Friday, 30 March 2018

Good Friday at Derby Cathedral: The Precarious Body on the Cross of Love


O Tree of Life, Wondrous Mystery,
We gather before your glorious and broken body;
O, you who are faithful to Abundant Love,
Expose, our savagery, our wantonness, our greed;

O Tree of Life, Tender Stem of Love,
Trained by us into contortions of agony;
O, you who are faithful to Glorious Mystery,
Help us to wait with you in your hour of need. Amen

Section One: The Brutalised Body


Life is a simple matter. It’s a question of knowing what you can control and what you cannot. Of knowing when to bend and when to be firm. That, I think, was this man's mistake. 

He was immature. Naive. His politics, crude. I guess this is what happens when simple folk get ideas. They don't know how to wield them or negotiate. He's not stupid - indeed I believe he’s more than his share of wit and talent. It's just that without an education these people tend to lash out. Like beasts. They inflame a mob. Like a toddler, they lack the character to be able to moderate or compromise. If only they'd pay more to their leaders. Leave the thinking to the grown-ups. At least we can do business with them.

Once, I asked a soldier to demonstrate a crucifixion to me. It was...instructive. I can’t remember who the poor soul was who we crucified. Someone. A criminal. A person. Does it really matter? I was surprised by how quiet it all was. I mean, not that there was any lack of distress. There was quite a lot of that. The nails elicited agony. Rather I mean the skill of the executioner was impressive. He got it all done with such little fuss. He knew his tools and task well. There was an understated economy about it.

What I hadn’t expected was the intimacy, which I guess reflected my own naïveté. On reflection, how could there not be? When two men are drawn together in such proximity, one attaching another to planes of wood, how could it not be intimate? In that moment, one man sees death in the lines and wrinkles of another's face.

And there was something terrific - astonishing even - about witnessing the scene. It made me realise that killing another might be erotic. Exposing. I imagine that's how it feels to enter the arena, to fight like a gladiator. Or go to war. It was revelation.

I can't tell you how glad I am that I asked to see that execution close-up. It changed me. Changed how I dealt with people like this Jesus and all the bruisers and revolutionaries and wanton holy men who’re sent my way. It made me understand that it isn't the fact that we crucify them that matters so much as how. That it is as much about aesthetics as punishment. I think that’s made me better in my job. Though I might not hammer in the nails, I strive for my own economy of action. An elegance, a gentleness perhaps.

So when I met Jesus I was calm. Considered. I like to think he too understood the moment, for he didn’t speak. I simply explained what we had to do and why it was important. And there was no snivelling or complaint. I was impressed. If he had any majesty it was in his dignity and control.

I know some men crave theatre and show. And that's what so much of power consists in - the spectacle. That's why we have to crucify them in a public space.  But I’ve always preferred intimacy. That moment when you meet someone face to face and you are yourself. And part of the beauty and power of the moment lies in the fact you’ve acted with economy. Because you’ve not made any fuss about an unavoidable act. That’s how it was between Jesus and me.

And then we were done. And he was taken away to his fate. And I washed and bathed – like people sometimes do after making love – and I slept and I did not dream.


Do you know what it’s like to hold the most precious thing in the world in the palms of your hands?

All those years ago I held him - my first born. My miracle. He was so tiny. So tiny, I thought, How could anything so delicate live and breathe and be so hungry? My baby. My promise.

Look at him now.

Have you ever held the most precious thing in the world in the palm of your hand?

I was there for him from the beginning. I fed him from my breast, I taught him his first word, I held him when he scraped his knee and cried.  I stayed with him even when he said those hurtful words in front of me, ‘Who is my mother?’

I’m with him now.

Mothers, as a rule, don’t want to let their children go. Not in their most secret heart. They want to keep her babies safe. We hold them, but we have to let them go.

I held the most precious thing in the world in the palm of my hand...
He said he was going to save us all...
And I had to let him go...

How often have I wanted to hold him, make him safe ...
Before this day is over I will hold him again.

Section Two: The Humiliated Body


I’m not a good man. Never have been.

I’ve been a soldier for twenty five years and I’ve whored and drunk and fought my way all over the Empire. I’ve seen stuff you can barely dream of: Celts running into battle painted blue, known what the darkness of forests in Germania. I’ve picked up filthy diseases in Rome.

