Wednesday, 20 March 2013

Aries 1: Pick up your Bed and Walk!


ARIES 

21st March – 21st April

 
Aries (drawing by Dan Hodgkin)


Aries is the sign of the springtime and so signifies new beginnings, new life. It is associated with the element Fire. Its symbol is the Ram or Lamb. It was called ‘The Lord of the Head’ by the Egyptians and ‘The Hired Man’ by the Babylonians. Its ‘decans’ (nearby constellations) are Cassiopeia, (the Reclining Woman), Perseus, (the Hero or the Bridegroom); and Cetus, (the Evil Sea Monster). In the constellation Perseus is the star Algol, called Rosh ha Satan (Satan’s Head) by the Hebrews; it was considered the most evil star in the heavens.

 

 

Reading: Mark 2:1-12

A few days after he'd gone back to Capernaum, word of his whereabouts got around, and so many people gathered that there was no room, not even by the door, and he was speaking the word to them. And four men arrived carrying a paralytic. And not being able to get near him because of the crowd, they took off the roof of the house where he was, and when they'd made an opening they let down the stretcher on which the paralysed man was lying. When Jesus saw their faith he said to the paralysed man, 'Child, your sins are forgiven.' But there were some legal experts sitting there who were asking themselves, ‘Why is he speaking such blasphemy? Only God can forgive sins!' But Jesus was immediately aware of their thoughts, and he said to them, 'What's your problem?  What is easier to say to the paralysed man: "Your sins are forgiven", or “Get up, pick up your stretcher, and walk"? But in order to prove to you that the son of man has authority on earth to forgive sins,' he said to the paralysed man, 'I say to you, get up, pick up your stretcher and go home!' And up he got immediately, and picking up his stretcher went out in front of everyone, so that they were all amazed and praising God saying, 'We've never seen anything like this!'


Story: Nasruddin and the Chillies

 

One day Nasrudin was feeling very thirsty. He’d been walking for a long time in the blazing sun and there was no water to be had anywhere. ‘What I need is some luscious fruit. A big melon or a couple of oranges would be perfect,’ he said to himself. As he turned the corner he saw a fruit and vegetable stall. His prayers had been answered!

            ‘How much are your oranges?’ he asked the stallholder, looking at the mountain of juicy oranges.

            ‘Fifty cents each,’ replied the man. ‘Three for one euro.’

            Nasrudin looked at the few coppers in his hand. Not enough for even one orange. And his thirst was burning! ‘How much are your melons?’ he inquired, optimistically.

            ‘Seventy-five cents each, and cheap at the price.’

            Disappointed but not defeated, Nasrudin looked at the rest of the stall, and some shiny little red pods caught his attention. They looked wonderfully refreshing. ‘How much are those?’ he asked excitedly.

            ‘Three cents each,’ replied the man.

            ‘I’ll take ten!’

            Nasrudin handed over the thirty cents - all the money he had - and then he sat down in a nice shaded place and began to munch the red pods. He devoured the first one with no trouble, but mid way through the second his eyes began to water and his mouth began to burn. ‘These are the hottest fruits I’ve ever tasted,’ he thought. But he still carried on eating.

            Just then, a passer by saw Nasrudin’s distress. ‘What on earth is the matter?’ asked the concerned woman.

            ‘I’m eating some fruit,’ replied Nasrudin, ‘but I’ve never tasted any like this before! They’re hot!’

            The woman looked closely at what Nasrudin was holding in his hand. ‘No wonder they’re hot!’ she laughed, ‘those are chillies! They’re not for eating, they’re for cooking. You put them in curries!’

            But Nasrudin carried on eating. Tears were streaming down his bright red face, and his throat was burning unmercifully. ‘You must stop eating them at once!’ ordered the woman, ‘or you’ll make yourself very ill! I’m telling you they’re not fruit!’

            ‘Oh I know they’re not fruit,’ said Nasrudin, ‘but I’ve paid for them so I’m going to finish them. I’m not one to waste my money!’


