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
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. Evil Sea
Reading: Mark 2:1-12
A few days after he'd gone back to
, 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!' Capernaum
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
in 1988: Strasbourg
|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
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. Darwin
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)|
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
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
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. St. Paul
|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