Saturday, 22 June 2013

Cancer (1): Turning Back



Cancer, by Dan Hodgkin


Cancer is the sign of the summer solstice, when the sun begins to reverse its direction. The symbol of Cancer is the crab, a curious, scuttling creature which has its skeleton on the outside and which carries its house on its back. Cancer symbolises the urge to protect and to nourish and is associated with the family, the nation, traditions, memory - ‘the flag, mom, and apple pie’. Its virtue is loyalty, its vice clannishness, its motto, ‘Blood is thicker than water’. Along with its ‘ruler’ the moon, it is said to govern the stomach. The name of one of its stars, Ma’alaph means ‘numbered thousands’. Its decans are Ursa Major and Ursa Minor – The Great Bear and the Little Bear – and Argo, ‘the ship that conquered the waters’. Notice the strange ‘crab like’ journey Jesus makes in 7:31. (See map)




Mark 6:30-44



T
he apostles came back to Jesus and told him everything they’d done and taught. There was so much to-ing and fro-ing that they’d not had a chance to eat, so he said to them, ‘Come. Go off by yourselves to a secluded place and rest for a while.’ They went off in the boat by themselves to a deserted spot, but many people who’d seen and recognised them as they were setting off ran on foot from all the towns and arrived at the place before them. When Jesus disembarked he saw a huge crowd and he was moved with pity for them because they were like sheep without a shepherd. He began to teach them many things. It was already late and his disciples came up to him and said, ‘This place is off the beaten track and it’s getting late. Send the crowds away so that they can go into the surrounding towns and villages to buy themselves something to eat.’ Jesus replied, ‘You give them something to eat.’ They said, ‘It would cost six months’ wages to feed them all!’ He said to them, ‘Go and see how many loaves you have.’ When they’d found out they said, ‘Five, and two fish.’ He told the people to sit in groups on the green grass, so they sat down in groups of fifty or a hundred, looking like so many garden plots. Taking the five loaves and the two fish and looking up to heaven, he blessed and broke the bread and gave it to his disciples to distribute. He also divided up the two fish. They all ate their fill and, after five thousand men had eaten, there was enough bread and fish left over to fill twelve baskets.



Mark 8: 1-10

 In those days, when once again there was a big crowd of people with nothing to eat, he called his disciples and said to them, ‘I’m concerned about the crowd because they’ve been with me three days and they’ve not eaten. If I send them off home hungry they’ll faint on the way, and some of them come from far away. His disciples replied, ‘Where can anyone get enough bread to satisfy these people in this lonely place. Jesus asked them, ‘How many loaves have you got?’ ‘Seven,’ they said. He gave orders to the crowd to sit down on the ground, and taking the seven loaves he gave thanks, broke them, and gave them to the disciples who distributed them to the crowd. They also had a few little fish, and when he’d blessed them he told them to distribute these too. They ate their fill, and they collected up seven baskets full of leftovers. There were about for thousand men. Finally he let them all go.

