Well, if my dad and his dad and his before him had known, they’d have invested in that pipeline pumping gas from Qatar into Syria. Shrewd, eh?’ As her ego spirals high as a hippy on LSD, you feel acid rise to your cheek. Indeed, she has had it all. Tie-dye t-shirts and shares in Morgan Stanley. Anti-Vietnam sit-ins and Kalashnikov sales to Sudan. Wherever the wind blows, the refrain is: ‘Me’. My field. My five yoke of oxen. My little late-life bundle, born of a dried-up womb artificially seeded. You, her child, are left mourning in the lonely exile of one who is not even allowed to call her Mother. Storming the last citadel to resist her ego, she wails: ‘Where’s the priest!’ But she sees nothing. No holy icon to to desecrate. No service to disrupt. Only her own shadow. ‘I’m outta here’, she storms.

Leaving a cloud of incense … and Emmanuel. Seen only by those humble enough to see.

Humility is no yoke of male might imposed on female frailty. It is the might that bursts all yokes. Constant, inexorable, expecting all, giving all, humility signs no contract with savage self-will. No psychedelic streamers, no electric guitars – or a million flabby, fumbling gimmicks that sell out the Gospel to the world. Humility is Love in all his exacting power. It is a quivering nerve, waiting by the phone. It is a soft, cool hand reaching across a table, melting the heart of ice. The Rod of Jesse, striking poisoned waters of pride. From a mountain, densely shadowed in incense, Humility empties himself. Betrothing himself to a twelve-year-old girl. A young virgin sitting alone in a sacred, forsaken space. Ears open to hear, eyes to recognise …

Emmanuel. God with us. Born in a senile age of self-will, to a world yearning to begin again.

‘I’m too old’, says Yoseph ben Yakov, carpenter of Nazareth. Scraping the bark off a cypress plank, fashioning it into a yoke, the arched handle of an adze begins to slip from his fingers. ‘Too old’, he groans, counting the liver spots and wrinkles on his widower’s hand. ‘She’s only a child of twelve. A quiet, pensive child of the Temple, tucking James, Judas, and Simon into bed. If my first wife had lived … Who knows who the man was? Maybe, it really was rape. I’ll not stand by, watching a hail of stones … No, send her away. Quietly’. ‘Joseph’, a voice calls as his mind rolls in sleep. ‘Never fear to take Maryam as your wife, all is now ready’. ‘I’m not’, the old man objects. ‘Have you a field to tend or five oxen to inspect?’ asks the voice. ‘A new young wife?’ ‘Enough!’ he shouts. ‘I am old. Fourteen generations have passed, since Israel was exiled in Babylon. What are we still but exiles? A petty, puny, stiff-necked people, forever asking: “What’s in it for me?” And now? My own young fiancée, pregnant with another man’s bastard?’ ‘She has conceived a child by Humility himself’. ‘Israel has grown too old to believe riddles’, Joseph insists. ‘Then God himself will show you a sign’, says the angel. ‘You will give her Child a conqueror’s name: Yēshúa – and like Joshua of old, his trumpet will topple walls. But only the humble will guess his real name: Immanu El, God with us.

‘The Carpenter who scrapes off the old bark and makes the rough places a plain’.

Beloved in Christ: senile self-will, assailing the temple of God, may send chips flying or even break down the door of some inner-city Orthodox church. Scarred by bigots … of all stripes. Inside, they see nothing. No icons to desecrate, no priests to defy. As the sun is to the blind, what they do not see is no proof that it is not there. Behind the cloud of incense, in a sacred space, a twelve-year-old virgin sits and waits. Rising, she walks out into the night. Moonlight shines on her soft lips, as she spits out something into the snow.

The narcissistic poison of Generation Me.

When Christmas comes and earth lies locked under ego, a new generation replaces an old. From highways and hedges, they come wandering in. Too poor and maimed, blind and lame to claim anything for themselves. Theirs is the ear that hears chanting from the very icons on the wall. Theirs the eye that sees past clouds of incense to make out the face of Emmanuel. God who humbles himself. God who dispels the lingering night of pride and pierces the vain shadows of the tomb.

Holy Forefathers of Christ, pray to God for us!