I’m not a good man. I’ve done a lot of nasty things. And enjoyed them. I’ve spent as much time on a charge as I have following orders. Why do you think I ended up here, doing this? Nailing fanatics up...half of them drunk on their god, the other half just criminals. The one we nailed up today, they say, is a bit of both.

I deserve this job. When I started I liked to look at them when I hammered the nails in. I liked them to know that it was me who was killing them. That no matter how holy or righteous or tough they thought they were, it was someone as ugly as me taking their life. I wanted them to know that their god wasn’t going to protect them. I wanted them to know that the world is ruled by ruthless men and the things we’re prepared to do.

Maybe I just nailed too many of them up. Maybe I got bored.

All I’ve ever wanted is to feel. Isn’t that what everyone wants? I’ve spent my whole life doing this, that and the other - mostly the other - just because I wanted to feel something. I want to feel like they do – these idiots and fanatics and holy men. But I’m not a good man. So what can I do?

There’s this thing that keeps me awake at night. When I’m not showing the world what it’s got used to seeing. My secret – my hate for it. I hate the pain and the screams. I hate looking at their eyes.

I hated the one they call the King of the Jews most of all.

The one they call the King of the Jews. He looked at me. Stared. And he knew. I swear he looked past my face and saw what I really am. He knew how much I hate all this. He knew how empty I’ve become. I almost gouged his eyes out for that.

That’s what a bad man would do. And I’m not a good man.

We were told to break their legs. For the sake of the Jews and their festival. You know, when you break their legs they can’t breathe anymore. They can’t push themselves up. They drown in their own water and blood.

Sometimes I don’t mind breaking their legs. It’s like I’m being merciful. Like I’m helping. It makes me feel good. Better. That I can do something kind.

But I didn’t want to touch him. Not the one they called the king. It was his eyes. The way he’d seen what I was, but didn’t judge. He knew I wasn’t good. He saw I was nothing. And he didn’t judge. It was…it was what I reckon love might be like.

I was glad when we didn’t have to break his legs. But I had to shove the spear in his side. To make sure he really was dead. They’d have killed me if I’d have said no. But he was already dead. It was like he was being merciful to me. He gave up his spirit so I didn’t have to hurt him anymore.

I think he was good that man. I met him once that was all. And I was his killer.

I don’t cry. What’s the point? But the water that flowed from his side was like all the tears I’ve never cried pouring out. It was like all the pain I’ve ever caused flowing out of his side.

When I’m alone maybe I’ll weep tonight. And I’ll pray that he – wherever he is – might find it in his heart to forgive me.


Unless you become like little children you cannot enter the kingdom...

I never understood why Jesus said that. I always thought, what does he know? Sure, he was a child once, but you soon forget. Unless you're a woman and a mother. Then the world never lets you forget.

It sounds so simple, doesn't it? It almost sounds attractive...become like a child...Children are so full of life. I remember my boys, little James and his big brother Joses, sticking their noses in everything, buzzing with energy even when we had nothing...being cheeky and climbing trees. That's not so bad is it?

But that's not what he meant. Not if he's the person I think he is. He's not sentimental. He cares for proper stuff.

What I think he meant was become a nothing, become a nobody. And you don't have to be a woman or a mum to get that, but it helps. I've seen how it works you see. I know.

I know how it's always the kids who pay the price.

How the soldiers and the fanatics make use of kids because they're naive and enthusiastic. I've seen fanatics using little boys and girls to set traps for the soldiers or make diversions. I've seen soldiers using kids as shields and hurting them to get at us. Both sides are as bad as each other. Both sides use kids for their own ends.

I've seen girls get used and then told to shut up.

Become like a child. Jesus might as well have said become like a woman. He might as well have said step into the shadows, lose nothing.

I wouldn't be stood here now if it wasn't for him. Jesus called James and Joses and me into another path. Away from the fanatics. He’s always treated women well. Has seen us. And I love Jesus for that. But I never got his line about becoming like a child. It’s like he sets you free, gives you a voice and standing, and then talks like we should give it all up. I never got it ...till now...

Today they’ve nailed him up and today I know he understands. Today he is truly one of us, today he is a child. Today he is a woman and a little boy and a little girl.


