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Friday, 21 April 2017

FISH FOR BREAKFAST




One of the things I perennially love about the Resurrection narratives is the emphasis on food. And it doesn’t usually come from the disciples: it comes from Yeshua himself. First, there’s Cleophas and his friend, trudging to Emmaus. (In fact, they may be going further, but Emmaus is a useful day’s walk from Jerusalem, so they’re going to overnight there in a pub.) On the way they meet this fascinating stranger who at first appears clueless as to what’s been happening but who then, when they remind him, fills them in on the Why of it all, citing Scripture as is only proper between good Jews. They like him so much that they persuade him to stay at the pub with them, at least for the evening meal. And at the moment he takes the bread and intones the blessing – Baruch atta Adonai Elohenu etc. – they look at him and say OMG, it’s Him! And he disappears, whoosh.

Then, they race back to Jerusalem and we next see them with the other disciples, somewhere undefined – indoors? outdoors? a rooftop? a courtyard? – nattering away in a state of high excitement about the Blessing Man, when suddenly, there he is again, in the midst of them. Shalom, he says. Yes, it’s me. Really. See? Hands with holes in them. Feet with holes in them. Not a ghost, not even a Holy Ghost. And when they still look astonished: Got something to eat? He eats a chunk of fried fish. Ghosts eat fish? Nah, course not.

Next scene: the shore of the Sea of Kinneret, alias Lake Tiberias. Dawn. (The scene is of extraordinary beauty, still. I’ve been there.) Two or three fishing-boats full of tired, irritated, frustrated young men – a whole night’s fishing, no fish. To Hertford, Hereford, and Hampshire with it, says Peter, let’s go home. So they head for shore, and there is this bloke. Got anything? he shouts. Nowt, says Peter, crossly. Drop your net one more time, over starboard. Grouchily, Peter does. OY! Hey guys, help me lug this bugger up, it’s full! They manhandle it to shore and there are 153 bloody great big musht (St Peter’s Fish) in it, or possibly mixed with few enormous carp. Pant. Sweat. So come and have breakfast! says the bloke. And sure enough, he’s got a little fire going and is frying fish – a tantalising smell in the crisp air of dawn. And once again, they take a second look – or maybe he’s blessing the fish, Baruch atta Adonai Elohenu Melech ha’Olam – and once again, OMG, it’s him!

As my mother used to say, the reason the Gospels are so convincing is that nobody, but nobody, would have made this kind of Resurrection up. Gods often do things on earth: they seduce nymphs, they help warriors, they mark special children, so forth. But never, never do they stand on a beach eating fried fish. The Power and the Glory. And fried musht for breakfast.





Monday, 17 April 2017

THE NECESSITY OF HOPE





Charles Péguy


The French daily Le Figaro published this moving meditation on Hope yesterday. I have translated it, and am pleased to publish it here.

EASTER: “HOPE IS NOT THE FORGETTING OF DEATH”
Fr Luc de Bellescize, vicar of St-Germain-des-Prés, Paris.

