|Leo, by Dan Hodgkin|
Jesus and his disciples went into the villages of Caesarea Philippi and on the way he asked his disciples, ‘Who do men say that the son of man is?’ They said to him, ‘Some say John the Baptist; others Elijah; others, one of the prophets.’ He said to them, ‘But who do you say that I am?’ Peter answered, ‘You are the Christ!’ And he ordered them to tell no one about him. He started to teach them that the son of man must suffer many things, and be rejected by the elders, and the chief priests and the legal experts, and be killed but after three days rise again. And he was telling them plainly. Peter drew him aside and started to take him to task, but Jesus turned, looked at his disciples, and reprimanded Peter. ‘Get behind me, Satan!’ he said. ‘Your thoughts are men’s thoughts, not God’s thoughts!’
He called the crowd and his disciples together and said to them, ‘If anyone wants to come after me, let him take up his cross and follow me. For whoever wants to save his soul will lose it; but whoever loses his soul for my sake and the sake of the good news will save it. What benefit is it for a man to gain the whole world and forfeit his soul? What would a man give in exchange for his soul? Whoever is ashamed of me and my words in this faithless and sinful generation, the son of man will be ashamed of him when he comes in the glory of his father with the holy angels.’
He said to them, ‘I’m telling you the truth: there are some people standing here who will not taste death until they see the kingdom of God come in its power.
After six day Jesus took Peter, James and John by themselves up into a high mountain, where he was transfigured before them. His clothing shone with intense whiteness, a whiteness which no bleaching agent on earth could possibly match. Elijah and Moses appeared to them, and were talking with Jesus. Peter, dreadfully frightened like the others and not knowing what to say, responded with, ‘Rabbi, it is wonderful for us to be here. Let us make three tents: one for you, one for Moses, and one for Elijah.’ Then a voice issued from an overshadowing cloud, ‘This is my son, the beloved. Listen to him!’ Suddenly, looking round, they saw no one with them, only Jesus.
Story: An Eagle among the Chickens
A farmer found an eagle’s egg and put it in the nest of one of his hens. When the egg hatched, the little eagle found himself among dozens of chickens. He thought of them as his brothers and sisters, and as he grew up with them he became like them. He never learned to fly. Sometimes he would flap his wings a little, just as he saw the hens doing, but, like them, he never really got off the ground. Sometimes, in his dreams, he would seem to be a great bird, carrying off small animals in a strong beak to his nest way up at the top of a high mountain, but when he awoke he would content himself with scraps from the farmer’s table, and grubs from the ground.
One day, when he was old, an eagle flew over the farm. ‘What’s that magnificent bird?’ he asked his friend.
‘That’s an eagle, the king of the birds. It can fly as high as the sun, and the whole world is its playground. No other bird can match it for power and beauty, and grace.’
The eagle who thought he was a chicken looked longingly at the eagle in the sky. ‘How I wish I could be like that eagle! How wonderful it would be to be free like him! But I’m just a chicken, and I’ll have to live my life here on the ground, and never soar into the sky!’
So, the eagle who hatched among the chickens lived his whole life like a chicken, because that’s what he’d been told he was, and that’s what he thought he was.
Sermon given in Dublin Unitarian Church, 5th August, 2007
‘Who do men say that I am?’
Jesus said: ‘One who knows everything else, but who does not know himself, knows nothing.’
(Gospel of Thomas, saying 67).
If you were to be asked the question, ‘Who are you?’ how would you answer? No doubt you have been asked the question many times, and you have probably responded by giving your name. ‘I’m Bill Darlison,’ I’ve said on numerous such occasions. When pressed I could easily extend my answer by describing my physical features, giving my age, my address, mentioning the various roles I play in life – husband, brother, uncle, minister, etc., and then maybe talking a little bit about my interests and predilections. Does this do it? Do these few sentences give an adequate account of my identity?
Some people would say that they do. I am the sum total of the roles I play and the relationships I form. I have no identity beyond these things. There is no ‘Self’ which stands outside, no intrinsic, internal ‘I’. I am my physical actions and my brain patterns, a pretty sophisticated mechanism, no doubt, - ‘thinking meat’ in the words of our second reading today - but a mechanism nevertheless.
