Virtue and Virus

Monday 6th April 2020
Year A, Monday of Holy Week
Holy Trinity, Hurstpierpoint
Holy Week

i. Hospitality: Monday of Holy Week (John 12.1-11)

Shortly after arriving in Trinidad I went on a journey to the largely rural South to learn about the conditions for blind people there. AT the end of a searingly hot, tiring day I was invited by a very old man into his tiny house and, after offering water, he flourished and opened a very ancient bottle of sherry, given to him in honour of his long service. I was appalled: he was giving me the most precious thing he had and it wasn't the sort of day for sherry. Nonetheless, he insisted that I drink two substantial glasses. Heaven knows what he did with the rest. The point is that the utter extravagance of the gesture exceeded all polite bounds; but to be really successful, hospitality has to free itself from the shackles of politeness.

I think of him every time I read of Mary of Bethany, in John's account, bursting into a dinner party to celebrate the revival of her brother Lazarus, extravagantly, in every way, anointing Jesus whose response is not that he should receive such a costly gift instead of the poor whom we always have with us but that, after his burial, we will be left to look after them.

Usually, our hospitality - unlike that of many supposedly less sophisticated but usually much poorer countries - is confined to people we know and like who are, let's face it, not often the poor, the different and the undesirable; our kind of hospitality is supposed to give us pleasure, as well as our guests.

But perhaps during this epidemic we are learning a little. Personally, for example, I find the telephone, half way between the joy of the face-to-face and the precision and elegance of the written word, really difficult but I have steeled myself to use it every day to talk to people, including some I would not talk to in the ordinary way of things; my  hospitality has been stretched.

Currently, at the beginning of this crisis, we are behaving extravagantly outside our normal limits, what some of us call our "comfort zone"; but we will face two tests: the first is whether we can keep this up until the end of this crisis; and the second is whether we can keep it up afterwards or whether we will shrink back into our comfort zones.

There will be two key factors in maintaining our stamina: the first, with which we are familiar, is the adrenalin we create through our good works; but the second, with which most of us are less familiar, is the blessing of accepting the goodness of others, considered or extravagant. And, above these yet, there are the boundless grace of God and his boundless hospitality.

ii. Philosophy: Tuesday of Holy Week (John 12.20-36)

Any time I hear the word "Greek" I do not think of "salad" or "myths" but of "Philosophy". All my life I have considered the conflicting influences of the philosopher Plato and his pupil Aristotle on the way we think and behave; and although this may have taught me to be "philosophical" in the face of adversity, I am learning, as I am sure we  all are, that philosophy is not enough. I wonder whether this was Jesus' thought when he was invited to meet some Greeks. Bent as he now was on death and glory, perhaps he was a little impatient with the necessary nit-picking of people brought up on disputation, not infrequently for its own sake.

During the last four years we have been involved in what now seems like a rather pointless dispute about the role of experts who were supposed to be surplus to democratic requirements but we now find ourselves in the position where we want our experts to be even more definite than they say they honestly can be; we want them, in effect, to stop being real experts and to tell us what we want to hear. But that, surely, is not the point of the scientist or the philosopher; they tell us what they think they logically can; they are not here to provide us with reassurance but with theories and/or data which are often far from secure.

They have their place but it is in our minds and not our hearts. On this day when tension was mounting among the followers of Jesus I can imagine that they looked for reassurance in events, snapping up every piece of news and gossip to see whether it indicated the death of their leader was more or less likely. The one place they seemed not to look for reassurance was in their leader who had been speaking plainly to them on their journey to the Holy City.

We too, who have accompanied Jesus to the Holy City as part of our annual cycle of worship which will bring us at last to the ultimate Holy City, our New Jerusalem, should look for reassurance not in the ups and downs, the extrapolations, cautions and exaggerations of daily statistical updates on the virus, but in the dual duality of our love for God and each other and God's love for Jesus and for us. It is totally understandable that we should focus at the moment most fervently on prayers of supplication, seeing God as our ultimate bulwark against disaster and disintegration but this week, if we can, we need to spend some time concentrating  on the progress and purpose of Holy Week, not just - although  this is no bad thing - to take our minds off the febrile present but also because we need to focus, if we can, on God in God's-self rather than concentrating exclusively on God-for-us.

