Posted by: owizblog | July 18, 2016

Contemplation and Denial: Trinity And Beyond; Sermon, UCB, 17 July 2016


Seventy-one years ago yesterday, the first of three brilliant flashes split history in two and opened a horrible possibility that had only been an imaginative nightmare until then.

Trinity Blast

Everyone knows the names of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, fewer the name “Trinity”, code for the first atomic bomb detonation, in the New Mexico desert, on July 16, 1945.  Robert Oppenheimer, the “Father of the Bomb”, after that first flash (so bright that men with their backs turned and their hands over their closed eyes could see the bones of their fingers) contemplated the mushroom cloud and murmured words from the Hindu Scriptures, the Bhagavad Gita: “I am become death, the destroyer of words…”

For four decades we lived with the reality that at any moment, the television programmes and radio schedules could have been interrupted by the Four Minute Warning.

We were lucky.

Oh, we can be smug, and say that the nuclear bomb kept the peace – but it very easily might not, and then none of us would have been here. We can talk about providence – but at the height of the Cold War, the Dominican theologian Herbert McCabe was saying that however smug we were in our theology, we needed to bear in mind that there might just be time, if the Four Minute Warning came, to reinterpret the whole of human history as leading up to the Bomb. That’s exactly what Neville Shute’s novel “On the Beach”, and the bleak film made of it did, set in the corner of Australia around Melbourne which was the last inhabitable place on earth after a global nuclear war as the radiation clouds closed in to destroy the last pocket of human life on earth.

For me, few artistic creations bring me closer to the sheer, impotent terror of those times than Vaughan Williams’ Sixth Symphony. The composer always denied it was about the nightmares that haunted a world that had emerged from two World Wars with the capacity to destroy itself; but critic after critic, audience after audience, has experienced the work that way. It starts with conflict, in two almost unrelated keys simultaneously in the same musical space, clashing and conflicting in a way that the most tone-deaf listener couldn’t miss. Snatches of melody through the first movement, suggesting fragments of human meaning, suddenly assemble themselves into a soaring tune, strangely poignant, deeply uneasy, an expression of embattled humanity surrounded by instability and violence.

End Titles FaW

You may remember it as the theme music of “A Family At War”, played over the closing sequence of the sandcastle slowly disintegrating in the incoming tide.

The two linked middle movements – again after a violent key-shift – present two nightmares, of mechanized military destruction, and of loud uncontrolled debauchery and disintegration, with a wonderfully sleazy and disgusting tenor saxophone part; but even their colossal impact is nothing compared to the shock of the finale, a slow, dead fugue, which nowhere gets louder than pianissimo, evoking the utter sterile deadness of a world that has destroyed itself. At least, that’s how the critics and audiences who first heard the work in 1948, experienced it – as making them look in horror at the reality of the world in which they were living, and the nightmares that haunted it. They experienced it as prophetic

This is what we did to ourselves…

That could have been our epitaph, had anyone been left to write it.

Prophetic: what do we mean by that? The symphony – like the film of Nevile Shute’s novel On the Beach, a decade later – holds out no hope, but perhaps it’s in so doing that these great works of musical and cinematic art did their work. They made people stare at a horrible truth at the centre of their world.

still time

Maybe it’s only by holding out the bleakest possible picture of how things can go, and refusing all false consolation, that it’s possible with any hope at all to confront reality. Maybe it’s only by telling the truth as starkly as you can that it’s possible to hope for a different truth beyond it.


That’s what I mean by prophetic…

There’s no denying that Amos’ message is unremittingly bleak. Of all its nine chapters, only the last five verses of the very last one hold out any hope at all to the people of Israel, that after the most agonizing and rigorous purging of all the monstrosities and injustices of their shared life, there might be a rebuilding of that life, that community. And they may have been added later, by someone else.

Amos makes this community this society, face what it has become, and the danger in which it stands because of it. He made people stare at a horrible truth at the centre of their world. Maybe it’s only by holding out the bleakest possible picture of how things can go, and refusing all false consolation, that it’s possible to confront reality with any hope at all. Maybe it’s only by telling the truth as starkly as you can that it’s possible to hope for a different truth beyond it.