Jesus dies on the Cross

Wishing he could nestle now
In crook of mother’s arm – first-born,
Wonder, pearl unexpectedly found;

Or further back, sea-being, smoke-eyed,
Dart in shadows till trap is sprung,
Net raised high, business quickly done;

But he is last of his tribe,
Deaf to secrets only he knows,
Gabbles alone, mouth open, no song.

Mary Laments

Now I’ll tell you things you’ve never known:
How old age grows, a vine around the throat,
Of wounds that never heal, grain breaks,
Begins again in the ground.

You unlocked secrets with a clap of your hands,
Snapped open eyes, loosened tongues, took spit
And soil, kicked up crowds in dust you left behind.
If I knew the trick I’d crumble earth, rub it in,

You’d blink awake, I’d stare you down,
Tell you the news, I told you so.
How you’d smile and look away, walk off
As if there were somewhere still left to find.

Joseph of Arimathea

How easy would it be to say
I gave what I gave for love;
to save his body from howls
and bones, meat and dog,
endless dark in the dawn?

How easy would it be to say
I came in search of festal lamb;
scrap of understanding,
food for escaped bodies,
beginning and end and begin again?

How easy would it be to say
I sought soil for seed, land in storm;
some way to fill cold room of want
with aloes and myrrh,
an offering to ripen ancient fruit?

Body of Christ

Find me when the journey ends and sun
bleeds into night; and I shall conjure spelt's
wild thunder, make bread crack and roar,
tear stories with my hands, let grain shatter and fall.

And we shall eat in the dark, mute in wonder,
understanding or not; will walk softly in fields
as if we still breathed, as if we knew company
of the dead, our dreams tremble in the dawn.

And we shall speak as if our mouths
are no longer our own; I going on ahead,
if that is what you need, learning secret tongues,
searching melodies and chords for glorious song.


Broken Bread, Living God,
in the dazzling dark
you give yourself to death,
and we are afraid.
In the daytime of our panic,
in the bloody ground of our fears,
we pray that we may trust
the mystery of hope and glory
sealed in your death;
may we know your Passion is hope,
may we find through the ruins of your Body
the road to faith, forgiveness and love. Amen

Thursday, 29 March 2018

Derby Cathedral Holy Week: Maundy Thursday Sermon

This evening we enter a space between two kinds of intimacies: that of the body washed and prepared, and that of the body kissed. Tonight, the former, of course, focuses on the washing of feet, that part of our bodies which seems to generate such revulsion and anxiety (perhaps because, all other things being equal, feet carry the weight of bodies); the latter, of course, a kiss which acts as signal of doom, as recognition, as betrayal. A kiss in a garden which invites the whole world down upon the Holy One. And between the washing of feet and a kiss in a garden, the world is poised – between a call towards faithfulness, attendant to the cost of discipleship, and a collapse into tragedy in which God’s divine comedy seems to lie endlessly out of reach.

We draw close to that trajectory in which the living God empties himself into the hands of us. For, if he, in his wild trust and foolishness has already, the form of a baby, a peasant’s child, allowed himself to be placed in our hands, with no power except to elicit our love, now we are close to the defining revelation of God’s risk: he, as grown man, surrounded by enemies and labile friends, shall be handed over to us. That holy body – in which we all participate, which is our body too, so easily marred, used and abused – is to be received into hands stained with fear and violence and the threat of violence; so, skilled and sensitive and subtle that they can shape glory; that they can be trained to torture and damage.

This night, we are caught up in a time and space of intimacy, with all the troublous and remarkable implications that term has. We are exposed to the power of the haptic; that is, to the power of touch. And, therefore, we are in dangerous space. This intimate space of touch is precisely the one that has so often been exploited; where the vulnerable have been used and abused. In a moment of tenderness and kindness, we are always close to terror and horror. No wonder we have so often carefully regulated the intimate; It is the horizon of our bodies through which we effect taboo, rule and law: who, we ask, is allowed to touch whom, and when? And what does touch signify? Kindness? Friendship? Violence? Our skin marks the outer edge of the inner, and inner edge of the world that may break our bones and use us. Touch can be ecstatic, it can creepy, it can be monstrous and vile.

 And our Lord says, ‘Unless I wash you, you have no share with me.’  It is a point of crisis. How shall we react, given the complex histories and stories we may be carrying. Histories of violence and abuse; histories of disgust at our bodies and so on; histories where we may have been so demeaned, excluded and hated by the religious that we want to say, ‘I have nothing that needs to be washed by the likes of you. My body is not unclean; it is not sinful; it is not disgusting.’