TWINKLE IN THE EYE (Luke 13.10-17, 6.17-23)

December 4th, 2016

St. Botolph’s Parish, St. Nicholas the Wonderworker (by anticipation), 4 December 2016

Power came forth from him (Luke 6.19).

‘Go on, ‘urry up’, that shrill, nasal squawk hits your ears. A hand wet with cold cream shoves you toward a garish, gilded throne in the middle of the department store. ‘Come on, ain’t got all day’. ‘I don’t want to’, your tiny tremor of a voice whimpers. Bending low, twisting your arm until it aches, Aunt Sadie growls: ‘Look ‘ere. You gonna ax ‘im – or not?’ Heavy and wet, your eyes burn like the hunger deep in your guts. ‘Remember! It’s the iguana ‘andbag from Dolce and Gabbana. Iguana, Gabbana. Innit, tho?’ A boy in the queue, around your age, punches and kicks the girl behind. Aunt Sadie never notices her cry. ‘It’s an iguana purse’, she insists. ‘On sale at £1,350. Could get it at £1000. But ‘arrods! ‘arrods! I want me the real thing!’ The pale pine logs and plastic holly lining the Christmas grotto smell damp. A fog, light as a mist, seems to seep from the window into everything inside. Dim light, flickering violet, green, red. Seated in his chair, a red-robed, rosy-cheeked Santa trimmed in fur as white as his whiskers casts a fierce, flinty glance at your aunt. ‘I don’t want to sit on his lap’, you tug at her sleeve. ‘Afraid of Father Christmas?’ she laughs. ‘A right bleedin’ little wimp, you are. You go and ax, ax ‘im straight and proper, or I’ll …’ The sound of her voice is enough to keep you captive, to stir terrifying dreams in a five-year-old’s brain. Step by step, you tenderly tip-toe towards his throne. Climbing up, at first you hide. Then gradually, you peek through your fingers.

Above his ruddy cheeks and frosty beard, two coal-black eyes. You see something that you never saw before.

You never saw it in Aunt Sadie’s eyes, frosty as December gales howling down the high road in your immobile village. You never saw it in the postmistress, hazily sifting through Season’s Greetings, UKIP leaflets, and old picture postcards from Southend-on-Sea. You never saw it in her husband, his dingy pub apron reeking of ale that he would never sell to passing ‘Paki’ or ‘Polack’ alighting from the London train. Some things never change here, in a little hamlet hidden in an inland fog. Five or six families, living along a road, bound by close ties of blood and codes of silence. What you glimpse in Santa’s eyes, you never see in the vicar’s. A few, stringy grey hairs, hiding what is left of a mellow, misty mind. His dull, dim eye never noticing what a man of the cloth ought not. A girl of twelve, punched, kicked, hauled behind a pub. In the old rum barrel behind the bar, a boy left standing in cold water all night. ‘That’ll learn ‘im’, your Aunt Sadie gloats. On the door of the vicarage, the brown hand of a shipwrecked fisherman leaves a bloody fingerprint. Scrub it well, Reverend Sir. As you say in your Sunday sermons, ‘Such things do not happen here’. Give them happy holly, merry mistletoe. Glasses of punch by the fire. Anything but … the truth. Turn the clocks back to an England before brown faces and accents to the east of Shoeburyness. Far to the east. At age five, you sit by the window in Aunt Sadie’s grand house on the hill overlooking the village. You sit and watch the fog roll in from the North Sea. Chilly air trapped under that stable, motionless mass. Warm and still. Immobile. Until a shopping venture into London unveils what you have never seen.

In a department store Santa in red and white, a look of pure mercy. An expression of truth.

For a slightly sadistic, self-made consumer of the East London diaspora, glued to a seventy inch Samsung TV, ‘truth’ is confessing that you stole the hobnobs from the jar. For the vicar, ‘truth’ is a conceit unlearned years ago in Cuddesdon or Westcott House. Christmas? ‘Yule’, you mean. Mulled memories of sultana-studded cakes, waterlogged sprouts mushing under a fork. A tinsel tree – and a garish, grasping hand that buys Dolce and Gabbana but cannot afford class. Christ? ‘Jesus’, you mean. Nicest bloke that old legend in the sky ever created. But what does he have to do with Christmas? By a crackling fire on a wintry day, ‘truth’ is an amiable old elf, red-robed and ruddy-cheeked. Telling you whatever you want to hear.