**************************************



This sermon was first delivered on 25th March 2007



 
Last Wednesday was the first day of spring. It wasn’t such a pleasant day in England; it was windy and cold, with the odd flurry of snow and sleet, but despite the inclement weather the evidence of new growth was everywhere, as it has been for a few weeks: the daffodils are blooming, the trees budding, the days lengthening. This is the season of new life, celebrated throughout human history with great rejoicing; the long sleep of winter is over, the sap is rising; it’s when ‘a young man’s fancy turns to thoughts of love’ (and ‘an old man’s stomach turns!’) It is an optimistic time, when, according to Chaucer, ‘folk long to go on pilgrimages’; it’s when we start to make our plans, change our jobs, sell our houses. Forget January 1st, with its dreary darkness and its forced bonhomie; this is the real ‘new year’ and has been acknowledged as such in the northern hemisphere since human beings appeared on earth. The ancients believed that the creation of the world took place at this time of the year (as well they might), and the Jewish people said that the Exodus occurred in springtime; the waking of the earth from its winter sleep providing a powerful metaphor for casting off the shackles of slavery in Egypt and moving on to freedom in the promised land.

            The sun has entered the zodiac sign of Aries, the sign of the Ram or Lamb, and it is this sign that is reflected in the first three chapters of Mark’s Gospel. (Remember, it is my contention that the whole Gospel of Mark is structured on the zodiac cycle, and that the individual sections of Mark are designed to teach us spiritual lessons based upon the symbolism of each sign.) Aries is the sign of the springtime, the sign of new beginnings, vigour, activity, and impetuosity. People who born under Aries are often confrontational, somewhat aggressive, fiery, individualistic – like the ram itself, attacking head first, butting all those who would oppose it out of the way. One of the most characteristically Aries people of the modern world is Ian Paisley (born on April 6th 1926). He is fiercely individualistic, apparently incapable of negotiation or compromise, an initiator par excellence, who is prepared to take on all comers. Life for Ian Paisley is a battle. This is how he expressed his disapproval of the pope’s visit to the European Parliament in Strasbourg in 1988:


Ian Paisley: A typical Aries

 

This is the battle of the Ages which we are engaged in. This is no Sunday school picnic; this is a battle for truth against the lie, the battle of Heaven against hell, the battle of Christ against the Antichrist!’

 
Richard Dawkins – born on 26th March - is another Aries. He is Darwin’s champion, fearlessly challenging religion, even resurrecting the old idea of ‘warfare’ between religion and science. Never one to mince his words, Dawkins believes that astrologers are charlatans and should be put in jail, although he would no doubt be horrified to learn that his own attitudes actually demonstrate the truth of the ideas he is attacking! His equally disputatious colleague, Daniel Dennett, who is beating the rationalist, anti-religious drum in America, was born just a year and two days after Dawkins, on 28th March 1942. Christopher Hitchens (author of God is Not Great), born on 13th April 1949, and A.C Grayling (author of The God Argument) born just ten days earlier on 3rd April 1949, are two more Arien figures who are battling against religion.
            Of the great spiritual figures born under Aries, none is more typical or more appealing than the wonderful Teresa of Avila, who was born on 28th March 1515. She’s one of my very favourite saints. There’s nothing wishy-washy about Teresa. Her earliest desire was to become a martyr, and when she was a little girl she ran away from home just so that she could be captured and executed by the Moors! Fortunately, her uncle saw her trying to escape and brought her back. She’d only gone down the road. Her love for God was passionate, described by her in unambiguously erotic terms, and the famous Bernini statue of Teresa shows her lost in almost orgasmic rapture. Although she was a nun, and although at times she was said to levitate when lost in ecstasy at mass, she was certainly no recluse: she founded and ran a religious order, travelling by cart in Spain’s scorching heat to the various convents under her jurisdiction, suggesting improvements, disciplining backsliders, dealing with finances, all the while writing the most startling religious prose. She deliberately avoided marriage, which she considered a kind of slavery, making her into one of the great feminist figures of the past, and one of a number of Aries women who have fought the battle for female rights down the ages (the other sign with more than its fair share of feminists is Aquarius). Our own Maud Robinson (Unitarian minister in Edinburgh) who has written a great deal about adopting female imagery for God is an Aries. They are a force to be reckoned with!

