—John White, Canon Emeritus of St George’s Chapel, Tuesday in Holy Week
Tuesday in Holy Week, 22 March 2016
‘Note the kindness and the severity of God.’ [Romans 11. 22]; words taken from Paul’s letter to Christians in Rome.
I had a friend at college (ironically he ultimately became a bishop) who said that one of the good things about his understanding of the Christian life and faith was that he could be friends with St Augustine! My fellow student was of a rather ‘bullish’ personality, expressed sometimes by a sharp and often biting wit, that sought and succeeded in ‘cutting you down to size’. The thought of his being ‘friends’ with the great fifth century Bishop of Hippo [354-430 CE] whose written works have been a permanent influence over the centuries on how Christians think (some say for ill as much as for good) captured my imagination at the time. What it helped me to realise is that we are all human beings capable of friendship with another, irrespective of our backgrounds, gifts and limitations.
It is from that basis that I feel quite prepared to tackle reading the Bible. The Bible was written by human beings, with backgrounds, gifts and limitations, and all of them capable of being ‘friends’ even if some of them look unlikely candidates for ‘a good night out’! This has helped me over the years to cope with problems that I have with taking the Bible for ‘granted’, that is as a ‘given’ with which I can neither debate nor disagree! It also helped me to realise that we can only speak from our own personal histories and gifts and limitations, and they together influence what we write and say.
I recently re-read a book on Christian love published in the nineteen sixties. It was very popular at the time and it came from the pen of a very well known Christian writer. Like many of the things we ‘remember well’ from our younger days it turned out to be quite different from how I recalled it. Moreover, there were whole passages that you simply could not print today. Not because they are necessarily ‘untrue’ to their context, but because the social conditions of the sixties were, in fact very different from the social conditions of today. For instance, the examples the writer then gave of the family; of the role of men and women, and of life in what he called ‘the residential suburbs’ does not compare to what we experience now. I think even the most ardent ‘anti-feminist’ would be mildly affronted by what clearly did not affront many, if any, readers in the sixties, namely that he supposed that it was not possible, in most instances, for there to be friendship across the sexual divide because many men ‘have had a much more serious education’ than women and consequently ‘The women are to them as children to adults.’ He writes; ‘In most societies, at most periods, Friendships will be between men and men or between women and women. The sexes will have met one another in Affection and Eros [sexual attraction] but not in this love [namely friendship]’ I doubt the publisher’s ‘blue pencil’ would allow this to be printed today if he wanted to avoid a barrage of strong objections thus turning a book about ‘love’ into a vehicle for open animosity, if not hatred!
I decided to use ‘love’ as the basis for my reflections in Holy Week as I am aware how much the word has ‘changed its meaning’ over the years of my life, so that when I was a young curate I might have presumed that most people listening to me had a common grasp of what ‘love’ meant. I recall that after I had addressed the ‘Women’s Fellowship’ in the side chapel one Lent, on I think, ‘suffering’, my vicar who had, he assured me, accidentally overheard what I was saying by listening in the main body of the Church, said ‘Everything you said was correct, but you won’t say it in ten years time!’ He was right, but he often was, though I did not think so at the time! Experience changes what we are prepared to say and how we are prepared to say it.
When I decided to try to say something about ‘love’ that might help us a bit in seeking to make sense of Holy Week for our present day living, I decided to focus on what I choose to call ‘Severe Love’. It is not quite the same as ‘tough love’ which term was coined by an American youth-work pioneer, Bill Millikins, in 1968, and used often since to support the idea that both parents and educators have to exercise, from time to time, a love for those in their care which seems to the young person anything but loving! I suspect hardly anyone here has no experience of this from one point of view or another! ‘Severe Love’ however reflects that ‘love’ which is ‘severe’ in its results on those who give it as well as those who receive it. My Victorian father did not believe in any kind of physical violence towards children so he never beat me. My mother has a slightly different view! Under extreme provocation she would slap me on the back of my legs, a discipline from which I recovered in two seconds whilst it took her about two hours!
I coined this term ‘Severe Love’ from a phrase in St Paul’s letter to the Roman Christians; ‘Note then, the kindness and the severity of God.’ (Rom 11. 22) My ‘friend’, St Paul, I think, is struggling in this phrase with the problem of the tension we all have between our belief in the God of Love and our sense that often that love seems to be challenged by the demands of God’s justice. Paul tells his fellow Christians to recognise God’s severity to those who have fallen and kindness towards, in particular, the Roman Christians so long as they continue in his kindness. As I have explained I do not feel I have always to ‘agree’ with St Paul and whilst I think he is trying to hold the sense of the loving God and the just God in an image of one God, I believe his solution, which was pretty universal in his day, namely that ‘justice has to be done’ and the ‘fallen’ have to be punished doesn’t really quite satisfy our twenty-first century understanding. Coming from St Paul, who a product of his own culture and particular religious tradition it is quite comprehensible. However, what is remarkable to me is how often Paul takes a stand against that background, somewhat like a brave teenager deciding against the ‘loveless’ ethos of his dysfunctional family.
