Fr Thomas Plant, Tokyo-based Anglican priest and comparative theologian

Month: January 2019

The Wedding Grace Perfects

Homily for the Second Sunday after Epiphany (Traditional Lectionary): The Wedding at Cana, John 2.1–

The most famous party trick in the world – is that all the Wedding at Cana is? Was Mary some pushy showbiz mum cajoling her reticent son into showing off: “Come on, Son do a bit of magic”?

To us, not being 1st-century Aramaic speakers, Jesus sounds quite rude when he calls Mary “Woman!” And when Our Lord says,“Mine hour is not yet come,” we might think he is making a grumpy exclamation of “leave me alone, mum!”

But, no: the wedding is just after Jesus’ baptism, at the beginning of his ministry as a rabbi, and he’s probably about thirty years old, so awkward teenage Jesus getting embarrassed by Mum does not quite fit the bill here. Actually, the Gospel writer is making very deliberate references. It’s just that youneed to know your Christian story and some Jewish history and context to understand them.

The turning of water into wine, Jesus’ first miracle, is the first of seven signs in the Gospel of St John that Jesus is the Messiah and is ushering in the Kingdom of Heaven. And what this miracle says about that Kingdom is that God takes what is natural and ordinary, and turns it into something supernatural and extraordinary. Water, ordinary stuff of the natural world, carries the potential for transformation into the supernatural, represented by wine.

So, if you’re sitting thinking that this turning water into wine is a load of baloney, an impossibility, a magic trick, then I’m sorry, but you’re completely missing the point. You’re not thinking hard enough. You’re missing the clues.

Take the first clue John gives us. The wedding takes place on the third day after Jesus’ baptism. Now, just like Jesus being lost for three days in the Temple as a child in the story we read last week, the three days motif should alert us instantly to the most important three days in the entire Christian story – because it was on the third day after Jesus died that he was resurrected from the dead: Easter day is the third day after Good Friday. So, John is giving us a clue that the story of the wedding at Cana is going to have something to do with resurrection, newness and fullness of life.

The next clue is the wine itself. Isaiah prophesies that there will be a Messiah, an anointed one, who will bring in a newKingdom, like a great feast for all peoples, abundant with flowing new wine. This is another Epiphany revelation of Jesus as the Messiah.

So, let’s go back to Jesus’ words to Mary. When he calls her “Woman,” he is not being rude. He is making another reference, this time, to God’s word back in Genesis to the serpent:

“I will put enmity between thee and the woman, and between thy seed and her seed; it shall bruise thy head, and thou shalt bruise his heel.”

Jesus is the New Adam, born of Mary the new Eve, and he will indeed crush Satan’s dominion of power and death, but not without being “bitten” first by his own death on the Cross. The Crucifixion is when the mystical marriage is complete, and Jesus’ hour has come. The Resurrection is when the fullness of life of the Kingdom becomes clear.

For now, in his first miracle, Jesus is giving us a sign of what that Kingdom is like. It is not like destroying water and replacing it with wine, but like taking water and perfecting it,making it from something that merely sustains life into something which gives joy. 

The Wedding at Cana is a story of becoming. The water is not replaced with wine, but becomes wine. In the Mass, the body and blood do not replace bread and wine, but the bread and wine become the body and blood. In Christ, God does not replace humanity with divinity, but the divine becomes human. He did not become human so that we humans might be destroyed and replaced with divinity, but so that we might become divine. 
And so the Kingdom means a world where everything is given not just for passing utility, but for eternal bliss. The Kingdom means a world where everything is not to be taken at face value, but is an icon of a fuller and deeper reality. The Kingdom means not that God wants to destroy who we are and replace us with something better, but to take all that we are and bring us to the perfect version of ourselves: and eternal wedding banquet towhich every one of us is personally invited to come and feast.

Help us, Lord, to know our own failings, and to rely on your grace to perfect us.
Help us to see one another as guests at the same feast, to find joy in one another and to treat each other with love.

Help us to find your perfection reflected in the beauty of the world around us, to enjoy the bounty of your creation, and to treat the environment with care.

The opinions represented herein are those of Thomas Plant only.

