Lent 3 ~ Only Connect
In the week that a new Dean of St Paul’s has been appointed, swiftly in the wake of the evictions from St Paul’s Churchyard of the remaining protesters against capitalism, it is ironic that this gospel passage should be read today. Ironic – or serendipitous. Serendipitous – there’s a good word – so good I was advised not to use it when talking to the journalist from the Enfield Independent who came to have a look at our chancel walls and ceiling this week. Apparently it’s not a word folk understand. The serendipity, is the discovery that up there inside the window arch is an inscription commemorating, not only the fact that Georgiana Twells paid entirely for the East Wall and Ceiling artwork, and the names of the painters who actually executed it - but also recording the fact that it was done in celebration of, I quote, ‘the completion of the 60th year of the reign of Queen Victoria’. Serendipity – defined mundanely in the dictionary as the discovery of something fortunate – it is much more than that – it means the discovery of something that connects two unrelated facts or events, the unlikely or unexpected connectedness of things. And serendipity can have a divine dimension, hinting at providence or something beyond mere fluke.
E.M Forster, in his groundbreaking novel Howard’s End, famously coined the motto ‘only connect’. First published in 1910 it is set in a house near Stevenage, just up the road from here. And his motto, ‘only connect’ became something of a modernist mantra, a plea for humanity in a world becoming increasingly disjointed by machinery, militarism and fascism. We still live in the aftermath of what followed that relatively idyllic period of pre-war gentility, and his motto seems equally relevant today as a hundred years ago. It also fascinates me that our televisions have been glowing with the period dramas of Upstairs Downstairs and Downton Abbey – big pullers on Sunday nights. Although the curtains are drawn back now, and the episodes contain far more salacious material than when such period dramas were in vogue in the 1970’s! Perhaps we are a nation only trying to connect with the past of a century ago – a period when mass war was unheard of, but, tellingly, so too was a National Health Service. Or perhaps we just enjoy a bit of historical escapism and fictional scandal on a Sunday night before the onslaught of the real world on Monday mornings!
Only connect – to return to where I began – we have the serendipitous connection between today’s gospel reading and the protesters in the City. For you will remember that their mantra was not so much about connecting, but about disconnecting: they said, didn’t they, that Jesus would be on their side, turning over the tables in the temple, casting out the money-changers and all. I said then and still say that it was a tenuous connection – a manipulative attempt to connect faith and politics - and was undoubtedly not only an erroneous but probably disrespectful use of scripture to support a cause and to bang the church on the head with. But bang they did, and boy, did it hurt.
And so today, we read that passage, and may be reminded of those days back in October, when two St Paul’s clergy still had a job, and St Paul’s sold postcards and admission tickets quite happily. To digress for a moment – you may remember the 1973 film of Jesus Christ Superstar – it was very much a period piece – 1970’s that is, with all the disciples on a bus, and wearing flares you could camp in – but it portrayed this anger-in-the-Temple scene with striking effect. For while the Biblical story tells us about pigeon sellers and sheep dealers, the film shows the selling of postcards and cheap religious jewellery purveyed by ladies – or not, wearing, shall we say, not enough. Given the events in the City of the last few months, and the anti-capitalist allegations fired off in all directions, this scene from a 40-year old film, takes on new dimensions.
Only connect. But not all connections are valid or helpful, and some are downright wicked or manipulative. Connecting requires understanding – requires insight into the true nature of what was or is really going on. The protesters had no idea – I am certain – of the true background, context and nature of the incident in the Temple when Jesus showed a rare burst of righteous anger. To connect this gospel story with modern monetarism requires a deep understanding of Jewish scripture, and of modern day economics, and few are equipped to do it. And I suspect that few, if any of those who can, had pitched their tent outside St Paul’s. Now I’m no economist, but I can tell you a bit about the Jewish context of the incident.
And before I do, make a note of the fact that this incident appears in both John and Matthew, but Matthew puts it in Holy Week, whereas John has it much earlier in his gospel, following the Wedding at Cana and the arrival of John the Baptist. It’s not that it happened twice, but that the two writers – writing in different ways for different readers, were emphasising its significance differently. But they were making the same connections.
