Friday, April 17, 2015

Eating our Words

[Originally preached at Trinity College Chapel, 24th April 2005; published in memory of Homaro Cantu, d. 14th April 2015]

The sushi made by Mr Homaro Cantu, the executive chef at Moto restaurant in Chicago, looks a lot like that served at other upscale restaurants, appearing on the plate as round coloured disks; they also, by all accounts, taste deliciously fishy and seaweedy.

It is prepared on a Canon i560 inkjet printer. Cantu prints images of sushi rolls on pieces of edible paper made of soybeans and cornstarch, using organic, food-based inks of his own concoction. At least two or three food items made of paper are likely to be included in a meal at Moto. Even the menu is edible; diners crunch it up into a bowl of gazpacho, creating Mr Cantu’s version of alphabet soup.

The Revelation to John reminds us that eating words and images is not an altogether new idea:
So I went to the angel and told him to give me the little scroll; and he said to me, ‘Take it, and eat; it will be bitter to your stomach, but sweet as honey in your mouth.’ So I took the little scroll from the hand of the angel and ate it; it was sweet as honey in my mouth, but when I had eaten it, my stomach was made bitter. (Rev 10:9–10)
In using this image around the year 100 of our era, the author of the Revelation was actually reviving a traditional recipe going back further centuries to the prophet Ezekiel, who had a similar vision wherein he was instructed to eat a scroll as a prelude to taking its message to Israel (Ezek 3:2). Ezekiel’s scroll however was and remained sweet, and not bitter. This later scroll in Revelation contains a paradox; it is sweet because true, but bitter to the stomach, since the experience of the one who knows the truth will often not be uniformly pleasant.

If Chef Cantu with his Inkjet sushi is one postmodern inheritor of that tradition of eating words, another and more self-conscious one is Umberto Eco, whose novel The Name of the Rose hinges on the quest to uncover another ancient scroll—the lost book II of Aristotle’s Poetics, the section on comedy. Eco clearly has our Revelation passage in mind when, in the climactic scene, the evil Brother Jorge who has hidden this dangerous treatise lest it encourage the dire sin of laughter, eats it and dies in a final act of suicidal defiance, knowing that its humorous content has actually been written with a poisonous ink; the sweet words turn bitter in the stomach.

What Eco and his biblical predecessors are all playing with is the power and paradox of making words into flesh. Each of the eating protagonists seeks to make themselves one with the text: the evil Jorge to destroy both, and the seers Ezekiel and John to give both life.

Thomas Cranmer’s 1549 collect for the Second Sunday of Advent from the first Book of Common Prayer works with the same idea:
Blessed Lord, who hast caused all holy Scriptures to be written for our learning; Grant that we may in such wise hear them, read, mark, learn, and inwardly digest them, that by patience and comfort of thy holy Word, we may embrace, and ever hold fast, the blessed hope of everlasting life, which thou hast given us in our Saviour Jesus Christ. Amen.
But the story does not always seem like comfort food, as the seer John knew. Those of us who are concerned with texts—not so much literally eating them, I say to mollify any anxious librarians lurking among us, as studying them and seeking to internalise them—can hear in the idea of eating the text—prophecy, treatise or menu as it may be—the problem and the promise of how words and stories and images impact on us, or not. It is not enough merely to ‘learn’, if learning means that we compartmentalise what we learn into a purely theoretical knowledge. The metaphor of eating words expresses this well; truly to learn is to make what we learn a part of ourselves, not just the object of the mind’s activity but part of the actual means by which we will go on learning. Put thus, wisdom is not just about words and minds; it is about bodies and actions. Truly to learn, truly to be wise, is to make knowledge human, to make it flesh. What others have known with their hearts and hands, as well as minds, must become real in our own lives if we are to be wise.

Today is Passover; this evening, Jewish households outside of Israel celebrate the second of two Seders, the festive meal of the Passover, to commemorate the Exodus from Egypt. The Seder is a sort of eaten story too. One of its principles, expressed in the Haggadah or narrative order of service, is that participants should not simply remember historical events that took place in their ancestors’ times, but understand that they too, as they eat and drink, were brought out of Egypt.

In Christian tradition this motif of making words flesh has its fulfilment in the incarnation. John’s Gospel speaks of Jesus not merely as a divine being who has ‘beamed down’ on an ‘away mission’ to impart propositions to earth-dwellers, but as the ultimate personification, the making human, of God’s Word and wisdom.