Only do not listen too closely – and never, ever look Saint Nicholas in the eye.

In his eight-by-eight foot prison cell, under the streets of Nicaea, the eye of Nicholas is dark. Hard and unyielding as it was in the council chamber. The mild, mellow, self-composed Arius rambling on: ‘Is it not enough to call Christ Jesus the loftiest of all beings ever made? Jesus, teacher of truths?’ But the living Truth is no mere teacher of truths. No rabbi, rotting in misty, moist soil. Shooting a flinty glance, the archbishop strides across the chamber. A hard blow, and Arius falls. ‘Fanatic!’ exclaims Theógnos of Nicaea. ‘Does it befit a man of the cloth?’ the sly Eusebius of Nicomedia adds. Down into the eight-by-eight cell, a fog from the Hellespont sinks below the street level. ‘Should I have yielded to foggy fancies, and low-lying lies?’ asks the prisoner stripped of his robe. ‘What good has it ever done me to stand up for the truth?’ ‘Why did you strike Arius?’ a Voice asks. ‘For love of you, Lord’. ‘Of me?’ Out of the shadow steps a fisherman, a boy, and a girl of twelve. ‘Who are you?’ asks the prisoner. ‘You saved me from the storm’, says the sailor. ‘From the barrel where an innkeeper hid my dead body’, replies the boy. ‘From the street’, adds the girl, ‘when you dropped a coin through a window, into my sandal by the fire’. Vesting him in his red robe and a white stole, Christ our true God asks: ‘What have you ever done but defend the defenceless? Why have you done but reveal the truth of things – by dispelling the fog?’

Beloved in Christ: on a clear, cold winter’s day, in Macy’s of New York or Harrods of London, fog seems to seep from glazed windows into every consumable inside. Pale, stressed faces, rich enough to see value and trade it in for cost. Bound by ties of inbred habit and codes of silence that keep them from recognising … any real thing. Stable and motionless, a mass of moist, still air stifles deep hunger, in mushy sprouts and tinsel-tatty trees. When sun breaks in the clouds, molecules clash. Energy shifts. Until, drop by drop, the fog lifts and is no more.

Lifting your five-year-old eyes, you look the round elf in his. What you see, you remember.

Meek, but never mild, his fierce eye melts into yours. ‘Why did you look one way at my Aunt, and another way at me?’ you enquire. ‘It is my way’, says jolly old Saint Nicholas. ‘To comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable’. ‘Will I ever stop feeling … scared?’ you plead. ‘After eighteen years, when you stand on your own feet straight and tall’, says a round, red Father Christmas, ‘whenever you are afraid, think of me’. Wherever he goes in his disguise of white and red, power goes forth to every child who is afraid. A twinkle in the eye that says it all.

Holy Hierarch Father Nicholas, pray to God for us!

EYE OF A NEEDLE (Luke 18.18-27)

November 27th, 2016

St. Botolph’s Parish, 23rd Sunday after Pentecost, 27 November 2016

Who then can be saved? (Luke 18.26).

Stitch in, stitch out. Blue on yellow, red on white. Four dainty daisies. Bumble bees, alighting on snow-soft petals, dip into the stamen in search of nectar. You can almost hear them buzz. ‘Fine needlework. A rare skill these days’, Granny pontificates, as if totally unaware that she is in church. ‘Granny, hush’, you shove the sampler into her handbag. ‘Please put that away. It’s almost the Great Entrance’. ‘How should I know?’ she yanks at the embroidered sampler. ‘It’s all in Greek’. ‘It’s in English’, you whisper tensely. ‘English?’ the old lady exclaims. ‘How is it in English?’ Flushed, flustered, you tug at your neckline. Rough as country tweed, the stiff, yellow chiffon chafes your skin. ‘I told you, Granny, the Divine Liturgy here’s all in English’. ‘It is a foreign religion’, the old lady insists. ‘Look at those idols. Dark skin, funny eyes. They’re Chinese, or Mexican, or … and just look! Red silks. Incense’, she sneezes. ‘You brought me to some Hindu temple! Where’s the Koran?’ As the curtain parts on the iconostasis, candles and Cross appear. A priest with a chalice under a veil. Past the handful of arms and elbows, red-robed servers with rigid staffs, you catch sight of a body still seated among the standing worshippers. Necktie scarlet, suit of Brioni blue. Arms casually stretched on the pew behind, legs extended under an invisible settee. He stands for no one. And nothing.