     In the film Ordet by Dreyer, a young married man sees his wife die. He stops the drawing-room clock. Time stops its flight. The old father speaks the words from the Book of Job, the act of faith in the dark night: “The Lord hath given, the Lord hath taken away, blessed be the Name of the Lord.” Silence falls, the household falls still in its grief, in its pain, in its love. The shamefastness of silence is the needful frame for the memory of the dead. “Thou tellest my flittings, put my tears into thy bottle,” says the Psalm (56). “One must obtain a proper silence,” said Maria Callas, speaking of her singing. Death requires a proper silence for proper words, for if we have nothing to say in the face of death we have nothing to say in the face of human life.
     In Dreyer’s film, the pastor speaks, the man of God who is called in the morning of one’s life, in the evening of one’s days, in the unforeseen of the good and the evil that weave the inconstant heart of man. “O heart woven of joy on a ground of pain,” wrote Péguy. The old father dares a word that dwells in the silence without breaking its mystery. “Her soul is with God.” But the husband replies, “It was her body I loved.” How true those words are….. For what we love in others is not only their insubstantial soul, it is their fleshly presence, their scent that lives on in their memory, the sound of their voice that echoes in silence, the shining of their eyes after their eyes have closed. Death is goodbye to the face. Such a painful mystery……
     We waste too much time fleeing it. It would be better to learn to live it in order to be fully human. “The heart of the wise is in the house of mourning,” says the Book of Ecclesiastes (VII:4) We have lost too much of wisdom….. What is typical of our time is the loss of the “memory of death,” said the Orthodox theologian Olivier Clément, and with it the forgetting of man’s call to life eternal. Today’s atheism, though, is no longer the fight of the philosophers of suspicion against the hope of Christians, but the idolatry of well-being claimed as a right and pleasure raised up as the supreme idol of happiness. It is TV football, healthy-living.com, a decent retirement plan and the organic guarantee of one’s steak. “One has one’s little joy by day and one’s little joy by night,” wrote Nietzsche, “but one takes care of one’s health.”
     Modern man “feels” a lot, like an apartment Labrador on thick carpet. What counts is “feeling good”. The dictatorship of well-being has replaced the City of Joy. We refuse to “sow in tears” (Ps 126) But what will happen when the drunken boat of my days brings me to the house of mourning? Will I remain on the threshold of my life, stop in the porch of the mystery(1)? Death is the Great Forgotten of men, yet it will always come and jog their memory.
     We are not primarily consumers,  but beings who thirst for genuine life. We taste earthly food, not in the feverish greed of the moment before the coming of unforeseeable Death, but in the eternal flavour hidden within it, which calls us to a life ever higher. “Deep calleth unto deep.”(Ps 42). Through life, love, death we are born into the hope of Heaven. He who has never felt his love to be eternal has never truly loved.

We do not want a life that forgets death,  nor a joy that knows nothing of pain, nor a facile happiness that closes its eyes to the suffering of children, to the death of innocents. It would not be worthy of man. “I would believe in their God if they appeared a little more saved,” said Nietzsche. But Christian joy is not the same as worldly excitement. It is not that unbearable lightness of being that reduces life to the nothingness of youthism pushed to the limit. What we want is a full joy that is everywhere in the richness of man’s life, the great cloak of his night, which accepts all his history and tears for man the veil of the Eternal. Such is the joy of Christ. He has not closed his eyes to Evil, he has let Evil close his eyes in order to fill everything with the joy of Easter. No other religion claims the “death” of God: only the Christian faith. God has entered inito the great silence, the Word made flesh has made his Presence resound in the bowels of the earth. “We proclaim a Messiah crucified, a scandal to the Jews and a nonsense to the pagans,” says the apostle, “ but for us the wisdom of God and the power of God.” (1 Cor. I:23).

Let me ask you this question. What is your hope? Is it to forget death, the Promethean myth of the transhuman? For us who bear the fine name of Christians, it is a well hidden in the desert and which radiates in silence; the empty tomb from which arose, alive, the Resurrected, seen, heard, touched by the apostles; Péguy’s little girl who travels through the shadows, who “shines in the darkness and whom the darkness has not overcome.” (Jn I:5)

(1)   This and “Peguy’s little girl”, below, are references to a moving poetic text published by Charles Péguy in 1916, “The Porch of the Mystery of the Second Virtue”, where Faith and Charity are pictured as grown women, and Hope as a little girl walking between them. 

Saturday, 15 April 2017

CHRISTOS ANESTI!



Piero della Francesca

THE SILENCE



 


When I first attended a seriously Anglo-Catholic church, St Mary Magdalen in Toronto, I shall never forget the effect of the veiled images and especially the empty tabernacle on Holy Saturday. An astonishing sense of desolation. Nobody home. Abandonment. We know it's not so, really, but oh, the feeling of grief. The world, sure, lives as if there were no God; but then, thousands of Romans and even Jews went about their business normally on a certain Friday. But this is what it would be like if there really was no God. Tabernacles empty. Nobody home. Only us, on a spinning ball.

Maranatha . . . . . .