In this Easter season for Christians, we affirm that something similar to the logic of the eaten wisdom of Passover can and must take place. Hearing the story again, we are invited not only to examine its propositions but also to consume it, to make it our own. In this last and longest chapter of the resurrection narrative, in the absence of the risen body of the Word once made flesh, we who feed on his story, his wisdom, and make it real in our own flesh, may thereby become that body in the world.

Saturday, April 04, 2015

Washing Feet: Maundy Thursday 2015

Two years ago Pope Francis raised eyebrows when he performed the Holy Thursday ceremony of footwashing, not at St Peter’s Basilica but at the Chapel of the Casal del Marmo juvenile prison outside Rome. More striking still for some was that two of the twelve young inmates whose feet he washed were women. Last year the Pope played it relatively safe by comparison, washing the feet of aged and disabled people at the Don Gnocchi residential center. The internet reveals, thanks to time differences, that today he washed the feet of six male inmates of the Rebibbio prison and six women from a nearby detention center, as well as the infant child of one of these latter.

The Pope had courted controversy in these cases, because the tradition which he was enacting, and which we will follow this evening in our own way, had in recent memory usually been performed in St Peter’s Basilica, with the participation of twelve well-scrubbed choirboys, seminarians – although sometimes seminarians are admittedly likened by themselves or others to inmates! - or priests; and over time, Roman Catholic papal theology had presented the event more and more as a sort of celebration of the institution of the priesthood itself. Yet this is not where the roots of the ceremony actually lie.

The story of Jesus washing his disciples' feet in John 13 is powerful, but has often left Christians scrambling to make sense of it and the attendant command: "So if I, your Lord and Teacher, have washed your feet, you also ought to wash one another’s feet. For I have set you an example, that you also should do as I have done to you."

But do what exactly? Powerful as it may be, the earliest Christians seem not to have performed a rite quite like this one, with footwashing acted out communally and symbolically in Church. What we do know, however, is that members of the Church community and perhaps Christian women in particular, went not into Church but out, to the housebound and to prisoners, to wash their feet. They processed not with crosses or choirs, but more or less privately – although certainly with reverence and a sense of evangelical and even I dare say sacramental seriousness.

The First Letter to Timothy hints at footwashing as related to social , in its job description for the oldest religious order, the community of widows:

"Let a widow be put on the list” the author says," if she …has shown hospitality, washed the saints’ feet, helped the afflicted, and devoted herself to doing good in every way."

Just a little later, around 200 the African writer Tertullian laments the fate of a hypothetical Christian woman mismatched with an unbeliever: what pagan husband, he imagines, would "put up with her creeping into prison to kiss a martyr's chains, or for that matter to meet with the community to exchange the kiss, to offer water for the saints’ feet, to share a little of her food, from her cup…"

Again we hear the connection with concrete human need, and with courageous service - but with controversy too in this case. It is, I think, acts like these to which Jesus is referring in the Gospel of John, rather than to any imagined ceremonial footwashing. Consider also that John, too, knows of a woman’s controversial footwashing, told only a few verses before this: "Mary took a pound of costly perfume made of pure nard, anointed Jesus’ feet, and wiped them with her hair” (John 12:3). You will recall that this story provokes Judas’ opposition, ostensibly in connection with charitable purposes for which the cost of the perfume could have been deployed; but Jesus here defends Mary’s own charitable action towards him. So too in tonight’s Gospel Jesus teaches his disciples to overcome their scruples against either offering or receiving the washing of feet, not as a communal ritual action but as the literal action of getting some feet clean, and some hands dirty.

This ancient ritual and practical action, not a liturgy in our formal sense but arguably sacramental nonetheless, did not survive quite in this form but took various more symbolic forms through the middle ages, often still associated with charity; kings and bishops were known to offer such service to the poor on given occasions. Despite its ancient roots, footwashing did not find a place in the public eucharistic liturgy of this day until the 1950s. When it did, it soon fell victim in some quarters - including the thoughts of some of Francis’ predecessors in the chair of Peter - to the idea that it figured the ministerial priesthood first, rather than the call of all Christians to humble service.

But you caught the resonance between ancient footwashing and the recent papal examples I hope. I doubt that Francis was thinking of ancient evidence for footwashing when choosing his partners and venues these recent years, but the man has good instincts. Going out to wash, and keeping company with women and prisoners in doing so, put him in far better company from the point of view of apostolic tradition than his modern critics.