Story: The Monkeys and the Caps

Aurangzeb sold caps for a living. He would travel to a village, set up his stall in the market place and sell his caps to the locals. One day, while travelling from one village to the next, he was very tired. The sun was shining, and he’d had a busy morning, so he put down his heavy sack of caps and sat down in the shade of a mango tree for a snooze. After an hour or so he woke up refreshed, but when he picked up his sack he found that it was empty. ‘Where are my caps?’ he thought. ‘I’m sure this sack was nearly full when I went to sleep.’  Just then he looked up into the tree and he saw a gang of monkeys each with a cap on its head. ‘Hey, those are my caps!’ shouted Aurangzeb. ‘Give them back to me!’ But the monkeys just seemed to mock him, imitating his shout. So he pulled a funny face, and each of the monkeys pulled a funny face, too. But they wouldn’t give him back his caps. He picked up a stone and threw it at the monkeys. They responded by throwing mangoes at him. He was really angry now, and in his frustration, he took off his own cap and threw it to the ground. The monkeys took off their caps and threw them to the ground! They were imitating him! Without further ado, Aurangzeb picked up all the caps from the grass, put them in his sack, and went on his way, thinking how clever he’d been to outsmart the monkeys.
     Fifty years later, Habib, Aurangzeb’s grandson, was selling caps. He’d inherited the family business. He was travelling from one village to the next on a hot day, and he felt he needed a rest. He sought out the shade of a mango tree, put down his sack of caps, and sat down for a snooze. He woke refreshed after an hour, but when he picked up his sack he found it was empty. ‘Where are my caps?’ he asked himself. ‘I’m sure this sack was nearly full when I went to sleep.’ Then he looked up into the trees and saw dozens of monkeys, each with a cap on his head.  How could he possibly get them back? Then something stirred in his brain. He remembered a story his grandfather had told him many years ago, about how he’d outwitted some monkeys by getting them to imitate him. So Habib stood up. He put up his right arm; the monkeys put up their right arms. Habib put up his left arm; the monkeys did the same. Habib scratched his nose; the monkeys scratched their noses. He pulled a face, rocked from side to side, stood on one leg. Each time the monkeys copied him. Then…….Habib took off his cap and threw it to the ground. The monkeys didn’t respond. So Habib tried again. He put up his right arm, his left arm; he scratched his nose, he pulled a face, rocked from side to side, stood on one leg. Each time the monkeys imitated his actions. Once again he put his hand to his head, took off his cap and threw it to the ground. No response from the monkeys.
            Feeling miserable, Habib picked up his empty sack and began to walk back home. He hadn’t gone far when he felt a tap on his shoulder. He looked round and saw a monkey with a big smile on its face. ‘Do you think you’re the only one with a grandfather?’ asked the monkey.
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This sermon was given in Dublin on 24th June 2007


‘War is God’s way of teaching Americans Geography.’
Ambrose Bierce

Last Thursday, the 21st June, would have been my father’s one hundredth birthday. He was born on 21st June 1907 but, sadly, he died just a little short of his 72nd birthday, in April of 1979. The 21st of June is also the anniversary of my ordination as a Unitarian minister. I became a minister on 21st June 1994 at a ceremony held in Unitarian college Manchester, where I had been a student.
            So, the 21st June has special significance for me. But the significance of the day extends beyond my own parochial concerns. June 21st is the day of the summer solstice, the longest day of the year, the day on which the sun seems to change direction. Since last December, the sun has been moving higher and higher in the skies of the northern hemisphere; now it begins its slow journey downwards, the days becoming gradually shorter and shorter until, on December 21st, when there is barely any daylight, it will change direction once again
            These two solstice points – along with the two equinoxes - always had great significance for our ancestors, who were much more aware of these celestial cycles than we are, and who celebrated the ‘stations’ of the sun with parties and bonfires, singing and storytelling. Ancient sites in Ireland and Britain testify to the importance of the solstices to ancient peoples. Newgrange is primarily associated with the winter solstice, but Stonehenge marks the summer solstice, and there would have been plenty of activity around these two sites on Thursday last, as well as on the Hill of Tara in Co. Meath, and at Dowth in the Boyne valley. In some parts of the world, there have been revivals of ancient dances, in which men and women move in snake-like procession through the streets, imitating the undulating movements of the sun in its yearly cycle through the heavens.
            Today, Sunday the 24th June, is St. John the Baptist’s Day, exactly six months before Christmas Eve because, you remember, St. John the Baptist was said to be six months older than Jesus, and the Gospels consistently contrast these two figures, associating them, in my opinion, with the two solstices. Jesus, ‘the light of the world’, is born when the light is born in December; John is associated with the midsummer, when the light starts to decline. As John himself says in the Fourth Gospel, ‘He (meaning Jesus) must increase, but I must decrease’ (John 3:30)
The Sun rising over Stonehenge
             
On the day of the summer solstice the sun enters the zodiacal sign of Cancer, the Crab, but the crab is only one of a number of creatures that have been used as images of this sign: the tortoise, the crayfish, and the lobster have at various times and in various cultures been used to represent Cancer. These creatures have one thing in common; they seem to be embodiments of the principal of reversal, because they appear to be constructed inside out. The crab’s skeletal system is on the outside – as anyone who has tried to eat one will be aware. What’s more, the crab moves in a strange way, scuttling rather than walking directly, moving forwards, backwards, and sideways in an apparently random fashion. This may give us a clue as to why Jesus is shown making such an apparently ridiculous journey in chapter 7 of Mark’s Gospel. The text tells us that he went from the region of Tyre and Sidon to the Sea of Galilee through the middle of the Decapolis. If you consult a map of the area (see below), you will see how strange this journey is; it has been compared with travelling from 