When all this is over, and we all find ourselves economically poorer, the notion of finding God as a necessity will no longer be a platitude, it will be a stark reality, not denying the importance of expertise and philosophy but putting it into a right context.

iii. Certainty: Wednesday of Holy Week (John 13.21-32)

I have always been deeply suspicious of the stark account of Judas in the Gospels, not least because he is simultaneously portrayed as an unmitigated traitor and as a means through which the Scriptures can be fulfilled as if his destiny has been predetermined; and while I accept that this is not a widely held point of view, I still think that any fair reader will consider the figure of Judas to be something of a caricature. From his point of view as a zealot, Jesus had ridden triumphantly into Jerusalem on what we call Palm Sunday and had then told his followers he was going to throw in his politico/military hand in a manner not dissimilar to the Grand Old Duke of York. What was a self-respecting zealot to do in such circumstances? We see this dilemma played          out all the time in contemporary politics where revolutionary movements split between zealots and gradualists which often gives incumbent dictators time to re-group.

But rather than the tactical dilemma that faced Judas, what interests me is the area of uncertainty he inhabited. Perhaps, more than the others who were equivocal enough in their way, he lost contact with the essential graciousness of Jesus, he ranked the cause above the compassion, the grandiosity above the gentleness, making the mistake that so many of us do of being too set on the end goal and sloppy, if  not unscrupulous, about how we achieve it. Once we get into this muddle we live in an area of moral uncertainty as I think Judas did. Paradoxically, Judas wanted certainty but he abandoned the only place it could be got, within the embrace of Jesus.

This is very easy to say, but look at what certainties we have lost in a month? Businesses have crumbled, wages have tumbled, the economic orthodoxy of the market is in tatters, the doctrine of nationalist competition has cost countless lives. But we are not to cling to Jesus as some form of escape from uncertainty as if he were a lifeboat: yes, he is a lifeboat in times of trouble but he is a fit vessel on seas both calm and stormy although, human nature being what it is, we are less attracted to it when waters are calm.

Our challenge, when this storm is over, is whether we will go on clinging to Jesus or whether we will start to wander off again thinking, in our rather casual pride, that we can manage without him. This straying can often feel pretty innocuous but it too often leads us into the dangerous territory where Judas put himself, not sure of our moral bearings, too easily capable of making false judgments and betraying our Christian commitment.

If we have learned anything from this crisis it is surely that after a period of spectacularly rising prosperity for the better off, nothing is secure after all except for the certainty of God's love manifested in the salvific death of Jesus and in the ever present comfort of the Holy Spirit.

iv. Solidarity: Maundy Thursday (Exodus 12.1-14; 1 Corinthians 11.23-26; John 13.1-17; 31-35)

In spite of the juxtaposition of the Exodus Reading with Saint Paul's account of the Institution of the Eucharist, the notion that Consecration and reception are signifiers of liberation is, literally, foreign for both conservative Catholicism and Protestantism which have taken the Sacrament to be an act of personal spirituality. In spite of my upbringing and adulthood in Eucharist-centred, theologically committed communities, I was over forty before I discovered the link between Exodus and Eucharist, Eucharist and liberation, seeing the Last Supper as the new Exodus.

The liberation theologians of Latin America, however, have seen matters very differently. Not only is the blood of the lambs smeared on the door posts to save the Chosen People a precursor of Jesus, the Lamb of God, shedding his blood to save the Chosen People but they saw that the enactment of Jesus at the Last Supper was a signal of Christ's commitment to the liberation of the whole world. Thus, when we participate in the Eucharist we are, supposedly, committing ourselves to human solidarity with the whole world in Christ.

Our temporary deprivation of the physicality of the Eucharist might allow us to re-think what it means to share in the body and blood of Jesus, to see it perhaps in a broader context, a context which will be sorely needed as we emerge from our isolation. For although all of us will emerge economically poorer, with the country massively in debt, needing to call upon us all for higher taxes, with many businesses gone and many more on their knees, with high unemployment and with savings reduced, this is nothing to the poverty which will be experienced by developing countries. Thus, we will be faced with personal economic losses, higher taxes to reduce massive Government borrowing, calls upon us from beloved, badly damaged good causes, and requests for assistance from the developing countries whose people and economies have been ravaged by the pandemic.

There was a time when the phrase "charity begins at home" was somewhat theoretical as we seemed to have enough resources to look out for ourselves and spare something for developing countries. It was never enough but it did mean that infant mortality fell rapidly as longevity rose, with vastly improved access to water and education. Well, if the phrase was theoretical then it is going to be crucial very soon. For perhaps seventy years, since the foundation of Oxfam, we have been challenged to re-define the concepts of who our neighbour is and what solidarity requires.

Strange as it may seem, given our introverted tradition, we may arrive at the notion that to participate in the Eucharist is to commit ourselves to solidarity with the world, particularly with the poor and oppressed. Or, to put it the other way round, we may find that we are not truly participating in the Eucharist unless we comprehend its liberation significance as the second, Christ-given Exodus. It is a long but straight road which began at the parting of the red sea and ends at the Eucharistic altar.