THE TEARS OF BEAUTY, AND VICE VERSA




SOME THOUGHTS ON BACH’S ST MATTHEW PASSION

I listen to this every year on Good Friday, as do many Dutchmen; when I was 15 my parents took me to hear what at the time was the country’s finest performance, by the Bach Association, with the great Dutch baritone Laurens Bogtman as Christ – a role the associations of which so overwhelmed him that he spent months spiritually preparing himself for the performance. Since then, I have preferred the 1964 Stuttgart version now on the Decca Ovation label, directed by Karl Münchinger, with Elly Ameling (soprano), Marga Höffgen (alto), Fritz Wunderlich (tenor) and Tom Krause (bass), who are all magnificent, but the miracle of this version is Peter Pears as the Evangelist.

This year, following it as always with the German text and a (rather horrid) English translation, I was struck differently by the Christian Friedrich Henrici’s (“Picander”’s) German poetry. When I was young, the pietistic texts of the arias tended to revolt me, but now I understand them better and appreciate them more. Because there are in fact four levels of text, and thus of poetry, in the work: 1) the Evangelist, who recites the narrative; 2) the characters, who act out the drama; 3) the Chorus, who give an emotional but controlled reaction, moving but (because?) restrained; and 4) the “I” of the arias, who gives a distinctly unrestrained emotional reaction. The texts of this group are the ones most controversial and, I notice with amusement, rather bowdlerised in the English translation – not that they are obscene, but they have a quality very similar to the poetry of Crashaw: quite unashamed of what to the sophisticate appears bathos, joining the great cosmic emotions of the Passion to intimate and quotidian imagery. An example: in the alto aria “Können Tränen meiner Wangen”, reacting with total grief to the flagellation and binding of Jesus, the text says, “If my cheeks’ tears cannot accomplish anything, O take my heart as well! But let it also, at the floods, when the wounds gently bleed, be the sacrificial bowl.” Or, in the monumental and moving final chorale, “Wir setzen uns mit Tränen nieder”, it says “May your grave and tombstone be for the frightened conscience a comfortable pillow and a resting place for the soul: there the eyes fall most pleasantly asleep.” In my old age I find these effusions endearing rather than annoying, as I do Crashaw’s “The Weeper”, for instance.

Some of the choruses, on the other hand, are magnificently moving in their disciplined, economical German. The one that struck me this year was no. 55, “Befiehl du deine Wege”, which I will try and give here bilingually:

Befiehl du deine Wege               Entrust your ways
Und was dein Herze kränkt       And what pains your heart
Der allertreusten Pflege               To the very faithfullest care
Des der den Himmel lenkt;       Of him who directs the Heaven;
Der Wolken, Luft und Winden       He who to clouds, air and winds
Gibt Wege, Lauf und Bahn,       Gives roads, course and direction,
Der wird auch Wege finden       He will surely find ways also
Da dein Fuss gehen kann.       Where your foot can go.

One miraculous little economy German can give that English can’t: “Faithfullest care/Des der den Himmel lenkt” Long live inflected languages. To the care “des” – of him; “der” – who, “den” – the, accusative singular masculine, with “Himmel” heaven, and the verb goes at the end. It clicks together like a beautiful machine.

So – this Good Friday, a little plaudit for the much-maligned Picander (of whom I have not been able to find a likeness), ennobled by the immortal and not nearly always austere Johann Sebastian.

Thursday, 13 April 2017

LATIN: A REFLECTING GLORY



I am often ravished by the Latin hymns: the austere and economic beauty of the language and the stately rhythm of the trochaic tetrameters are irresistible. Here is one of the greatest, written originally for the feast of Corpus Christi by Thomas Aquinas, but equally suitable for Holy Thursday (a sung version showing the score is here):

1. Pange lingua gloriosi
Corporis mysterium,
Sanguinisque pretiosi,
Quem in mundi pretium
Fructus ventris generosi,
Rex effudit gentium.

2. Nobis datus, nobis natus
Ex intacta Virgine
Et in mundo conversatus,
Sparso verbi semine,
Sui moras incolatus
Miro clausit ordine.

3. In supremae nocte coenae
Recumbens cum fratribus,
Observata lege plene
Cibis in legalibus,
Cibum turbae duodenae
Se dat suis manibus

4. Verbum caro, panem verum
Verbo carnem efficit:
Fitque sanguis Christi merum,
Et si sensus deficit,
Ad firmandum cor sincerum
Sola fides sufficit.

