A quarry for Quinquagesima


The Church of England breaks ranks with the universal Church on Quinquagesima (the Sunday before Lent) and reads the Transfiguration gospel at the Principal Service. This story (Matthew 17) is, on one level, an action-packed thriller, but its real purpose is to reveal the glory that belongs to Jesus, given by his Father, a glory to be revealed plainly in the End time. It is good to get this shining and beautiful image of Jesus in our heads before Lent starts. By the end of Holy Week, he will be a lump of battered meat, scourged and beaten, spat upon and pierced with nails and spear, ‘barely human in his appearance’. But in each of these wildly differing images we see the same glory of God, the same dealings with and invitation to humankind.


The Bible almost never tells us what its characters look like. There are exceptions, like ruddy-cheeked David and laughably diminutive Zacchaeus, but, in the main, pen-portraits are notable by their absence. We do not know, for example, if Jesus’ well-known appetite for parties left him pleasantly plump (like Dennis Potter’s Son of Man) or whether his constant wanderings round Galilee left him lean and wiry. Indeed at several places in Scripture we are told not to judge by appearances but by the fruits of the heart. Thus our only visual sense of Jesus and the other characters of our story comes through the work of artists, who have rightly made Jesus look like ‘us’, whoever ‘we’ happen to be. An Ethiopian icon will portray him as an African, while the art of the Far East presents him as an oriental sage. In England we are surrounded by a Jesus who is improbably pasty and blue-eyed, with a mother who unaccountably appears to be from somewhere near Kilkenny. In some artistic representations he even looks like a first century Palestinian. Yet he came to identify himself with all of us and in our art we all identify ourselves with him.


All art derives from and contributes to our sense of who Jesus is, but by far the greatest ingredient in apprehending a sense of his identity comes not from art but from the stories and sayings of the gospels. In these accounts of his person and place, we receive a host of vivid images and each of us will have a favourite scene or saying that encapsulates for us the Jesus of our understanding. Writing in the dust with the woman taken in adultery; healing the man lowered through the roof; calming the storm; cleansing the Temple of its merchants and moneychangers; weeping at the news of the death of his friend. It is primarily these scenes that make up for us the Jesus with whom we become familiar and to whom we come in prayer.


And these are not flat two-dimensional images. They come to us with a hundred associations from the Old Testament, often brought out for us by the Church through the choice of Old Testament reading that accompanies the gospel in worship.


Such a thing occurs on the Sunday before Lent in Year A. Jesus is sent up the high mountain with Peter, James and John. This image is paired with the assent of Sinai by Moses and Joshua. On arrival, both sets of mountaineers find the presence of God, communicated to them in the same combination of glory, affirmation and fear.


The glory of God is seen in and through bright cloud, the combination of cloud to hide and brightness to reveal being for most humans the typical blend of knowing and not knowing encountered in our dealings with God. This is an important antidote to the facile view that God makes everything plain with the pithy clarity of a fridge magnet. It reminds us that God must be hunted, sought, discovered in life, Scripture, worship: a divine quarry that does not give itself up too easily. Of course God’s Spirit will be calling out to us, heart to heart, but this is a serious engagement with an unspeakable prize, and is never to be undertaken lightly.


There is, happily, affirmation also. For Moses and the children of Israel, the giving of the Law is one symbol of the covenant relationship between God and the twelve tribes. For the apostles and for Jesus, there is the assurance of his baptism heard again, that Jesus (God’s Word made flesh) is God’s ‘beloved Son’ in whom the Father delights, one to whom all should come near to listen. This is immense encouragement, drawing and driving us up the holy mountain of encounter, sure in the knowledge that our final end is a meeting with goodness, love and truth. Jesus is beloved, and so are we all.


Finally, just to stop things from getting too cosy and domestic, there is an element of fear experienced by the apostles as they encounter the majestic glory of God and throw themselves humbled to the ground. This echoes the recognition of the Israelites that the appearance of God is as ‘a devouring fire’. This fear is not the fear of walking up a dark alley at night or visiting the dentist after years of neglect. It is, rather, the recognition that our dealings with Almighty God (however loving, however gentle his Christ) are part of a journey to the very centre of all that is. This invites and demands a seriousness and a whole-heartedness we must pray for grace to acquire. Without them, certainly, our progress will be slow and our lives will be in danger of remaining trivial and quite superficial.


These three elements of glory, affirmation and a proper humility at the unimaginable power and majesty of God are at the heart of any serious attempt to pursue the mystery of God. They must characterise our own approach to continuing in ever-growing union with the Lord who desires to be at the absolute heart of all that we are. We may not know what he looks like, but we uncover him slowly and feelingly, as a blind man might read braille, and as he himself stands at the door of our heart knocking, seeking admittance to bring us his gift of abundant life.


We can use the approaching season of Lent to make time to climb our own mountain of meeting, getting to know even better the Jesus we encounter in prayer and worship all year long. Through ‘fasting, prayer, and acts of service’, we find the image of Christ within us growing in strength and vitality, forming us more completely as his followers, conforming us more obediently to his will, and transforming us more visibly into those who have seen his glory, ‘the glory as of the only-begotten of the Father, full of grace and truth’.