Trust me, I’m a doctor

Did you ever get lost as a child? It’s quite terrifying – but possibly even more terrifying for your parents.
When Jesus gets lost in the Temple, he isn’t particularly scared: in fact, he seems rather at home in “his Father’s house.”
But as for Mary, you can understand mixture of relief and anger she expresses when she finds him after three whole days: “Why hast thou dealt with us thus? behold, thy father and I have sought thee sorrowing.”
But when Jesus replies, Mary and Joseph “wist not” – that is, they do not understand – what he means. He tells them he is about his “Father’s business.” Yet he’s not in the Temple doing woodwork. In hindsight, we know that he means not Joseph’s business, but God’s.
There are some clues in the reading about what that “business” will be.
First, the reason Jesus is in Jerusalem in the first place is because it is the Feast of the Passover, when the Jewish people celebrate their liberation from slavery in Egypt with the sacrificial meal of a lamb – foreshadowing how on Good Friday Jesus will himself become the Lamb of God, the new Passover not just for the Jews, but for everyone.
Second, note the length of time Jesus is lost: three days, just like the three days after Good Friday that he will be “lost” to death, before Mary is again among those who find him alive and well on Easter Day.
Even as an adolescent, Jesus’ identity is being revealed. It is all part of his Epiphany, shining light on who he really is. This is why, unlike the modern church lectionary which jumped straight to his baptism as an adult this Sunday, the traditional lectionary that we are following lingers longer on this one episode we have of Jesus’ teenage years. He mattered because of who he was long before anything he achieved. And so do you.
Tradition has it that when he got lost, Jesus was twelve years old. So just imagine – this is Jesus in Year 7 or 8. And there he is, in the Temple, one of the grandest buildings in the entire Greco-Roman world, taller than the West spires of Lichfield Cathedral and on a site the size of almost five football pitches, talking to the “doctors,” that is, not medics, but the highest of the rabbis. It would be like a year 7 pupil going to Rome and holding court with the Pope and Cardinals. And they are astonished and amazed at his understanding.
Jesus does not just talk, though. Note that Mary and Joseph find him “in the midst of the doctors, both hearing them, and asking them questions.” He’s not a precious teenage know-all. He questions, yes, but not without first listening.
Listening and questioning: trust and criticism. I fear that in our country, we have become far too fond of the latter without paying heed to the former. We are much readier to criticise and to question than to listen, to jump straight into invective without even attempting to understand those who differ from us in politics or class or creed. You only need to read the news to see where that leads.
The Lord says elsewhere that we need to become more like little children. Children constantly ask questions, but they also have the gift of trust. Perhaps the example of Jesus, who would ultimately give his life for the reconciliation of all people, is one we can all learn from. Let’s criticise and question and seek truth and justice, yes: but first, let us listen to one another, trust that other people mean well, and try our best to understand.

The opinions represented herein are those of Thomas Plant only.

Jesus and the North-South divide

If you want to start a new movement that is going to sweep throughout the United Kingdom, where do you think you would begin? Surely you would want to start where you are going to have the most influence, where the key decision-makers and big players on the national seen live and work. You would want to spread your message I’m on the politicians and the journalists, the PR agents and the marketers. You would want probably to be in London rather than in Lichfield.
Ours is not the only country with a northsouth divide. In Jesus’s day, the Southern Kingdom of Judah and its capital of Jerusalem were the powerhouses of his region. The Northern Kingdom of Israel was very much the poor cousin. Elsewhere in the bible we hear that the people of Galilee were blocked for being so far from the centre of religious and political power, and for speaking Aramaic with a funny accent.
Even in the Northern Kingdom, they were better and worse places, more and less respectable places to be. Nazareth I suppose might be your Lichfield or York equivalent in the Northern Kingdom. But when John the Baptist is sent to prison, Jesus relocates. Not for him the niceties of Nazareth, even. He goes off to the fishing town of Capernaum, really in the back of beyond, upon the north of the sea of Galilee in territory threatened and historically ravaged by the even further northern Assyrian empire. To draw a parallel, it’s as though Jesus leaves York to go to some village on the border of Scotland, or leaves Lichfield to live with the Yam Yams (them as spake proper). He is going further out into the outback than even John the Baptist’s message had been able to reach.
The message is, Repent for the kingdom of heaven is at hand: a message not so far from that which John the Baptist had been preaching himself, before he went to prison. There is continuity between Advent and Epiphany, between John’s ministry and that of Jesus. Both call the people to Metanoia, repentance, a changing of mind and heart, a complete turning of the self to its divine source. Repentance does not finish after Advent, it’s not something to leave until Lent, and the Church of England continues to make private, one-to-one confession with a priest available to those who desire it. At the very least, we must be sure to make proper preparation for every Eucharist, so that when we come to the general confession of our sins during the service, we know that we have given it forethought and are genuinely turning to God.
So, repentance is common to both John’s and Jesus’ call. But, there are differences, too.
First, there is the difference of scope. Jesus is going out into uncharted lands, he is fulfilling the prophecies of Isaiah that the Jewish Messiah will be a light to lighten all nations, even the Gentiles. He is not simply proclaiming his message to the religious powerhouses of the Jewish nation. He is going out to the borderlands, venturing even among the Gentiles, beginning on a gateway to the sea and to the cities beyond. His call is universal.
Second, there is the difference of the kingdom. Do not think that the kingdom of heaven is a place. That would be an error. The fact that Jesus goes outside the realm of political power makes the point that the kingdom which is present in him has little to do with our ideas of territorial or even the national power. It is not a place, but is a state of being: a state of being ruled by the kingship of God. And it begins not in the powermongering of the capitals, not in Jerusalem or London, but in the hearts of those who truly repent, turn to God, Live as subjects of his law of life. And like the Magi who visited the Christ child in the manger, like the people with the funny accents from Capernaum, the subjects of this kingdom can come from anywhere.
So now, at the altar, with hearts turned to God, let us once again welcome the presence of our king.

