Christian Absurdity: Mission and Incarnation

5 01 2014

Sermon Preached at Durham Cathedral 5th January 2014

Today is the 12th day of Christmas and 12th night, the last evening of Christmas, is traditionally time for party at which a ‘Bean King’ is found.  Finding the king involves making and then sharing a cake in which an uncooked and therefore inedible dried bean is placed. A Bean King is a version of the jester figure – like the ‘Lord of Misrule’.  There are all sorts of winter traditions like this: in Scotland they had the ‘Abbot of Unreason’ and in some places the tradition was to make a ‘Boy Bishop’ – still celebrated on St Nicholas’ Day in Newcastle  Cathedral. All these are versions of the same thing.

And the idea is this: you put power into the hands of someone who has an eye for fun and mischief for a short period. Whoever becomes the Bean King or Lord of Misrule or whatever – that is person who must be obeyed.

Thinking of this Cathedral, I wonder whether we shouldn’t find a way of instituting the idea of an Abbot of Unreason.  I can imagine that there would be plenty of people willing to take a slice of cake in the hope of biting the bean which gives them the role, especially if there was a bit of dressing up to go with it – a pointy hat, or one with streamers, perhaps.

My focus here is on Christian absurdity. But maybe you are beginning to wonder whether such a theme is legitimate.  After all, St John’s Gospel begins with those great resonant phrases:  ‘In the beginning was the word, and the word was with God, and the word was God’.  And we know that the word ‘word’ here means something like ‘reason’ or ‘principle’ and that the nearest English equivalent to the Greek ‘logos’ is ‘logic’.

Surely this tells us that our religion, our life, should be reason-led and reason-seeking. Surely it tells us that God is a God of order – not chaos; of rule – not misrule; of maturity – not childishness. Surely, if Christian spirituality is anything it is a spirituality of seriousness, of responsibility: Christian people should be good people living good lives, not rascals getting up to goodness knows what and intent on all sorts of naughtiness and mischief.

I have to admit that there is something truth in this. It is theoretically true that we should be better than we are, and try to do the most reasonable thing at the time. ‘Oh be reasonable,’ is plea which we should indeed hear as a rebuke.

But this is not the whole story. Christianity is not a religion of pure reason.  Or to put it another way, Christianity is not a theory. And God, my friends, is not an idea.

‘In the beginning was the word …’  Yes indeed, but that word became flesh and dwelt among us – pitched his tent among us.

The problem, of course, is that we’ve heard the story so many time before.

Thought 1: ‘Oh yes, the word became flesh and lived among us – very good, quite right, and how very nice of the word to do that.’

Thought 2: ‘If I was a word I don’t think I’d want to become flesh – never mind pitch a tent. I’d be far happier in the pages of a book, in a library, even on a scroll in an earthenware pot. You know where you are with books and scrolls – but flesh, that’s a different matter altogether.’

‘The word became flesh’ – is this not, when you think about it, the birth of the absurd?

John did not write that the theory became the practice; John did not say that the plan was implemented; John did not say that the ideas were at last applied.  What he said was the word became flesh.  We have a technical word for this – incarnation – en-flesh-ment. It does not mean that the divine principle is at last ‘applied’ to human life. It means that God became human.

Epiphany is nearly with us and that always suggests to me the importance of inter-faith encounter. Those magi were not Jews, and they were certainly not Christians. One of the things I like about being with people of other faiths is that the absurdity of each faith can so easily become apparent.  I think of a Druid who once said to me, ‘I’m not going to take any stick from Christians about dressing up in funny clothes or about fanciful beliefs.  God becoming human? Come off it.’

There – Christian absurdity named.

I think we are missing plenty of tricks when it comes to mission and evangelism these days.  One of them is that we are determined to present to the world our most serious, considered and formal face.  But the truth is that the world isn’t much interested in po-faced, self-admiring, seriousness. It’s attracted by the possibility of the absurd breaking into a world that seems to be going to hell in handcart.

The world is interested in the hope that knows that it is itself absurd – and yet persists: hope against hope.

The world is interested in the faith that look less like reason and more like magic. It’s not magic, but to the uninitiated it can easily seem like it. It was magi who came to worship the Christ child after all – magicians.

This is one of the reason people like Pope Francis so much. He’s absurd. Just for fun he phones up some Argentinian nuns in Span. No one answers the phone, so he leaves a message. ‘What are all the nuns up to which means they can’t answer the phone.  It’s Papa Francesco here. I’ll call back later.’  Of course it’s random and absurd but it’s also human. We can all connect with that.

Christianity is a religion of profound human equality – fellowship – solidarity – but for one contingent reason after another we have made it something else. That’s why we need Lords of Misrule and Abbots of Unreason: to destabilise the Babel towers of pompous stuffiness, management-speak and the quasi-order that stops the gospel doing its upsetting and liberating work.

When we talk about mission these days everyone knows that it’s ‘Messy Church’ that is making the running.  If you want to know what Messy Church is you can go to one of loads of churches around the diocese that are having a go in their own way.  It’s usually based on craft activities and the like, and it is hard work, but the point is that it gets people through the door and beginning to explore the Christian faith. It gets people connecting to the gospel.

My own personal theory is that messy church is not really about the activities but about the atmosphere. What makes it work is the understanding that ‘this is for the likes of us’ and, ‘we can come along as we are and not be made to feel like outsiders’.

But all this is also absurd. I just ask myself what an Anglican priest of fifty years ago would have made of it – someone for whom the said service of Holy Communion according to the Book of Common Prayer (BCP) reflected the ‘decently and in order’ requirements for liturgy that were all important back in the day.

I don’t want to knock that generation; and when it came to Christian absurdity a lot of them had it in spades.  My wife’s’ grandfather was of that ilk. At the BCP Communion Service, having invited the people to ‘make your humble confession to Almighty God meekly kneeling upon your knees’, he would then arch his head round to see if any were merely sitting on their bottoms. If they were he would tut three times very loudly.  Now that’s Christian absurdity – but it’s not the right sort of absurdity for our mission context today.

Mission today needs the right sort of Christian absurdity to cut through the walls of resistance and to open a possible pathway from estranged humanity to the humble God.  But is not just a church thing its a personal thing for each one of us. Each of us in our own spirituality must constantly be alert to our own absurdity, and see it as a gift from God. We need to learn how to see something Christlike in our own absurdity.

We should relax, because however daft we are, at least we are not the word made flesh.  That is the high and holy absurdity of God.

So:  come let us adore him – with a song in our hearts and smile on our faces and make a twinkle in our eye.

And as Christmas blends into Epiphany on Twelfth Night, let us see God wink at us from the manger.

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