The musicologist Deryck Cooke was at one of the first performances of Vaughan Williams’ Sixth. He recalls something quite remarkable. The audience was completely caught up in the performance, the newness, the communicative power of the music, and their shared experience of it. They were drawn through its musical and emotional logic, swept away utterly by what is, by any measure, a shattering musical experience, to the point where it was as though, during the ghastly quiet of the spectral, lifeless finale, they were almost unable to breathe. They could hardly tell when the barely audible, crushingly emotionless, music tailed off into dead silence. There was a long pause in which time was suspended, no-one could make a sound, and applause was impossible.

And in that silence, Deryck Cooke happened to spot one woman in the audience take out a powder compact and powder her face.


It was as though, alone in the hall, the whole thing, with its horrifying power, had passed her by. Appalled, Cooke concluded that it was impossible that anyone could be so unaffected, and that she must have been so shocked by the experience that she was in complete denial about it. That she had to turn, as it were, from a depiction of the world as utterly, hopelessly dead and destroyed, to powdering her face, to be able to cope emotionally.

We do that, don’t we?

Our world is different, and so are our nightmares. This has been a week, though, in a month, in which those nightmares seem to have returned, and violently ambushed us, and commanded our attention. There have been so many things which have stripped away our defences of denial, and thrown us back on a reality we don’t understand, but which we can’t escape. A Minister friend of mine posted at one point on Facebook “What in God’s name just happened? I only went out for a few minutes with the dog…”

And then came Nice. What sense can we possibly make of Nice? A man so filled with hate that he commandeered a twenty-tonne lorry, and drove for over a mile through a thronged, happy promenade, swerving to hit people he had in full sight from his window…


What do we say about that?

I don’t know what you say about that. I have no words, no theory, no understanding. I’d considered not saying anything to you today about it, because I have nothing yet to say. But it didn’t seem possible to do that. It’s too big.

But then, talking, chattering, milling and mincing words around something, are also ways of ignoring the truth of it. We try to reduce it, to turn it into our own, manageable little truth. We generalize, we rationalize, we rehearse our prejudices and preconceptions, and try, once again to fit our world into the framework they provide, so that we can get quickly to the point of saying “Ah yes! Now I understand! Now the world makes sense again…”

When we can’t make sense of something, we look for a distraction in something that’s just familiar. We change the subject. We ignore what’s in front of us – like a woman confronted by the end of the world, who turns to powdering her face.

Far harder is to sit, and simply look at the way things are. To look at reality and truth, even when we have no words for it… To sit in the world the way it is, and acknowledge it as it is.

That’s what Amos is forcing Israel to do. Don’t turn away. Don’t try to spin it, into the language you find comforting, about being God’s favoured, protected people, into the frameworks and prejudices that work for you, but really only protect you from the way things really are.

Sit amidst the truth. Look at it. Contemplate it. Acknowledge it to the full.

It isn’t until we have fully acknowledged reality – even when we can’t make sense of it – that we can acknowledge God…

[Break: Hymn CH4 41 (Psalm 61): O God, give ear unto my cry]

[Luke 10:38-42]



Martha is fussing.  Christ in the house of Mary and Martha     Artist:  CAMPI, Vincenzo      Date:       Technique:  Oil on canvas     Location:  Galleria Estense, Modena
Christ in the house of Mary and Martha
Artist: CAMPI, Vincenzo
Technique: Oil on canvas
Location: Galleria Estense, Modena


She’s distracted – literally, pulled away from what she should be occupied with – by all the things she has to do. Yet she sees Mary as distracted, and Jesus as the distraction.

It’s too easy to see Martha fussing, and Mary contemplating, and to spout platitudes like “The Church needs its Marys and its Marthas. And so we miss the point completely; not surprising, because it’s as radical a point as Jesus makes anywhere.

Let’s take another platitude:

“There’s a bit of Mary and a bit of Martha in each of us…”

That’s an insight – until we smother it with more platitudes: that the Mary in us is no good without the Martha; that the Martha in us is no good without the Mary; that we need to balance Mary, Martha, contemplation, action, prayer and service, whatever.

Because none of that is what Jesus says. It’s very precisely not what Jesus says.

Yes, there’s Mary in us and there’s Martha in us, but no, it’s nothing to do with balance.

Martha is fussing. But Mary has chosen the better part

This is exactly of a piece with the way John’s Gospel presents Mary and Martha, in that exquisite little moment in the twelfth chapter, when everything comes to a natural point of suspension; Jesus has come into their home, theirs and Lazarus’, as we assume he has times before, with his disciples, to relax, to be with friends and enjoy their hospitality.

And Martha – well, she’s just lumped in with the other disciples, sitting there, listening.