St Teresa of Avila (Bernini)
 
Among the most Arien figures in the Bible is John the Baptist, the very first character we are introduced to in the Gospel of Mark. Mark doesn’t tell us very much about him, except to say that he was dressed in no-nonsense Aries style – a garment made from camel’s hair – and his diet didn’t have too many frills either; he existed on locusts and wild honey! In the Gospels of Matthew and Luke he lambastes the religious people of his day, calling them ‘a brood of vipers’ and threatening them with all manner of calamities if they don’t mend their ways. His plain speaking eventually brings about his downfall. His fearless but rather foolhardy rebuke of King Herod for marrying his sister-in-law, Herodias, gets him beheaded  – a most Arien death, since Aries was said to govern the head and was even called ‘The Lord of the Head’ by the Egyptians.

          The figure of Jesus that we meet in these early chapters of Mark is equally confrontational. He goes into battle against his religious opponents with breath-taking fervour and more than a dash of rashness. He takes on the Pharisees and the Scribes, and even tackles good old Satan himself, casting the devil out of various disturbed people, and claiming that the kingdom of Satan has been brought to an end. Maya Angelou, a great contemporary Arien figure (born 4th April 1928), says, ‘I love to see a young girl go out and grab the world by the lapels; life's a bitch; you've got to go out and kick ass,’ which is exactly what Jesus is shown to be doing. ‘Gentle Jesus meek and mild’? Forget it! That’s just religious sentimentality. This is Jesus kicking ass, and his ass kicking provokes the religious authorities so much that even sworn enemies, the patriotic Pharisees and the collaborative Herodians, are prepared to join forces to plot his death. 

            So, what are the spiritual lessons of Aries? There are a number of them, but, unfortunately, (or maybe fortunately!) we can’t deal with them all. (For a more comprehensive account you’ll have to see my book The Gospel and the Zodiac: The Secret Truth about Jesus.) Today I want to look briefly at two.

            The first is found in those passages where Jesus calls his first disciples. They read very strangely as history. Jesus simply says ‘Follow me!’ to James and John, and later to Levi, the tax collector, and, without further ado, they all leave everything behind and impetuously follow him. No lengthy conversations, you notice; no police checks on his background; no, ‘Give us a little time to think about it Jesus’. None of this; just, up and off. (Incidentally, James and John leave their father Zebedee in the boat ‘along with the hired men’. ‘The Hired Man’ was the name of the constellation Aries in ancient Babylon, a fact I discovered long after I’d developed my theory of Mark, but which made the hairs stand up on the back of my head when I discovered it.)

            These passages teach us that procrastination has no part to play in the spiritual life. If we dither around telling ourselves that we will begin our journey of self-transformation – which is what ‘living a spiritual life’ means – when circumstances are favourable, when we’ve found a congenial path, when we have more time, when the kids are grown, when we retire, then we might as well forget it. The Hindu sage, Sri Ramakrishna, tells the following story which illustrates this very point:   

           

A wife once spoke to her husband, saying, ‘My dear, I am very anxious about my brother. For the last few days he has been thinking of renouncing the world and of becoming a Sannyasin, and has begun preparations for it. He has been trying gradually to curb his desires and reduce his wants.’ The husband replied, ‘You need not be anxious about your brother. He will never become a Sannyasin. No one has ever renounced the world by making long preparations.’ The wife asked, ‘How then does one become a Sannyasin?’ The husband answered, ‘Do you wish to see how one renounces the world? Let me show you.’ Saying this, instantly he tore his flowing dress into pieces, tied one piece round his loins, told his wife that she and all women were henceforth his mother, and left the house never to return.