Lowering your face, you read Granny’s needlework verse: ‘Blessed are the pure in heart’.

Your heart sinks, no, drops a dozen stories when he turns and smirks. How did he find you here? What is he doing in an Orthodox church? Of all men. For all his campaign talk of a ‘Christian country’, there he sits. Grinning. Just as he did years ago, when … ‘Catherine’. The sound of your name startles you from the dark abysses of a memory. ‘Catherine’, asks Granny, ‘who’s that man you’re staring at?’ ‘No one’, you retort. Smiling sardonically, she comments: ‘It’s not your first. Spreading your legs for every Tom, Dick, and …’ ‘Stop!’ you cover her mouth. ‘Isn’t it ironic?’ she removes your hand. ‘Catherine means “pure”. Blessed are the pure!’ Dropping down stories of memory, you are ten years old again. Sitting on your father’s antique settee, in the governor’s mansion. MacLeod, the attorney general, already forty, nudges your Dad’s elbow. ‘Just think. In ten years, I could be dating that voluptuous piece of …’ At age thirteen, you were fluent in Russian, French, Spanish. You tied evolutionary biologists in logical knots. But it was not the logic that MacLeod craved. In that corridor, right under your father’s nose, a stiff, blue staff pressing against your yellow chiffon. Fingers grabbing snow-white petals, in search of the nectar inside. You never told anyone. From the boys, tugging at your hemline, to your Granny. Her Bible Belt mind, bound up in ‘Thou shalt not’s’ and your own lost ‘purity’. Daffodil displays in a Baptist church hall. Tuna fish sandwiches leaking on picnic blankets of plaid. Now that MacLeod is governor, no one talks. No one listens. With all his millions, he is immune. But how is he here? His broad, bully’s torso defiantly displayed, as the holy chalice passes by. His leering lips, his fingers’ grab and get chafing your eighteen-year-old soul.

As the chalice passes, you reach and touch the hem of the priest’s robe – and the image disappears.

Rich as he is, he knows how to market an image. Clean as a whitewashed wall, hardworking, plain-talking as the hymn heartily belted out on lips of jobless miners and shell-shocked vets. When has he cheated on his fifth wife? Stolen more than his fair share after taxes? or borne false witness to a jury of his peers? Crude as homespun, blunt as a Bible verse on Granny’s embroidered sampler, is he not entitled to anything that his thick fingers can fondle? Estate, land, a governor’s mansion? A reddish trickle on snow-soft flesh? Or perhaps … everlasting life? Who are you to accuse him? A governor’s girl. Smart-aleck slut, losing her purity at age thirteen. But all that it takes to topple a Tower of Babel is a word in due season.

A will fixed on God alone. A mind’s eye that worships toward his holy temple.

‘How much?’ enquires the scarlet necktie in the Brioni suit of blue. ‘How much to inherit, say, eternal life?’ ‘You know the commandments’, the Teacher says. ‘Do not cheat, do not kill, do not steal. Honour father and mother. Bear no false witness’. ‘Honestly’, the man in the Brioni boasts, ‘could a solid man of means do anything less’? ‘One thing you lack’, declares Christ. ‘Go, sell it all. Invested stocks and governor’s mansions. Bodies and souls that your portfolio can buy. Give the proceeds to those who have nothing. Then come follow me’. ‘So fanatical’, the rich man sighs, fondling a coin as he slowly slips away. Watching him leave, Peter asks: ‘Isn’t he basically a decent, hardworking sort? A little rough around the edges, but … Can’t he be saved, just as he is?’ ‘It is easier for a camel to pass through the eye of a needle’, states the Teacher, ‘than for a man like that even to desire the kingdom of heaven’. ‘Who then can be saved?’ asks John. ‘See!’ The Teacher’s outstretched arm points out a girl in a crowd. An unmarried beauty, for reasons that she knows. A girl too clever for the scholars, too bold for embroidered verses hung on a wall. Bound on the fiery wheel of a rich man’s pride, her soul breaks all the spokes. ‘A governor’s daughter?’ marvels James. ‘Is she even a virgin?’