But Mary – she’s contemplating. She isn’t immersed in the pleasant, distracting conversation, the chat, the crack, the banter.

She looks at what the others can’t, or won’t see. That Jesus is on his way to Jerusalem, and crucifixion, and death. That this is a different evening, because it’s the last such. Perhaps we’ve to understand that the rest of them – Martha, too – haven’t noticed. Perhaps we’ve to understand that they know all too well, and want to treat this evening, this normal evening, this last evening of normality before all hell breaks loose, as a distraction. Jesus is gracious, gentle, captivating and accepting, and the whole of his audience has given in to the spell that normality with this extraordinary man has cast.

Everyone but Mary. She’s not spellbound. But only Mary gets it. She anoints Jesus’ feet. She acknowledges that he is about to go back out into the real world, to die. Through the lens of contemplation, she looks at the truth,. It’s as though only one member of the audience can see what this reality really is. It’s as though only Deryck Cooke, in all that audience at the end of Vaughan Williams’ Sixth, had not been powdering his face.

Only Mary gets it.

The reality of what the cruel, crucifying world is about to do to Jesus. The reality of what this cruel, crucifying world does to people in their millions.

Isenheim Altarpiece


I’ve heard a lot of imbecility talked about the death of Jesus on the cross. That this was the most painful death a human being endured, the most suffering anyone has ever gone through, made worse, infinitely worse by the weight of all the sins of the ages…

Crucifixion is a horrible way to die. But to think that you could measure the pain and suffering of Jesus on the cross against the pain and suffering of untold millions of human beings down to this week – today – is worse than just tasteless and insensitive; it’s blasphemous.

Jesus’ human death isn’t so much better than all these others because it’s so much worse. Things are far more complicated. Jesus’ death is different because it’s so similar, so – in many ways – typical. He dies as one of us. He dies as millions of human beings do.

And because we contemplate God in this, because this is the experience of our pain, and suffering, and horror, taken up into God, there is something here, in all of this, in the horror of our world that we find it so hard to confront, to look at, that holds the promise of meaning, even if we don’t have it yet.

But only if we contemplate it, unblinkingly.

And that’s what Mary, alone in that room, does.

If you want to connect John’s story and Luke’s story, that’s fine. If you want to say that it was always in Mary to contemplate, while Martha fussed and allowed herself to be distracted, and that early on the difference was that Mary sat with the others and listened to Jesus while Martha rushed around in the kitchen and complained that she was getting no help – and no help from the other woman of the house (Martha was hardly a feminist!) – and that the difference down the line, at the point when Jesus makes his last visit to the house in Bethany is that by now, only Mary is able to carry on with the deep work of contemplating Jesus, where by now everyone else wants a distraction from what the world is really like – that’s fine too.

But it does boil down to contemplation. That’s the difference. To contemplate Jesus, to contemplate God in Christ in our human flesh, our human nature, in our cruel, crucifying world, is to face reality unswervingly. It’s to live in the world as it really is, and not to flinch from the realities of the Bataclan Centre, or Brussels in March, or Nice this week, or, God knows, if we even notice, Baghdad, and Damascus all the time – and not to rush away into our slick preconceptions and prejudices, or our amateur theorizing or our armchair speculations. Those things are all distractions.

No, if we are serious about the meaning that God offers us in Christ, we have to sit and contemplate reality as it is, beautiful, intricate, astounding, often; but also difficult, and sometimes very dark. And we have to sit in it and bear with it as it is, without manufacturing easy answers, until we come to the truth of it – a truth we don’t, for now, have.

But we also have to contemplate Christ. Not as an alternative, not as a distraction, but as God with us in this reality, so completely, so totally, that God Godself suffers it, too. In a cross that makes Jesus of Nazareth one with all the victims; in a death so human that only by contemplating it can we begin to say that God understands.

And that’s our job on behalf of the world. To say to politicians with slick answers, who seek power and authority from people’s fears, and play on those fears for power and authority: “It’s much more complicated than that.” To say to people whose fear turns them to nastiness and xenophobia and hatred of those we have to love if the world is to have any hope at all – our fellow human beings, in all their difference. “It’s much more complicated than that.” To say to the bigoted and the religiously small-minded, who peddle their own comforting answers as God’s: “No, it’s much more complicated than that.”

There are times when words fail. Our task is to contemplate Jesus-in-reality, and reality-in-Christ.






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