Even those aspects of myself which I consider might tell against such a point of view – the sense that there is an interior ‘I’ which is in control, or the feeling that my mind transcends my physical self in some way – these, say certain philosophers and scientists, are just fictions. Your mind is simply a by-product of your brain chemistry, your sense of self an illusion. In fact, in the words of the scientist Dean Hamer, ‘we follow the basic law of nature, which is that we’re a bunch of chemical reactions running around in a bag’ (Time Magazine, 29th November, 2004). Or, as some other anonymous writer put it, even more succinctly, ‘We are just hairy bags of chemicals.’
I have quite a collection of these scientific and philosophical assessments of the human being. I began to collect them when I spotted something written by Marcus Chown in the Guardian about a decade ago: ‘A total eclipse confronts us with a truth we would rather not face. The truth is that we live on a tiny clod of cold clay in an insignificant corner of an infinite cosmos. In the great scheme of things, our lives are of no importance whatsoever.’ Chown’s sentiments were echoed a few years later, by Jim Herrick, editor of the New Humanist magazine, who spoke of, ‘The puniness of the self in the face of the vastness of the universe.’ And George Monbiot, who writes on ecology in the Guardian, is no less stark in his assessment: ‘Darwinian evolution,’ he writes, ‘tells us that we are incipient compost: assemblages of complex molecules that – for no greater purpose than to secure sources of energy against competing claims – have developed the ability to speculate. After a few score years, the molecules disaggregate and return whence they came. Period. As a gardener and ecologist I find this oddly comforting’ (Guardian, 16th August, 2005).
I was going to say that these viewpoints are almost exclusively male, but then, yesterday, curious as to whether Saturday’s Guardian would supply me with some material for Sunday’s sermon (as it has regularly done in the past!), I came across this little piece on the penultimate page of the Review. In a review of a new book edited by John Brockman, in which 100 eminent thinkers are asked, ‘What’s Your Dangerous Idea?’ the psychologist Susan Blackmore is quoted as saying that her dangerous idea is that even her contribution to the book is merely the result of ‘memes competing in the pointless universe’. Her idea is even considered ‘chilling’ by the book’s reviewer, P.D. Smith (Guardian Review, page 16, 4th August 2007).
Hairy bags of chemicals. Incipient compost. Speculating complex molecules. Competing memes. Insignificant. Puny. This is who – what - you are according to these thinkers. You are a cosmic accident, a carrier of a selfish gene, which simply wants to reproduce itself. Once your reproductive life is over, you are cast aside by Nature. You have outlived your usefulness. This is the new philosophical ‘chic’. It’s tough, but, as Richard Dawkins says, ‘It’s true. So deal with it.’
I don’t know whether, as a species, we are dealing with it adequately. Perhaps we can never deal with it. What price morality when, ultimately, a human being is worthless? I’m not saying that people who hold such a point of view cannot behave ethically; this would be a terrible slur on numerous such people of high moral calibre, but I sometimes wonder whether they adhere to their high principles in spite of rather than because of their philosophical convictions, and whether people like Trotsky, who declared that we must ‘rid ourselves once and for all of the Quaker-Papist babble about the sanctity of human life’, or Stalin who said, ‘One death is a tragedy, but a million deaths just a statistic,’ were not being more faithful to the contemporary scientific and philosophical ethos.
How different such points of view from the one they are seeking to replace! The one we find in the world’s spiritual traditions, which teach us that, far from being expendable accidental products of blind natural forces, we are infinitely precious beings, ‘made in the image of God’, intrinsic parts of the whole economy of the universe. The Psalmist puts it like this:
For you created my inmost being;
you knit me together in my mother’s womb.
I praise you because I am fearfully and wonderfully made;
your works are wonderful, I know that full well.
My frame was not hidden from you when I was made in the secret place;
When I was woven together in the depths of the earth,
Your eyes saw my unformed body.
All the days ordained for me
were written in your book
before one of them came to be. (Psalm 139)
And the writer of Psalm 8, as perplexed by the vastness of the universe as Marcus Chown or Jim Herrick, comes to the opposite conclusion:
When I consider your heavens, the work of your fingers,
The moon and the stars which you have set in place,
What is man that you are mindful of him,
The son of man that you care for him?