5. Tantum ergo Sacramentum
Veneremur cernui:
Et antiquum documentum
Novo cedat ritui:
Praestet fides supplementum
Sensuum defectui.

6. Genitori, Genitoque
Laus et jubilatio,
Salus, honor, virtus quoque
Sit et benedictio:
Procedenti ab utroque
Compar sit laudatio.
Amen

Of the glorious Body telling, 
O my tongue, its mysteries sing, 
And the Blood, all price excelling, 
Which the world's eternal King, 
In a noble womb once dwelling 
Shed for the world's ransoming. 

Given for us, descending, 
Of a Virgin to proceed, 
Man with man in converse blending, 
Scattered he the Gospel seed, 
Till his sojourn drew to ending, 
Which he closed in wondrous deed. 

At the last great Supper lying 
Circled by his brethren's band, 
Meekly with the law complying, 
First he finished its command 
Then, immortal Food supplying, 
Gave himself with his own hand. 

Word made Flesh, by word he maketh 
Very bread his Flesh to be; 
Man in wine Christ's Blood partaketh: 
And if senses fail to see, 
Faith alone the true heart waketh 
To behold the mystery. 

Therefore we, before him bending, 
This great Sacrament revere; 
Types and shadows have their ending, 
For the newer rite is here; 
Faith, our outward sense befriending, 
Makes the inward vision clear. 

Glory let us give, and blessing 
To the Father and the Son; 
Honour, might, and praise addressing, 
While eternal ages run; 
Ever too his love confessing, 
Who, from both, with both is one. 
Amen. 

Wednesday, 12 April 2017

PASSOVER IN A TRICLINIUM





It didn't, probably, look like Leonardo's version.

It was not a seder – the Temple was still standing and in operation. So it was the traditional Passover meal, with sacrificial lamb, bitter herbs and unleavened bread. (The Children of Israel were told to sprinkle the lamb’s blood on their door-posts in Egypt, so that the Angel of Death would ‘pass over’ them: they, too, were ‘saved by the blood of the lamb’.) The lamb was likely served roast and cut, in or with a sauce. The set-up was probably the triclinium, with the diners reclining around a central space with tables and room for serving. Hence John’s position, reclining next to Jesus, in the place of honour. In such a position, a murmured word could be passed confidentially without attracting everyone’s notice.

Jesus’ mood is fascinating, and moving. This is the only time he admits out loud to his disciples that he is scared. There is a sadness, but also a faintly bitter irony – “All very well, and yes, you love me and support me; but I also know that one of you is going to give me up.” It makes me think of the Occupation during WW II. He loves them, he has chosen them, he is going to die for them, but he is under no illusion whatsoever.

I’d always wondered about John’s question and Jesus’ reply. The whole, murmured quietly. “Who is it?” “The one to whom I’m going to give the next piece of lamb.” (Which suggests that Judas was close physically also.) Why, I always wondered, did John then not instantly warn everyone and stop Judas? He appears to do nothing; he even lets Judas leave when Jesus has said, sadly: Go do what you have to do, do it now.

But I think I may have found an answer. If Jesus had murmured this to Peter, Peter would have jumped up, shouted “Traitor!”, and tied Judas up in an instant. But John, I suspect, was the only one (and this was in part why Jesus loved him) who had understood that this had to happen. It had to be played out all the way. After all, Jesus could have stopped it. Many times, say the Gospels, he had simply slid away when a crowd tried to hold him. But he knew it had to happen. And so, I think, did John.

Which accounts also for the fact that he left (‘fled’ say the Gospels unkindly) with the others at Jesus’ arrest, and (unlike Peter) does not appear again until the actual crucifixion, when he is the only one of the disciples present. 

Postscript: Was Yeshua gay, in his human form? It’s of no importance, but it’s not impossible: it might account for the fact that, though a nice well-brought-up Jewish boy, he reached the age of 30 without being married, which surely was unusual. And although in the Jewish religion it was a sin, it wasn’t in the surrounding Roman-Greek world, and one might very well have the bent without living it in practice. I don’t think his relation with John (Jochanan) was a gay one, any more than I think he married Mary Magdalene. He had neither time nor space for such relationships in his life. But I think he loved them both very much, as he loved Mary, Martha and Lazarus (Miryam, Marta, Eleazar).