But what of this evening and our ceremonial washing? We wash feet here just as we break bread; no, the mandatum or footwashing ceremony does not have the status for us that the sacrament of the Eucharist does, but there is a connection - apparently one that John’s Gospel makes by giving us this story instead of the institution of the Eucharist. Augustine of Hippo spoke of the Eucharist in these terms, which we can apply to washing as well as eating and drinking: "these realities are called sacraments because in them one thing is seen, while another is grasped. What is seen is a mere physical likeness; what is grasped bears spiritual fruit.” When we grasp and wash feet here symbolically, we are committing ourselves to loving service of humanity when we go out from here, and the truth of our feet and hands actions tonight will be judged by the ways we walk and work outside; so too the Eucharist itself demands a fulfillment in our lives that shows it to be truly sacrament, effective sign.

As we wash and are washed, we signal our willingness to serve and be served, which in turn tells us what the reality of the Eucharist effects in us; Augustine went on to say to his congregants seeing the Eucharist, “be what you see, receive what you are.” Washing and eating alike tonight, we bear witness to our faith in the one who has served us in both; and we hope, feasting and serving alike, to become who we are.

[Maundy Thursday Sermon from St Mary the Virgin, Times Square, New York City]

Tuesday, March 31, 2015

"Everybody Loves a Parade..."

There is a sense of anticipation in the crowds lining the streets of the great city. Word has spread among the crowd that the one they have come to see is nearly there. To some he is a figure of myth; but for others there is no one more real. In the distance they can hear music now - there is singing. The parade eventually comes into sight, a crowd in the street as well as the one along the way. They are visibly joyous; some are carrying strange objects, signs of the festival. And at the end there rides the one whose coming will change the times.

You know of course of what I am speaking...

...Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade.

Every, they say, loves a parade. Processions are indeed a very widespread phenomenon; there is hardly a culture or a city that does not witness some sort of parade that expresses its people’s beliefs and express their aspirations.

But as the earlier example I gave shows, in its contrast with today’s feast, there are many reasons people may take to the streets.

And there are I think quite different kinds of processions in form as well, even across cultures and causes. Consider the procession we have taken part in already today. It went from here to… Hmm. You are sitting exactly where you were to start with. We went precisely nowhere. Yet this was not pointless. In walking together, singing and praying, we embodied our faith and hope, and made a living statement of who we are. We become a people, a community, in the act of procession.

But there are other kinds of processions. Two weeks ago if you were in this place you might have been able to hear the end of New Haven’s St Patrick’s Day parade. That parade went from A to B, through the city and out again, starting from a place out further on Chapel St than I have ever been, out to a place on Grove where nobody seems to have been. There is, again, a risk of this seeming pointless, but the truth is different. When such parades began, the Irish were a marginalized group in many parts of this country, and to march through the streets was to assert the pride of a community, to claim its place in the sun and in the streets. Perhaps when I put it that way you think also of the marches that took place fifty years ago, from Birmingham to Selma, where a group asserted the right of people of color to vote by embodying their right to walk from A to B, even when many or most of them neither came from A nor remained at B.

There is still one more kind of procession. In the third case, the procession enters a new place and stays there; something changes because of the arrival that takes place. This is the character both of the first example I gave, and of the ancient procession we are commemorating today. Jesus comes to Jerusalem, and nothing will be the same again.

And yet, if we think a little further, his procession may actually be of a different kind. For there is another procession hidden under the historic one into Jerusalem, of which Paul speaks in our Epistle reading:

Christ Jesus...was in the form of God
[yet] did not regard equality with God
as something to be exploited,
but emptied himself,
taking the form of a slave,
being born in human likeness.
And being found in human form,
he humbled himself
and became obedient to the point of death—
even death on a cross (Phil 2:5-8)

This is the real journey, the one into human life, into our vulnerability and morality; this is the journey that we will commemorate as the week goes forward. Yet that is not the end of the journey:

Therefore God also highly exalted him
and gave him the name
that is above every name,
so that at the name of Jesus
every knee should bend,
in heaven and on earth and under the earth,
and every tongue should confess
that Jesus Christ is Lord,
to the glory of God the Father (9-11).

So in fact this journey, too, ends up precisely where it began; Jesus has gone nowhere, yet has done everything. For we have joined this parade with him, and as Paul says elsewhere, he leads us in his triumphal procession (2 Cor 2:14).

Jesus’ procession is thus all processions drawn together. He comes into his city and changes everything; walking through its streets, he claims them for his kingdom where all are welcome and none are marginalized; and in the end he has come to the place he began.

Will you join his procession?

[Sermon from Palm Sunday 2015, at the Episcopal Church at Yale, Dwight Chapel, Old Campus]