 
That’s the way to do it! As St. Paul says, ‘Now is the acceptable time; now is the day of salvation!’ That’s lesson one: stop wasting time; stop kidding yourself that once you’ve sorted out the historical problems of Christianity to your own satisfaction, and come to satisfactory conclusions about the existence of God and the nature of Jesus, you’ll start the process. Because you won’t. The path beckons. Get on it.
The Zodiacal Man
(Notice how Aries rules the head)
            Lesson two deals with another important aspect of the same procrastinating syndrome, and is brought out in the story of the paralysed man which we heard as our second reading this morning. You remember what happens: Jesus is teaching in somebody’s house, but the place is crowded; even the doorway is packed with people. Four men carrying a paralysed man on a stretcher find that their way to Jesus is barred, so they go up on the roof, make a hole in the thatching, and lower the man down to Jesus. (Remember: Aries represents the head – or the roof!) Jesus is amazed by the faith of all concerned, and he tells the man that his sins are forgiven, but this so incenses the Pharisees (‘How dare he presume to forgive sins!’ they say), that Jesus changes his tactics. ‘Okay,’ he says, ‘I won’t say “Your sins are forgiven”, I’ll say “Pick up your stretcher and walk!”’ which the man proceeds to do.

            When we stop bothering ourselves about the theological implications of the expression ‘Your sins are forgiven’, we can make some sense of this lovely story. It simply means, stop letting the past paralyse you. The man on the stretcher is you and I. We are all paralysed by the past, or, in the words of Aries writer Ram Dass (born April 6th 1931), ‘we are too busy holding on to our unworthiness’. We like the past, sins and all, because we are safe there. We know where we are with our habits and traditions. We may be, in fact we probably are, like Nasrudin in our children’s story, chewing ferociously on hot peppers, simply because that’s what we’ve always done. ‘Habit is a great deadener’ says Arien Samuel Beckett (born 13th April 1906) in ‘Waiting for Godot’. But now is the time to stop, to let the past go, to break with the comforting habits of thought and action we’ve allowed to cripple us for so long.

            Pick up that stretcher and walk!

            And do it today!

            These are two important lessons of Aries.
 
 
 
My book The Gospel and the Zodiac: The Secret Truth about Jesus is available for a mere £6.89 from
 
 

 

 



 

 

Monday, 18 March 2013

What's the Good News?


This sermon, first preached in Dublin in March 2007, is the first in a series of 27 sermons on the zodiacal structure of the Gospel of Mark. The others will appear on this blog at the rate of 2 per month.
 
I found, when I was teaching religious studies, that it often came as a shock to young people to discover that the word gospel means ‘good news’. ‘What’s good about it?’ some would ask. ‘It didn’t do St. Peter any good. He was crucified upside down; and St. Paul had his head chopped off; and all the other apostles seem to have met a similar, grisly fate.’ As the discussion developed, they would really start to list what they considered to be the negative aspects of the Christian enterprise. (Children, even children of pious parents, can be very irreverent!)

            After reciting the litany of problems endured - and caused - by Christians throughout the world, they would look at the impact of Christianity on their own lives. Far from it being ‘good news’, they saw it as little more than an arbitrary collection of rules designed to stop them having a good time. William Blake had made much the same point centuries ago:

 

And priests in black gowns

   Were walking their rounds,

   And binding with briars

   My joys and desires.

 

I can remember developing similar attitudes when I reached adolescence and began to question received wisdom a little. Our priests told us that Jesus died for us because he loved us, and this seemed like a decent thing for someone to do, but when we were told that the sacrifice was necessary because God the Father demanded it in payment for human sin it began to appear grotesque. And sin seemed to be everywhere; we had to be constantly on our guard against the temptations of the devil because just one slip up at the wrong time could put our souls in jeopardy. There were sins of omission and sins of commission; venial sins and mortal sins; sins crying out to heaven for vengeance; sins of thought, word, and deed. There may only have been seven deadly sins but there were thousands of others which could wound grievously. They were all deliciously appealing, of course, but were also capable of putting that black mark on the soul that would mean eternal hell for the really unfortunate, and aeons in purgatory for the rest. In school we talked about the categories of sin and the degrees of sinfulness and culpability. For example, when was stealing a mortal sin and when was it a venial sin? (In the fifties, £5 seemed to be the significant sum. Below £5 and it was venial; above £5 and it was mortal. What about four pounds nineteen shillings and eleven pence? Or five pounds and a penny? And what about inflation? Generally we were told to shut up at this point.) And then, of course, there were inappropriate thoughts, ‘dirty’ thoughts. Were they sinful?  Could I go to hell for entertaining those thoughts that were more entertaining than any others, and which seemed to my adolescent mind to be constantly present? Yes, was the disappointing answer.