Perhaps we might spiritualize Christ’s words. Wash away my iniquity, the stains of my inner self, but leave me outwardly respectable. Do not truly call me to account. But, I fear it is a strategy of deferral and one which has masked much wickedness; it wishes to avoid the embodied, holiness of Christ’s call on out lives. Salvation is not an idea or a theory; it Is not worked out merely in the inner, for our actions have consequences; we cannot expect simply to treat forgiveness as an inner magic; reconciliation is lived bodily in time and space. It is worked out in the concrete realities of living. There is no short-cut. Soon, soon, in the Garden of Tears, Christ will know this in his body. If it be your will, Father, take this cup away from me…Christ is handed over to our violent ministrations, our terror in the face of the otherness of Love; love offered patiently and with no thought to cost. In his body he will taste our panicked violence. Soon, soon, the nails and the scourge.

Unless I wash you, you have no share with me.’  Christ takes a towel and invites us to place ourselves into his hands. Soon, he will be in ours, but not yet … now – for this moment – dare we place ourselves in his hands? He takes a towel and wishes to wash our feet. Our stinking, sweaty, mangled feet. And, yes, perhaps we are cunning and smart. Perhaps we have already pre-washed our feet, had a manicure…got ourselves ready for his presence. We would not want him to be exposed to our reality. We would not want to expose the truth of our bodies to God. As if we could fool him.

Into whose hands are we invited to entrust our bodies? If it indeed be the Christ, how can he come to us in the form of a slave, a body servant? The lowest of the low? As one who has the lowest job: washing the dirty feet of honoured guests. This is no job for the Saviour, for the Christ who proclaims the year of God’s favour, for God…washing filthy feet is the business of the despised. Jesus comes before us as like unto a man who volunteers to fill in latrines and middens.

Perhaps we find our voices echoing Peter’s:
‘You will never wash my feet.’ You who have come to change the world; you whose hands can bring life to dead flesh, you who is the agent of God’s peace, lover of poor, and hopeless and mournful humanity.
‘O Blessed One, you will never wash my feet.’ You who I’ve followed from the shores of Galilee, who has uprooted family and neglected my responsibilities to be with the one with whom I have witnessed wonders, you who made me a vagabond for love and justice. No, you will not be nothing!
‘You will never wash my feet.’ Let me wash yours, let me take the place coded as lesser – as fit for those seen as subaltern, as gay, as black, as disabled, as female, as working-class, as worth less … that shame is not for you, Living God.

Unless I wash you, you have no share with me.’ Ten words, just ten words signalling a universe in which hope and faith and love and their shadows will be worked out, in and through the body; Christ’s and ours. Is God a fool? To turn a history of salvation on something as frail as a body? I hope so. I believe so. Tragedy is not the final word, even if life is so often lived with that character. That a body might be enough to redeem it all, is enough, more than enough.

So, we move forward, into new intimacies – broken bread and wine outpoured. ‘This is my body broken for you; this is my blood.’ We have become participants in a strange feast indeed, a fool’s feast where one body can stand for all; and yet such foolishness confounds a fallen world that insists that power, glory, authority are displayed in making of the vulnerable a feast of bones to be cast on a rubbish dump, rather than the very locus of grace and hope.

This evening we are pilgrims with Peter, with Judas, with Mary and Mary, with James and John; with all those who have gone before us; with the great men and women of our faith, Augustine, Aquinas, Hildegard, Mother Julian, and the least and base too; we stumble with frail and arrogant humanity; those of much faith, those of little; those of none. And we act perhaps as if matters are still in our own hands, though we do not yet know how to transform fate into destiny. We forget that our bodies have been washed and prepared for death, for the end of our old ways of going on; we forget that we are in the hands of Jesus Christ even as we prepare – with Judas – to hand him over to his fate. We may yet think we’re in control of events, forgetting that we are in the hands of one who will transform fate into destiny. We have been prepared for death, and we do not yet realise it. Something is underway, time is short; time on our old selves, our old bodies, on a world of tragedy is almost up. Soon, it will be night, soon a kiss, soon Christ’s body will be touched by fresh and terrible intimacies. Soon, something else, what? Something half-glimpsed, pregnant in the dazzling dark.