"My humanity is bound up in yours, for we can only be human together." “When I hear people say politics and religion don't mix, I wonder what Bible they are reading.” (Archbishop Desmond Tutu)
"Whatever is true, whatever is noble, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is admirable--if anything is excellent or praiseworthy--think about such things." Philippians 4.19
"Work out your salvation with fear and trembling." Philippians 2.12
Tuesday, December 13, 2011
Sunday Sermon. The Angel Gabriel and Mary: Luke 1.26-38
I hate this time of year: Christmas music in the shops for weeks, the city festive lights on for so long that the novelty has worn off, bookings for Christmas meals flagged up in restaurants since July. What ever happened to Advent? At our Christmas do at school on Friday I got a special mention in the "Twelve Days of Christmas" spoof rewrite. "On the twelfth day of Christmas Sir said to me "It's still only Advent." There was much hilarity and on reflection I may have gone on about it a bit with my one man campaign to reclaim Advent. Have you noticed that Adent has been contaminated by Christmas creep?
Take a typical conversation in the classroom last week:
“No, go on Sir show us a film. It’s Christmas and its our last lesson.”
No, actually it’s Advent.
“No Sir, seriously, it’s Christmas.”
No. It’s Advent.
“What’s that then?”
It’s the period of preparation leading up to Christmas.
“No, it’s Christmas now. We’ve had cards; my mum’s been buying mince pies for weeks; she’s bought sprouts too; there’s Christmas music all over the place; I’ve bought my younger brother a computer game and everyone’s arguing. Of course it’s Christmas.”
Trust me. It’s Advent.
On today's Sunday Programme on Radio 4 there was a discussion about how the supernatural in the Bible stories is a direct cause of a decline in faith. Young people particularly have no truck with it. What would the average class of 16 yr olds make of today’s Gospel extract? Or, perhaps, more to the point what does the average adult in this country make of it? There are many adults who struggle with today’s story. What do you make of it?
Most people understand ideas like symbolism, analogy and myth as proper genres of Biblical expression. Most people know that – America apart, obviously – very few people understand the Bible as 100% literally true; they know that such literal interpretations are a fairly recent phenomenon and yet presented with this story, as one of my classes were as part of my preparation for this morning, they immediately went for the superficial understanding of the story - and dismissed the story as a consequence.
They couldn’t see the wood for the trees. Or perhaps, more to the point, they couldn’t see the annunciation for the angel. Is this a story about an angel giving amazing news to Mary? Or, is it a story about an angel giving amazing news to Mary? Rather than seeing a story of wonder as shown in a theologically unique idea that God would choose to become man, what I got was: “Angel? Oh come on Sir. As if!” Does that secretly represent you’re misgivings?
What does the word “Angel” actually mean? I ask them. Silence. Do you know what the word “Angel” actually means? It simply means “messenger” as in “God's messenger.” Medieval artists have a lot to answer for. Imagine for a moment that a Medieval Pope has had a new cathedral built and that he commissions an up-and-coming artist to paint its ceiling with the annunciation. The artist goes away and looks up the story.
“Nazareth and environs. I’ve never been but I can paint a rural hamlet I suppose.”
“An angel …….. Ooo-er! An angel? Not sure about that at all.”
The first stumbling block in today’s gospel for many people comes in the very first line. In the sixth month the Angel Gabriel was sent by God to a town in Galilee. Could you describe an angel? Of course you could. You might have more of a problem rationalising that description. Has it occurred to you that our standard image of an angel comes direct to us down the ages from the imaginations of our Medieval artist and his colleagues? People read “Angel” and mainly think M. & S. nightie, pigeon’s wings, tinsel halo and harp – or possibly trumpet. In trying to represent the indescribable our artist has garnered such clues as he could find from scripture – very often from the apocryphal writings - and invented a strange creature which has cursed our understanding of the stories and caused many to dismiss them.
The next problem comes in the second verse. That angel came to …. a virgin engaged to a man whose name was Joseph. My pupils roll their eyes. “A virgin? Oh please.” Does that also secretly reflect your discomfort in the story?
You could spend hours on the INTERNET looking at the theological debates and discussions about the virginity of Mary. Here’s one example: The word rendered from Hebrew in Isaiah’s prophecy into English via Greek was “almah”. The nearest English word is “maiden”, as in young unmarried woman. While this may imply virginity it is not a required part of the definition.
“Sir, you’re shattering my illusions.”
“This business about angels and the virgin Mary. It’s not what we were taught.”
But you don’t believe it anyway.
“That’s not the point.”
So I ask them: What are the story of the annunciation and the nativity story all about?
“What do you mean?”
What is the point of these stories? Reduce them to their bare minimum. What’s the central element of the stories?
“The birth of Jesus.”
Is that it?
“Well, Christians believe he was the son of God.”
So it’s a pretty dramatic point?
Maybe? God sending his son into the world. It’s about as dramatic as it gets, surely?
Are the bits about the angel and virginity – and for that matter the star, wise men and so on – central to these stories?
Then why are they there?
There is silence while they digest this.
They are signposts to the significance of the story. This is the most dramatic event in human history. It needs some gravitas. How about this then: if God exists and is all the things that religious people say he Is – and then some – then like the angel says in the story, anything is possible right?
Then the story could be true in all its detail, yes?
“Yes.” (Very cautiously.) “But Sir, you said it was a mistranslation.”
No. I said some people argue that it is. To me it doesn’t matter either way because the key part of the story is that God becomes human in Jesus and today’s part of the story is setting that up.
How many Nativity plays have we been to? How many Advent and Christmas Carols have we sung? How many times have we heard this annunciation story and the nativity stories? I have a theory that there is such a thing as “The Tinsel Factor” and at this time of year our understanding of our key gospel stories is subverted by it: over familiarity with the stories – including this one - and a life time of watching primary school kids in tea-towels and tinsel can actually inoculate us from what the story is teaching us and it becomes about the event rather than the message. Unless we are on the ball, the story trumps its teaching.