The opinions represented herein are those of Thomas Plant only.

Epiphany: It’s a kind of magic

Starter for five points: how many kings are in the Epiphany story?
The answer is, one, and he is Herod. Not the hero of this tale.
There’s nothing to suggest that the men who went to visit Jesus were kings, or even that there were three of them. Luke says that they were “some” wise men – or, as he writes in Greek, magoi.

Which is to say: magi.

Magicians. And foreign magicians at that, not even Jews. Stargazers, who find the infant Messiah through astrology.

But hang on: you may have a niggling memory that astrology and divination get a pretty bad rap in the Old Testament. Wasn’t there an outright ban on it in the laws of Leviticus and Deuteronomy? Didn’t the prophet Isaiah point out how worthless it all is? Wasn’t Daniel’s success predicated entirely on the failure of Nebuchadnezzar’s court fortune-tellers?

And yet the magi, however many and whoever they were, are not smitten with thunderbolts when they divined the birth of the Christ child from their astrological endeavours. The magi are not forced to submit to the God of Israel and convert to Judaism. There is nothing here about God subduing and conquering the alien idolater with some great demonstration of might. Rather, the magi offer their gifts, and go quietly back home, presumably to carry on with their work.

And what gifts they bring.

Gold: these foreign sorcerers acknowledge the infant as their king.

Incense: these foreign sorcerers acknowledge him as their high priest.

Myrrh, the burial oil: these foreign sorcerers have divined something of the end he must meet.

So it is that the King of the Jews holds his first audience: with gentile worshippers of alien gods, with animals and their keepers, with the light of the celestial bodies. With the exception of the Blessed Virgin Mary and Joseph, it is the infidel, the animal, the poor and the stars who see more clearly and speak more clearly of who He is than any of his own race and nation.

Epiphany: a Greek word composed of phaneia – shining, and epi – on. Its Latin equivalent gives us the word ‘illumination.’ That is what today’s feast is about: the shining of the divine light upon those who seek it. Not only upon one race, even that of the Jews, so privileged with their clear and dogged perception of that light, but upon the gentiles, too. A light which shines through the created order, through the stars and planets, through the forests and the seas, through the animal kingdom and through the wisdom in which even we humans sometimes manage to share: all creation in its many workings sings a continual hymn to the divine glory for those with ears to hear.

And, if the Gospel is to be believed, through magic. Before you get your pitchforks, let me explain.

As a working definition, let’s just say that magic comprises a certain person being appointed for the task, wearing special clothing, and saying words handed down by tradition over certain pre-decided elements to effect some kind of change in reality.
Ahem. Ordination, vestments, words of instution, transubstantiation? Is the mass, in the immortal words of Freddie Mercury, “a kind of magic”?
Well, the Church has long condemned magic as the human attempt to control spiritual forces – and this kind of magic has certainly been practised through the ages. You may decide for yourself whether you believe in its effects.
Yet there is another kind of magic entirely, which has had a profound effect on Christian sacramental theology, called theurgy. Its greatest pagan exponent was one Iamblichus. He was a great influence on the sixth-century Syrian Christian monk who called himself Dionysius, the influence of whose teaching on Catholic Christianity can be compared only with Augustine. And what they, pagan and Christian together, teach is that theurgy is not us manipulating God, but almost the opposite: us opening ourselves up through ritual practice for God to do his work in us. We become the channels of his grace, the lenses of his light, if you will.

At every mass, through the words and actions we have inherited from our Master, Jesus, passed down to this day through the Apostles, God opens a channel of grace. As we offer God bread and wine, stuff made of wheat and grapes, of rain and sun and the rotation of the spheres, formed by human hands, God distils as it were the grace that is within them to make them clear lenses for his light, transfigures matter into its perfect potential as a vehicle for illumination. A taste of the light which cannot be overcome by darkness and which awaits God’s lovers at the end of time. As we open ourselves to the Sacrament, we too can be illumined, we can share in the Epiphany those magi discerned two thousand years ago. We too can respond to and become vehicles of the eternal light.

And unlike some of the unbending, harsher manifestations of the Christian faith, we can learn from the Epiphany story to seek the Christ light wherever it may be found; we can risk finding it in unusual, unseemly, even (dare I say it?) unorthodox places; we can listen for the song of divine glory in all the rich harmonies which creation affords. May it shine on us all.

The opinions represented herein are those of Thomas Plant only.

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