‘Virginity is purity of heart’, says the Son of a Virgin, ‘and purity of heart is to will one thing’.

Beloved in Christ: in an age when wealth buys immunity for politicians and paedophiles, who are you to speak out? A cloud of panic falls between your snow-soft, sullied flesh and a holy chalice passing by – and inside that cloud, you see MacLeod’s leering face. Who are you, of all Catherines, to reach out and contaminate the red robe of a priest? But if that robe is red, it is dyed in the blood of all who suffer. Unheard, unseen. When your fingers graze the hem, your haemorrhage is no more. You have silenced the clever among the godless.

You have willed one thing: the truth behind the image. A rare skill these days.

What a privileged pew potato cannot see, you can. What the smirking, grasping demagogue has no power to buy, you hold in trembling fingers. The martyr that you are. The martyr that you could be. Witness to a Precious Body mocked on a Cross. To Blood shed for those who shed forgotten tears. Yours is no idol of soggy sandwiches and blighted blooms, needlework piety and rich man’s pride. You have passed through the eye of a needle. You are free.

Holy Great Martyr Catherine of Alexandria, pray to God for us!

ABSOLUTELY (Luke 12.16-21 / 10.38-42, 11.27-28)

November 20th, 2016

St. Botolph’s Parish, Entry of the Theotokos (by anticipation), 20 November 2016

I will pull down my barns, and build larger ones (Luke 12.18).

Normal. Perfectly normal. ‘ICD-9-CM 89.52’, says the cardiac surgeon. ‘MeSH D004562. No signs of myocardial abnormalities, no dysrhythmia’. ‘MedlinePlus?’ the cardiologist enquires. ‘003868’, the surgeon replies. ‘Her heart is absolutely normal’. ‘Thank God’, your Mom sighs, dabbing sweat from her temple. ‘So it worked, at last. She’ll be – calmer, now?’ she enquires. ‘Inducing a seizure is always risky’, states the clinical psychiatrist in studied, scientific tones. ‘It is a last resort. Bilateral currents crossing the brain. But six hundred milligrams of clopixol, injected near the deltoid muscle, should balance out the effects of ECT’. ‘That’s all I want for my baby, doctor’, you hear your mother whine. ‘All I want. A modest, balanced life. Girl Scout, Senior Prom. A diamond-studded bridal dress. A nice, clean husband in real estate, just like her Daddy. A couple of little blond angels with baby-blue eyes, in a six-bedroom bungalow in Westchester. All nice and comfy’. ‘We cannot guarantee that this obsession is cured’, warns the psychiatrist. ‘A dose of clonazepam, should her symptoms persist – and a higher voltage of electricity’. ‘Wipe her mind clean, doctor’, Mom begs. ‘Make my child normal again’. Under your sealed lids and motionless lips, you long to scream. Guts churning, lungs lunging forth, in one, loud, monosyllabic: ‘No!’ A volcano of eighteen years, erupting deep in your reptilian brainstem. ‘It’s not my age, it’s not my hormones, it’s not my meds. It’s me, me!’

A leather-strapped, clonazepam-pumped psychotic, who senses the calling to be … a nun.

As the psychiatrist withdraws, Mom leans over your leather straps. Her still slim, supermodel fingers pressing electrode VI right at your sternum, she snarls: ‘What makes you so special, anyway?’ Her suburban, Southern belle voice echoes down a distant chamber. ‘Your Daddy, now, that’s the special one. Seven real estate firms. Properties in Monaco and Mauritius. No fewer than twenty golf courses, from Argentina to Abu Dhabi. A balanced sort of a Christian, if you ask me’. With every pathetic boast, the urge to scream subsides. ‘Why, bless my soul, your Daddy threw you such a sweet sixteen party! Black truffle frittata and ribeye steak, with mini bottles of Chateau Lafite, 1869, to wash it down. Take it easy. Eat, drink, and be merry, as the Good Book says. You were only sixteen. But hey, when did your Daddy declare exact figures?’ Like a remote control dying, her tone slips low. ‘Tear ‘em down, build ‘em up. That’s your Daddy’s motto. When he has extra corn to store, he bulldozes an entire village down in Guatemala. He replaces it with galvanised steel silos. Do you know how steel is galvanised?’ By now, her voice sounds a million light years away. ‘What makes you so special? Your silky hair? Your eighteen-year-old body? You ain’t even a virgin. What convent is going to accept you?’ As if distracted by your apparent coma, her tone sharpens. ‘Can’t you be the well-balanced, modest sort of Christian, like your Daddy. Hard-working. Enterprising. Reverend Willis, now, she’s a Christian. Always a pleasant smile. Never a word about bloody crosses, black-robed nuns. Can’t you be more balanced, less …  absolute?’ Brain silenced, you do not reply.