I understand that Paul, in very first century Jewish style, had to ‘make sense’ of everything and I think that today we are less confident that we can do that. For us ‘punishment’, especially eternal punishment, seems to be the very opposite of a loving activity. We can see that it may be necessary for us to suffer some ‘discipline’ in life to help put us on the right path, a fact as true of the aged as of the young! But a punishment that is ‘eternal’ and cannot lead to the well being of the ‘fallen’ is hard to square with our present day knowledge of human psychology and of how the brain works; the influence of environment and background, and our rejection of ‘arbitrary’ authority ‘because I said so!’. I think if I was in the right secure environment I would take up this point with ‘my all too human friend’ Paul of Tarsus, but then I suspect that he might be surprised that I had ever read his letter in the first place!
These evenings after Palm Sunday, these ‘Bethany’ evenings, which it is probable Jesus spent with his close friends in Bethany the village a couple of miles from Jerusalem, give us an opportunity, quietly amongst friends, to allow our own thoughts, concerns and anxieties for the future, to have a ‘safe space’ to be opened up. We need not ‘speak about them’ to know that no one would be shocked if we did. The evenings at Bethany, set amongst public appearances of Jesus that have been consistently remembered over the centuries, give us a model for out time together; out of the ‘public’ liturgy of Holy Week; time which allows us to consider some of the serious issues that affect our lives and challenge our sense of hope for the future.
I cannot but believe that Jesus was struggling with a somewhat damaged sense of hope at this point in his life. I think it would be a lack of humanity in him if that were not the case. And it is at the heart of our Christian religion that we believe Christ is fully human and that through him we have a way into seeing how God shares fully in our humanity. Once we have accepted that the Gospel of John was written for a particular audience some years after the events of the life of Jesus and was significantly affected by these facts, we can begin, I believe, to see in the narratives of the life and death of Jesus in the other Gospels a tradition which recognises Jesus as fully experiencing our common human condition.
Hope, for us humans, is an essential feature of our living. We live by hope because if we lived only by experience we might be tempted to despair or if not despair to a terrible selfishness in which to cope with any lack of apparent meaning to our life, now and in the future, then we simply ‘eat, drink and be merry for tomorrow we die.’ [conflation of Eccl 8. 15 and Is 22. 13; compare Luke 12. 19 and 1Cor 15. 32] It may be the pessimism of advancing age that makes me ask if we are not in our today’s acquisitive and self interested materialistic society demonstrating some corporate ‘hopelessness’.
Hope, I believe, is a product of love. Often the love we have for another human being, be that person, child, parent, sibling, friend, lover, compels us to hope in him or her, even when we seem to be the last person who has such hope. Sometimes this is symbolised as we watch by the side of a sick and dying loved one and still hold onto the faintest hope of recovery. Sometimes, it is when we have the care of someone we love who has a debilitating illness or a grave disability of mind or body or both. When I was a curate, systematically having all my religious assurances questioned by the experience of parish visiting, I recall being asked by his daughter to visit a somewhat infirm man in his eighties living in a very modest house in our urban parish. He told me that his wife was a long term patient at a local Hospital and that he visited her every day by public transport and much effort on his part. He hoped that, if possible, I would visit her. Which I did; only to find that she was in a very advanced stage of dementia and unable to communicate with me or anyone else. Her husband, in his daily visits, kept alive some hope for her, perhaps that she would know him again before she died, but also that there would be something better for her after this life because despite evidence to the contrary she was still the wife he loved.
Hope often grows out of such ‘Severe Love’. I saw a television news item where an interviewer in a war-torn township in one of the devastated nations of the Middle East’ spoke to a young man and asked if he, like many others, was planning to flee to some safety as a refugee. He said that he had no such intention because he loved his country and hoped for its future, after the present violence was over, and wanted to be at hand to help recovery. There could have been at that moment nothing reassuring, affectionate and emotionally warm about his love for his country. His love and his hope were there despite an environment where there were fresh corpses on the street every day, and the stale smell of carbide with the noise of guns being the only funeral ritual of the dead.
A French writer whose work I discovered many years ago, who was killed in the first few days of the First World War and so does not come amongst the list of War Poets, wrote what I consider one of the greatest works of Christian literature in the last century, which he called ‘Portal of the Mystery of Hope.’ Charles Péguy (1873–1914) as you may know, was the intellectually brilliant son of a widowed peasant woman. Charles had come to a Catholic faith from a youthful idealistic atheist socialism, by what he described ‘as the same straight route’. However, whilst he was alive his wife remained loyal to their once shared non-religious beliefs. Inspired by his profound love for his children he wrote his long exploration into the virtue of hope. In the poem Joan of Arc’s imaginary nurse, Madame Gervaise, speaks these lines;
‘You must have confidence in God my child.
You must have hope in God
You must trust God
You must give God a chance.
You must have confidence in God, he certainly has had confidence in us.
You must trust God , he certainly has put his trust in us
You must hope in God he has certainly hoped in us.’ [‘Portal of the Mystery of Hope’ trans. David Louis Schindler Jr. Pub Continuum 1996]
Here in our Bethany moment together, I am happy to share with you how much Péguy’s sense of reciprocal relationship with God has encouraged me to see that I, God’s child, am vitally important in the accepting and practising of ‘Severe Love’, so that hope may be constantly rekindled in a world given to extravagant despair. It is the call of every one of us to keep the flame of hope burning so that it may illuminate future generations yet unborn...we love and hope ‘despite’ not ‘because of’ and I suspect we all know something of that, in our lives with those whom we love, day by day.
‘Note the kindness and the severity of God’