How many people, I wonder, have got hung up on the details of the story and because they can’t accept them as literally true, they can’t accept the key element of the story and so dismiss it in the same way? It’s not about angels or a virgin - or a star or wise men for that matter: it’s about God intruding into human history in the form of Jesus with an agenda of salvation.
To illustrate the idea and to make that point I tell people this little story. We’re only a week away so I hope you’ll forgive me that it’s a Christmas story rather than an Advent story. Are you sitting comfortably?
“Now, take my friend Marlene: she's a very artistic type. You probably know the sort - dangly Trade Craft earrings, pencils and paint brushes pushed into her hair geisha - style: half-moon glasses precariously perched an the end of her nose and a pair of Doc Martens - one red and one green. ('I've another pair like this you know.')
She's a leading light in regional amateur dramatics with a name for her radical re-workings. Her trans-gender 'Phantom of the Opera' is still talked about in hushed tones …… in Bramley. Marlene is also a bit of a committee junkie, an inveterate organiser and with a reputation for not tolerating fools: (i.e. most other people she knows). So I wasn't particularly surprised when she agreed to the Church Councils' request to stage last year's Nativity.
The committee gathered in her large kitchen, all shaker style furniture and IKEA fittings - very Headingley. Oh, and she had an agenda. “To bring this story alive it has to be brought into the present. We must make it relevant!” And so she set about her task with relish - carrying the rest of us, I have to say, rather in the slipstream of her enthusiasm.
Marlene used her contacts at the University to cast the Wise Men who turned out to be Justin, Trevor ... and Brenda … and you probably remember that Marlene and Brenda have not been on civil terms since the unfortunate incident at the Turkish bath.
Well it won't matter' said Marlene, all hurt pride and a large gin. “No one will notice the difference: all they'll see is three moustaches – and that’s before the costumes are on.
Her neighbour's daughter, Sigourney, was cast as Mary, notwithstanding the fact that at 14, she was pushing the boundaries of virginity somewhat.
“But she's ethnic. Don't you see she's perfect for the part: so 21st century marginalized.” and that was that. Marlene brooked no contradiction.
“Anyway,” she said, gesturing to an open copy of a book by Walter Bruggerman on the vicar’s desk, “If you knew your Hebrew you’d know that it doesn’t actually say Virgin.”
“Oh she thinks she’s a theologian now does she?” muttered Brenda to Justin.
“Look, we’re demythologising here so don’t expect a star anytime soon either.” Marlene retorted. “Difficult to believe Herod didn’t see it. He must’ve kept his windows shut that week, eh?”
The rest of the casting fell into place: the local Imam graciously declined the role of the Angel Gabriel. "Well you can take multiculturalism to the point of political correctness and then where would we all be? Answer me that?" observed Brenda. Terry, the local postman took his place in a stunning piece of symbolism that no one got, even when Marlene, to considerable consternation insisted that he performed in his uniform.
“Philistines.” she said, as she explained with elaborate patience for the third time the symbolism of postman as messenger of God.
“Actually, Marlene, point of order. The Philistines were a very cultured people”
“Actually, Trevor, any more points of order and you’ll be the back end of the donkey."
Sigourney's boyfriend Cameron was drafted in as the innkeeper. A night-club doorman by trade he had little difficulty with the lines - “You can't come in here, we're full' although he did tend to keep fooling around at rehearsals and ad-libbing: 'You can't come in mate, but you can, love, we're letting in girls for half price tonight”.
Joseph was to be played by Len, the church caretaker.
"But he's about 1000 years old Marlene."
"Joseph was older than Mary you know. Anyway, it says a lot about the exploitation of women in a patriarchal society."
Rehearsals came and went.
"Marlene, I'm sorry to interrupt but I'm having trouble with my character in this scene. What's my motivation here?"
"Go away Trevor. You’re a palm tree. Any more of that luvvy-talk and you’ll be the back end of the donkey.
"Len, please! How often have I told you? Don't smoke during the birth scene - the baby Jesus is inflammable."
"Marlene, if I hear another religious person say: 'and Wise Men seek him still . . . .' I may run screaming from the building"
"Brenda, they're not religious, they're Church of England."
"Sigourney, Darling, no more piercings please - at least not before Christmas.
“Point of order, Marlene, technically, its not Christmas, its Advent, which means….”
“Someone bring me the donkey suit!
“That would be a problem Marlene. None of the Gospel stories mention a donkey at all.”
“Are you trying to trample on people’s long held beliefs Trevor” Brenda flounced. “I really don’t think this is the time or place for Atheism do you?”
“Terry. Drop the line about 'Special Delivery' Darling, it's not working-"
And so the evening arrived --- and Marlene was proved right. It was a triumph - dramatic, moving and powerful: very incarnational. The stable became an old garage, back-lit in moody tones, the manger: the boot of a jacked-up wreck. Drug paraphernalia littered the floor. Three local characters shared a bottle around a brazier and stray dogs sniffed around the set. Everyone delivered their lines perfectly, and on cue it snowed.
It's hard to believe that it was nearly a year ago now, and here we are again getting ready for this year. It's going to be different this year though. After Marlene's triumph the church council members met in emergency session. Words like uncomfortable, inappropriate, trendy and travesty were bandied about.
So we're back to the traditional again - shepherds in tea towels carrying cuddly sheep and angels with tinsel halos. The incarnational, the relevant and the up-to date, it seems, have no place in the Christmas story.”
My personal challenge over the next week or so it to try to avoid “the Tinsel Factor” and to grapple with the meaning of the stories. I invite you to share that challenge.