Bilateral currents quiet a body, not a soul. Yours has found refuge far beyond her control.

For comfy Christians nestled in suburbs of bourgeois bounty, there is no room for absolutes. None at all for nuns. Building bigger and better Towers of Babble as its assets increase, the gospel of profit guarantees its own reward. No sour taste of hypocrisy stains your palate, as the Lafite ‘69 tickles your lip. A conscience wiped clean by currents more powerful than ECT tastes nothing. Suffers nothing. Aspires to nothing. Too normal to crawl on cold stone floors, fingering beads of wool well into the night. Much too modest ever to climb the wall of reason, gazing over into the secret garden beyond the gate. Far too balanced ever to break a strap on a mental ward, then don the black habit of a nun, and follow a little girl into a place …

Where the Spirit of God pulls down earthly barns and builds larger, heavenly ones.

‘Come’. The cold, clean hand of a girl, much younger than you, takes yours, leading you out past pedestals and pillars. ‘Is this the hospital courtyard?’ you ask. ‘I don’t remember it when they wheeled me in’. Smiling softly, the girl says nothing. An altar of bronze boards, on your left, smells faintly of roasted meat. Up some wide steps, the girl parts a curtain. On your left, a seven-branch candlestick. Beyond an altar smoking with incense, a dense, purple veil. An onyx-black space inside, lit by a Light from no aperture in the wall. A staff, a jar, a gilded box with images of angels carved in either side. ‘Where have you taken me?’ you ask the Virgin. ‘My secret place’, she says. ‘I play in here. They call Qódeš ha-Qŏdešīm, the Holy of Holies’. ‘Here?’ you ask. ‘In this lonely place?’ ‘It is not lonely’, she smiles. ‘You’re here. You’ll always be here now’. Feeling your brow, you find yourself clothed head to toe in the robes of a nun. ‘My mother brought me here to the Temple, fulfilling her vow. You came here, fulfilling yours’. Gurgling up from a chasm, lost in the earth, dim noises reach you. Studied, scientific prattle. Nasal whinings of a covetous voice. ‘Whose voices are those?’ you ask. ‘Those whose souls are required of them this night’, replies the Virgin. ‘You will hear them for a while. Then, they will fade’. ‘What do they want?’ you ask. ‘What they cannot buy’, the little Virgin says. ‘The prayers of a nun’.

‘The rich among the people seek your favour’, says the Unwedded Bride, ‘as they do mine’.

Beloved in Christ: building bigger and better idols of galvanised steel, a real estate magnate on his deathbed forgets how steel is galvanised. Raw alloys of iron and carbon, immersed in a bubbling, boiling bath of molten zinc. Heated to 449C degrees. Pure zinc interacts with the oxygen, then carbon dioxide, forming the shield that wind and rain and electric storms never corrode. Entering the Holy of Holies, raw thirst is cleansed in a fire of sufferings and prayers. Immersed in a bath of boiling God. Until the ‘me’ that emerges is unbreakable.

Presented in the Temple to fulfil a vow, it becomes the Temple of the Word himself.

Those modest souls that seek the balance that they call ‘Christianity’ never touch the spirit set free under a nun’s black robes. Let no uninitiated hand even try. How can anyone be so absolutely sure that she is absolutely right? they ask. Can anyone live absolutely, love absolutely, believe absolutely, in the cup of salvation that you drink to the dregs of everlasting life?

Absolutely.

Most Holy Theotokos, save us!