And, we were told, God was looking all the time; maybe you could fool your mother or the police, but you couldn’t fool God. He had a little book and he was noting it all down. We prayed for the grace of final repentance, that death wouldn’t take us by surprise with unconfessed sins on our soul. The really scrupulous people – and I’ve known plenty over the years - could find themselves living in a perpetual state of anxiety.

How good was that news?

The Protestants didn’t fare much better. They didn’t have to go to church every week, nor eat fish on Fridays, nor go to confession to tell the priest the intimate details of their life, but they seemed to have equally onerous tasks to perform – reading the Bible, for example, which we Catholics didn’t seem to bother about – and some mysterious things called ‘being born again’, and ‘entering into a relationship with Jesus Christ’, all of which seemed to leave them with that dutiful joylessness, which had inspired the 19th century British poet Algernon Swinburne to write of Jesus,

 

Thou hast conquered, O pale Galilean

And the world has grown grey from thy breath.

 

So, the Protestants with their grey world didn’t seem to be the recipients of good news either.

I often envied my father. He was not a churchgoer but it never seemed to bother him. He didn’t have to worry about all the details concerning sin and God and judgement, nor did he seem to regret their absence from his life. I asked the teacher about my dad, and about my friends, who were similarly unconcerned by religious scruples. ‘Would they go to heaven?’ The reply was instructive. ‘Catholics have the best chance of heaven, but if a person lives a good life, according to the dictates of their conscience, and according to the extent of their knowledge of the laws of God, then it might be possible that they could be saved.’

      It was a reasonably humane reply, but it got me thinking. If sins were only sins if you knew they were sins, then surely it would be better not to know? I’m actually at a disadvantage, I began to think. The unchurched majority in our own society, and the billions of people who had never heard about God and Jesus and the ‘good news’ were really better off than I was! I was going to church every week just to hear stuff that was doing little more than increasing my chances of going to hell! And missionaries, far from being benefactors of the human race, as I’d been told, were actually its enemies. Leaving the pagans in ignorance would mean that they could enjoy their present life to the full and escape punishment after death. The good news was actually bad news! My adolescent mind savoured the paradox.

      Many years ago, Peter Cook and Dudley Moore performed a sketch about this particular problem. It ends with the pair musing about a group of ‘Ephiscans’ settling down to breakfast before going off for a day at the seaside. They are full of anticipation and excitement when a knock comes at the door. It’s the postman. He’s brought a letter from St. Paul. ‘Oh no!’ they say. ‘Trust Paul to spoil everything!’ And, sure enough, on opening the letter they find Paul’s simple instruction: ‘Dear Ephiscans, Stop enjoying yourselves. God’s about. Signed, Paul.’  

             Not terribly good news for the Ephiscans, either!

      The problem is that Christianity has not really convinced us that the kingdom of God – which is what the good news is supposed to be about – is really all that appealing. Some say that the kingdom is to be built on earth as a kind of economic and political utopia, others that it is a state of blessedness with God after death; but, either way, there is always the implication that it is a kind of colourless existence, under the watchful all-seeing eye of a celestial Gillian McKeith, who will bully us into joyless conformity.