Jesus’ strange journey: ‘And again, coming out of the region of Tyre he went through Sidon to the Sea of Galilee up (through) the middle of the Decapolis’ (Mark 7:31)

London to Cornwall via Manchester, and it has given scholars no end of trouble for centuries, and fuelled numerous theories. It shows that Mark didn’t know his geography too well, they say, or that he was probably not a native of the area. But, in reality, it is a little joke by the Gospel’s author. It shows a crab-like, scuttling, to-ing and fro-ing movement, and it is Mark’s way of putting yet another Cancerian signature on this section of his Gospel.
            The zodiacal sign Cancer reflects the crab in a number of curious ways. People born at this time of the year often present a hard shell to the world, as a means of protecting an extremely vulnerable inside. Cancerian people are highly emotional, but guarded and defensive, with a strong sense of family identity, an appreciation of
Marcel Proust: Typical Cancerian
traditional values, and a concern for history and ancestry. The past has an enormous influence on the strongly Cancerian person, and it is absolutely appropriate that the world’s greatest literary celebration of the past, Marcel Proust’s A La R├ęcherche du Temps Perdu – Remembrance of Things Past – should have been written by a Cancerian. Proust was born on July 10th 1871, and, according to his biographers, he spent much of his time wrapped, crab like, in a cocoon of blankets.
Cancerians are nurturers and protectors, figuratively putting their arms around those close to them, in an attempt to shield them from life’s vicissitudes.
America, ‘born on the 4th of July’, is a Cancerian country. This sounds absurd to the modern ear: ‘How can a whole country be represented by a single image, and have a collective identity?’ we ask. And yet, on one level, these attributions do seem to be appropriate. The iconic images of American life – ‘the flag, mom, and apple pie’- are all connected with Cancer, as is food in general, and popcorn, another iconic American image, is itself an expression of the Cancerian desire to eat forever and never get full or fat! In the figure of the zodiacal man, Cancer is shown as being associated with the stomach. (Incidentally, archetypal Cancerian Proust was constantly plagued by his stomach. Apparently he informed his doctor that he couldn’t even drink a whole glass of Vichy water at bedtime without being kept awake by intolerable stomach pains. And what is it that sparks off the remembrance of things past? A madeleine, a plump little cake which looks as if it had been moulded in a scallop shell! And what job did Proust say he would like to do if he weren’t a writer? Bake bread! Cancer again. The universe is a strange place!)
The Crab manifests in other ways in the American psyche, and I was amused in the 1980s when President Reagan began proposing his ‘star wars’ project, whose intention was to place a ‘protective shell’ around America to keep out all enemy missiles: ‘protective shell’ was the actual term used. The so-called Monroe Doctrine – American isolationism – is another political expression of Cancer, as is the persistent call for those ‘family values’ which all American politicians must claim to espouse if they are to have any success whatsoever at the polls. Even the apparent obsession of American visitors to Europe with discovering their ancestry, and explaining with some precision that they are one eighth English, two fifths Danish and three tenths Cherokee, reflects the sign Cancer, and it is strange to think that Mormonism, the one major world religion which can claim a uniquely American birth, has a preoccupation with genealogy as one of its distinguishing characteristics. You may be inclined to retort, rationalists that you are, that the American obsession with genealogy is simply a feature of their colonial past. A good try, but it won’t work. You don’t find nearly the same preoccupation with ancestry among Australians and New Zealanders.
And, of course, we may tend to think of Americans as great world travellers, but, in reality, they are not. Only 21% of Americans hold passports. While researching this figure on Google, I came across the following on a website called Yale Global:

As the world becomes accustomed to the American way of life, Americans are tuning out the rest of the world. US citizens have paid less and less attention to foreign affairs since the 1970s......... The number of university students studying foreign languages has declined, and fewer Americans travel overseas than their counterparts in other developed countries. News coverage of foreign affairs has also decreased. Why are Americans withdrawing from the global village?

‘Withdraw into your shell.’ It’s a perfect image of Cancer. Yesterday, having completed this sermon, I settled down to read the Guardian, and what did I find? An article by the American novelist Sara Paretsky which reinforces this very point.