God and the Avoidance of Straight Lines

Three recent Church stories have been churning round for a week or two, ranging in character from what was generally considered mildly comical, to the inexpressibly tragic, with an over-familiar side-order of ‘business as usual’ poised somewhere in between. Uniting them all is the old theological question: what can we say about God? And with what certainty can we say it?


The nation’s press was delighted to discover that a group of students at Westcott House (apparently a ‘leading theological college’) had celebrated an Evensong for LGBT History Month using the language of Polari, that Esperanto of the demi-monde of actors, clowns and merchant seamen, a sort of camp patois that flourished, like the use of girls’ names by gay men in the dismal days before decriminalisation, when being a friend of Dorothy wasn’t so much a euphemism as a line in self-defence.


The organisers explained that it was a language of the outcast, a natural choice for ‘recovering for Christian tradition a sense of its own intrinsically subversive jouissance.’ Quite so.


Others duly denounced it as if it were a debauched episode from Unguarded Hours, an early AN Wilson novel set some decades ago in an equally leading theological college. The Westcott Principal called Polari a code language that can never work liturgically because worship is about finding language within which all can find themselves, ‘because it’s directed to God.’ If a language ‘belongs to a particular set of circumstances and seeks to subvert particular norms, it can never work’.


I would naturally be cautious about picking an argument with a College Principal. Like me, he will have read Rowan Williams’ topical The Edge of Words. Unlike me, he’ll have understood it all. That said, I would still want to defend the Polari evensong, and not just as part of the ongoing liberation of one of humanity’s most abysmally mistreated groups. I think the organisers have also done us a valuable service in reminding us that all religious language ‘belongs to a particular set of circumstances’, whether the Christian Reformation of 16th century Europe or, yes, the continuing call for justice by persecuted minorities. And this language (these noises we make about God) is as inadequate as it is inculturated. Whoever mines for words for those with hands outstretched in prayer must in the end concede that no words begin to comprehend the great Mystery of God. As the Preface to the ASB put it, ‘words, even agreed words, are only the beginning of worship. Those who use them do well to recognise their transience and imperfection; to treat them as a ladder, not a goal.’


Our entire Christian lexicon would be unrecognisable if it had grown in different soil, if the hills and valleys of Palestine had been covered not with scampering sheep but with snuffling wild boar, or if its staples had been not bread and wine but beer and bananas.


Thus is God called ‘Father’ and Jesus called ‘Son’, and such terms do say something of what is going on within the Trinity, just as our grasp of the Trinity helps to say something of what is going on at the heart of reality. But such word-pictures blur as much as they elucidate, consigning us to a Renaissance ‘God’ seen unhelpfully by far too many as a kind of supercharged Santa Claus: a straight old white man densely bearded, semi-recumbent among the cumulonimbi.

This simply won’t do and, despite the embarrassment of the all-too grabbable headlines, it must be acknowledged that addressing God as ‘Duchess’ (a leader female and royal) gives a jolt to our tired supply of metaphors, letting in light and sharing with us the language of some of those whose cries for loving justice have been too long unheard.


What we must never do is think that we can draw straight solid lines between the reality of God and the language we must use to describe God.


In the same way (turning to our ongoing issues with human sexuality), we cannot draw lines linking unrepresentative verses in scripture and the morality of our own society without doing grave disservice to the nature of God and the quality of the Mystery we pursue.


As Christians we are immersed in the significance of Jesus: we say with Paul that Jesus is the ‘ikon’ of God invisible (Colossians 1.15), and we note that Jesus stands in the line of prophets, priests and kings who are celebrated in Israel as exemplars (or not) of holiness and justice. But this does not settle for us a view of what such a thing as Biblical Marriage might be, for example, or make plain what is ‘God’s will’ in a very different biological and psychological landscape from that known to those who first assembled the biblical materials.


The danger of drawing straight solid lines between human duty and one’s understanding of ‘God’ is seen with tragic force in the John Smyth case. One hesitates to use such an appalling and brutal story to illustrate something as abstruse as a theological claim, but religious matters begin and end with theology and it is important to get it right. That Smyth was able to conjure an image of God as the Creator of the Universe to whom it mattered particularly and ferociously what schoolboys did beneath their blankets, telling his victims that savage beatings had to be endured in order to impress Jesus with the degree of their devotion, illustrates the absolute need of a calm and apophatic biblical hermeneutic.


Recent events therefore persuade me afresh that if we hold fast to a reserved refusal to rely on solid straight lines, turning God into a neatly-labelled diagram,

  • an abuser would find it harder to create a sphere of plausibility in which his cruelty could thrive;
  • those in permanent, stable and faithful same-sex relationships who cannot yet be blessed by the Church need no longer be regarded as falling short of ministerial standards;
  • those responsible for liturgy might take a broader view of what is possible, remembering the inculturated and inadequate nature of all theological language.