      But this was never the original message of Jesus. His message, his ‘good news’ was very simple: the longed for kingdom of God is here already (Mark 1:15). Of course, if Jesus was promising an economic or political utopia, he was completely mistaken; if anything, things were to get worse for the Jews, and two thousand years later a just and equitable political system still eludes us. But the kingdom of God, as Jesus understood it, is a state of being, not a social arrangement. Entry into the kingdom requires a complete change of mind, a willingness to re-orientate our perceptions. This is the meaning of the Greek word metanoia, which is generally translated as ‘repentance’, but which involves much more than regret for past actions, and it certainly doesn’t mean ‘confessing our sins’. It implies a resolution to begin again from the beginning, to make a fundamental alteration to the way one looks at the world, which St. Paul calls ‘transformation by the renewing of the mind’ (Romans 12:2). Luke’s Gospel tells us that ‘The kingdom of God does not come visibly, nor will people say, ‘’Here it is,’ or ‘There it is,’ because the kingdom of God is within you’ (Luke 17:21). From the Gnostic Gospel of Thomas we learn, ‘The kingdom of the Father is already spread out on the earth, and people aren’t aware of it’ (saying 113), which means that the kingdom of God is not something that we can create with political action and economic redistribution (important though these may be), nor is it something that will be imposed upon us by divine intervention; it is instead something we can discover by correcting our eyesight.

      The Sufis, Islam’s mystics, tell the story of how Nasrudin, the ‘holy fool’, would take his donkey across a frontier every day, its panniers loaded with straw. The customs inspector suspected the increasingly prosperous Nasrudin of smuggling, but despite regular and extensive searches, he could never find any contraband. Years later, when both were retired, they met in the marketplace. ‘I know you were smuggling something,’ said the customs officer. ‘What was it? You can tell me now.’

      ‘Donkeys,’ replied Nasrudin.

      The story illustrates the Sufi contention - shared by Jesus - that the mystical goal, the kingdom of God, is nearer than is generally realised. In fact, it is here, ‘at hand’, but we are so busy looking for something else that we never find it. The mystic poet and painter William Blake, who stands in a similar esoteric tradition, writes:

 

To the eyes of a miser a guinea is far more beautiful than the sun, and a bag worn with use of money has more beautiful proportions than a vine filled with grapes. The tree which moves some to tears of joy is in the eyes of others only a green thing which stands in the way.  As a man is, so he sees.  As the eye is formed, such are its powers.....

            ‘When the sun rises, do you not see a round disc of fire, somewhat like a guinea?’ ‘O no, no, I see an innumerable company of the heavenly host crying, “Holy, holy, holy is the Lord God Almighty”....................If the doors of perception were cleansed every thing would appear to man as it is, infinite.

For man has closed himself up, till he sees all things through narrow chinks of his cavern....

      For everything that lives is holy. (Haddon, pages 12-13).

 

To see the world as Blake saw it is to become a citizen of the Kingdom of God, and the good news is not that the kingdom is something to build, or something to ‘get into’ when we die, it is something to discover while we are still alive. And, what’s more, it is possible to discover it, to open up those narrow chinks in the caverns of our minds, to cleanse the doors of perception, in the words of Blake, or to discover, as Thoreau discovered, that ‘reality is fabulous’! And when we do, our individual and communal lives will be immeasurably enriched.

            This is the real promise of the gospel. This is the real ‘good news’, and the gospels themselves are guidebooks to the journey of transformation. They are not history for us to believe or to become sentimental about. It is my belief that the original gospel message gave us a map of the road towards transformation based on the metaphor of the sun’s passage through the signs of the zodiac. The document that we call the Gospel of Mark preserves this original sequence. It begins in the spring, and throughout the coming year I will be giving sermons which point out the various spiritual lessons that the Gospel of Mark teaches us. The first of these sermons will be on 25th March, and will concern the first three chapters of Mark, which, I believe, are related to the zodiac sign of Aries, the sign of the springtime.
 
These ideas are explored in detail in my book The Gospel and the Zodiac: The Secret Truth about Jesus. Available at a very modest £6.89 (saving £3.10) from http://www.amazon.co.uk/Gospel-Zodiac-Secret-Truth-About/dp/0715637703/ref=sr_1_1?s=books&ie=UTF8&qid=1363618698&sr=1-1