In America today, we seem to prize the self-reliant ideal more than ever. In fact, so much do we prize it that we don’t want to pay taxes to support the common good. In one hyper-wealthy Silicon Valley town, where houses commonly sell for more than $2m, the streets are full of potholes: when I visited, I was told that town residents would rather ruin their own cars than pay taxes so that someone else could drive in safety.
The American dream is of a private home with a private yard, in which each child has their own room, their own iPod, their own computer, and, by the time they’re 12 or even younger, their own mobile phone. We spend our waking moments plugged into our Game Boys. We seem to withdraw as far as possible from each other encased in our own worlds. (Guardian Review 23/6/07)

Strange, isn’t it, that another great icon of America, Walden, by Thoreau, which every American child has to read, and which has become a Bible of self-reliance describes a withdrawal from normal society and an attempt to live in virtual isolation. Thoreau was born on 12th July 1817, making him a Cancerian.
Withdrawal, ancestry, traditions, clannishness, food; these are all associated with the sign Cancer – although I must stress that they are not the exclusive concerns of people born in late June and early July; they are human preoccupations and tendencies, and all human beings have to come to terms with them. These are the principal themes of this little section of Mark’s Gospel (from 6:31-8:26) as even a cursory glance will show. The only episode that seems a little out of place is the account of Jesus walking on the Water, but even this relates to Cancer, since Cancer is a Water sign and Jesus’ ability to walk on the water is a symbolic account of the spiritually evolved person’s dominance over the turbulent emotions symbolised from time immemorial by the waves of the sea. In addition, one of the decans of Cancer, that is, one of its surrounding constellations, is Argo, the magical ship of the Jason and the Argonauts which was said by the Roman writer Manilius to be ‘the ship that conquered the water’. Here Jesus, whose name, by the way, is just another variation of the name Jason, is shown making a symbolic conquest of his own.
            But the dominant image of this whole section concerns food. It begins with the account of the Feeding of the Five Thousand (which occurs, you notice, after Jesus asks the apostles ‘to withdraw’ for a while), and it goes on to discuss the Jewish obsession with dietary laws, the tradition of ritual cleansing before food, and later it deals with ‘the leaven’ or yeast of the Pharisees. We’ve only got time today to look very briefly at the feeding stories. Notice, there are two of them. This has given headaches to traditional commentators for many years, some scholars suggesting that Mark included two accounts of the same event, showing himself to be less than a competent historian – just as Jesus’ strange journey shows Mark to be a poor geographer. Liberal scholars who view the Gospel as ‘exaggerated history’ will often explain these stories by saying that all the people really had food hidden away, but they were too mean to advertise the fact; but after listening to Jesus they were ashamed of their selfishness and willingly shared what they had and everyone was satisfied. But this kind of explanation – harmless enough in its way – is rather patronising to the Gospel’s author, implying that he allowed evangelistic piety to cloud his judgement.
            But the author of this Gospel was no fool to be patronised, still less was he a poor historian or a poor geographer. In my view he was nothing short of a genius, and he knew perfectly well what he was doing. He deliberately has two feeding stories because he wants to make a very important point relating to Jewish clannishness. The stories are indeed the same except for a few details. But the details are crucial to a proper understanding of their meaning. Bread and fish are used in both – for reasons which we will discuss on another occasion[iv] - but while the feeding of the Five Thousand takes place in Jewish territory, the feeding of the Four thousand occurs in a predominantly Gentile area. And the numbers are significant. In the feeding of the Five Thousand, the predominant numbers are 5 and 12 – ‘Jewish’ numbers – the ‘five’ reflecting the five books of Moses, the Pentateuch, considered to be Judaism’s holiest books; and the 12 representing the twelve tribes of Israel. So, in this incident, Jesus is shown feeding the Jews. The predominant numbers in the other incident are 7 and 4, readily identified as ‘Gentile’ numbers: the Jews believed that there were 70 Gentile nations (the zero is irrelevant in this kind of numerology) scattered around the ‘four corners’ of the earth.
            So, the two stories show that God’s spiritual ‘manna’ is to be distributed to all people, not just to the Jews, and read together, they constitute an attack on the narrow exclusivism and parochialism which characterised much Jewish thinking at the time the Gospel was written, and which have characterised much religious thought and practice before and since that time. Taken together, these stories ask the same question the monkey asked in the story I told the children this morning: ‘Do you think you’re the only one with a grandfather?’ Or, to put it another way: Do you think that your people are the only people who have traditions? Do you think that God only speaks through your prophets and your religion? We will explore these vital issues again next week when we will have another look at the Cancerian section of Mark’s Gospel. 




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