Only connect. Connect, primarily, with the Passover. Jesus, like other Jews of his time, was in the habit of going to Jerusalem for the Passover festival (See John 11:55). In fact, Jews travelled from all over the disapora (John 12:20) and there is still a traditional directive among Jews that they should celebrate Passover in Jerusalem at least once in their lives. While Jerusalem is not the location of the first Passover, which immediately preceded the Exodus from Egypt (see Exodus 12), it became the ‘spiritual home’ of the Passover and of the seven day Festival of Unleavened Bread which follows it. Thus Jesus was in the habit of going up to Jerusalem from an early age: the occasion when, aged twelve, he became separated from Mary and Joseph took place at the end of such a visit when he got left behind, chatting to the rabbis. (Luke 2:41).
The Passover, let’s remember, is the celebration of the Exodus from Egypt, when, at Moses’ request, and after ten plagues, the Egyptian Pharoah finally let the Israelite slaves leave. The fled hurriedly, and it wasn’t long before the Egyptians gave chase. But the key ingredient of the first Passover meal, and of subsequent celebrations up to Jesus’ time, was the lamb, slaughtered and roasted. That lamb had to be unblemished – spotless – pure and worthy to eat in a meal that in itself constituted an act of worship, homage and thanksgiving.
So for Jesus and his predecessors the Passover would have been celebrated by eating paschal lamb that the Temple priests had deemed to be pure and spotless. It was this authorisation to which Jesus objected so much when he turned over the tables. Jewish families had a choice, to breed or purchase a lamb of their own, or to buy one in the Temple that had been pre-approved. Since there was a commercial interest for the Temple authorities to sell the lambs they had acquired for the festival, it was not easy to gain their approval for ‘external’ lambs. Therefore most people bought their lambs in the Temple, falling victim to what was effectively a monopoly with seasonally high prices. Think about the price of turkeys at Christmas, and you get the idea! These lambs would be purchased on the tenth day of the month of Nissan, to be sacrificed four days later. On that day (the fifteenth of Nissan), silver trumpets were sounded by the priests as a signal to begin the slaughter. The fat was burned and the blood collected to be poured onto the base of the altar. No bone of the Passover lamb was to be broken (Numbers 9:12). Meanwhile the assembled crowd sang a response to the Psalms: Hallelu Yah (‘Praise the Lord’). It must have been quite an experience, of sound, sight and smell. And Jesus disrupted it.
Since the destruction of the temple in Jerusalem in 70 AD the Jewish Passover no longer includes lamb meat, only a shank bone is placed on the table, but in Jesus’ time the lamb (or goat) at Passover was very significant, as food and as a symbol of God’s providence and Messianic hope. His phrase, referring to himself, “destroy this temple, and… I will raise it up” very clearly associates himself with the Passover lamb, soon to face not only death but transforming resurrection. Such actions and associations were politically powerful, religious dynamite, the repercussions of which still reverberate today.
And still to this day, orthodox Passover meals have only the shank bone of a lamb on their Passover, or Seder plate, indicating this absence of the Passover lamb. This is known as the z’roah (‘arm’), and has its own symbolism, reminding partakers of God’s outstretched arm to save his people (see Deuteronomy 26:8). Christ clearly associated himself with the Passover lamb, and there is some irony in the fact that as the Christian Church was beginning to take shape and increase, the Jewish Passover had to adapt to not having a lamb on the table.
Only connect. For Christians, who connect the Passover Lamb with Christ, we might want to say that that there is no longer lamb in the Passover feast because by the Holy Spirit, Christ the Passover sacrifice is alive and present in his church, and in the new paschal feast of the eucharist. For it was the outstretched arm of Christ on the Cross, which ultimately saved God’s people. And we now say: Christ our Passover is sacrificed for us, so let us keep the eucharistic feast.
And that is precisely what we do, week in week out, in remembrance and thanksgiving for God’s providence and salvation revealed in Jesus. And it is surely that providence and salvation that we must connect not only with first century Jerusalem, but with 21st century Jerusalem, and London, and indeed Afghanistan and Syria. As we look in all directions, close to home, and across the seas to distant lands, we must connect what we see and hear with the loving grace of God, who brings both mercy and justice. There is a lot of injustice in the world, and a great need for compassion and mercy. There are many, probably trivial issues deflecting the church at the moment, and even more trivial ones deflecting society. And some serious ones, of course, but little compassion, mercy, truth or justice is being brought to bear. We need to connect with where we came from, and with where we are going. And for that we need far more than serendipity – we need the grace of God. We need the grace of God to direct us, guide us and lead us into all truth, for justice and peace’s sake.
And Lent in a Diamond Jubilee year is not a bad time at all in which to pray for guidance, deliverance, hope and truth.
The Rev'd Dr Gordon Giles, St Mary Magdalene, Enfield, 11/03/12