And yet you have made him a little lower than the heavenly beings,
And crowned him with glory and honour.’ (Psalm 8)
Shakespeare (in Hamlet Act 2, Scene 2) has Hamlet declare, ‘What a piece of work is Man! How noble in reason! How infinite in Faculty! In form and moving how express and admirable! In action How like an angel! In apprehension how like a god! The beauty of the world! The paragon of animals!’ (Although, he also says that we are a ‘quintessence of dust’)
Ralph Waldo Emerson, poet, philosopher, and one-time Unitarian minister, sums up this alternative point of view in one sentence: ‘Man is a god in ruins’, he declares.
So, you take your choice. Maybe we have to say that the conclusion we come to depends on when we ask the question – at some times we feel like gods, at others like the universe’s flotsam and jetsam. Maybe we can be intellectually convinced by the scientists, and emotionally convinced by the religionists. However we answer the question, we can’t escape it, and this time of the year is a particularly good time to ask it because the zodiacal sign Leo, which the sun entered on 22nd July, is the sign which, to the ancient astrologers, symbolised the intrinsic identity of the human being. It’s not too difficult to see why this is appropriate: the sun, the ‘heart’ of the universe, symbolic of consciousness, is at its most powerful at this time of the year (in the northern hemisphere, of course, where this kind of thinking developed), and people born around this time do seem to display a strong sense of their own individuality and worth regardless of their philosophical convictions. Leo is the ‘aristocrat’ of the zodiac, and those in whom the principle operates most strongly like to be ‘king’ and ‘queen’ of their own circle, no matter how restricted. There is often a strong need for self-display, for being ‘centre stage’, which can manifest as superiority and bossiness. The lion, ‘king of the jungle’ has been associated with this time of the year for millennia.
But that sense of pride and pre-eminence are just the psychological expressions of the essence of the sign. To the ancient astrologers Leo, whose principal star is called Regulus, the little king, was ‘the sign of divine splendour’, the sign of the sun’s greatest power, its all-consuming fire and all-illuminating light reflecting the very energy, power, and might of God. All the zodiac signs were said to be ‘ruled’ by one of the planets, some planets ruling two signs each. But only one sign is ruled by the sun: Leo.
How appropriate, then, that the Leo section of the Gospel of Mark – the section which, I am sure, the earliest Christians would have read at this time of the year – should deal with this question of identity. ‘Who do men say that the son of man is?’ asks Jesus of his apostles at Caesarea Philippi. I don’t want to go into the vexed and complicated question about Jesus’ role as Messiah. (I deal with the issue in the Leo chapter of my book.) What I want to say this morning is that the term ‘son of man’, which we have learned to interpret as some kind of messianic title, really just means ‘human being’. Idiomatically, in Hebrew, ‘son of’ means ‘one who has the qualities of’, so ‘son of righteousness’ means ‘a righteous person’, and ‘son of perdition’ means ‘a rotter’. So ‘son of man’ means ‘human being’! We heard it earlier in Psalm 8: ‘What is man that you are mindful of him, and the son of man that you keep him in mind?’ ‘Man’ and ‘son of man’ are synonyms. So Jesus’ question, ‘Who do men say that the son of man is?’ is really ‘What does it mean to be a human being?’
And what is Peter’s answer? ‘You are the Christ, the son of the living God!’ The story of Jesus is not, as I keep repeating, the history of one man; it is the journey of the human soul on its way to enlightenment, and I venture to suggest that in the Christian mysteries which preceded the institutional church, this section of the Gospel was explained to initiates as meaning, ‘You, a human being, are God’s anointed one. You are God’s specially chosen one. You are a son or daughter of God’. Matthew Fox, one time Dominican priest, but now a priest of the Episcopal (Anglican) Church in America, says about this passage:
The name ‘Christ’ means ‘the anointed one’. All of us are anointed ones. We are all royal persons, creative, godly, divine, persons of beauty and of grace. We are all Cosmic Christs, ‘other Christs’. But what good is this if we do not know it? Everyone is a sun of God as well as a son or daughter of God, but very few believe it or know it. The ones who do Meister Eckhart calls ‘the enlightened ones.’ (Original Blessing, page 137).
Put these things in modern dress. ‘What, according to contemporary thinkers, is a human being?’ Some say, ‘a cosmic accident’; others ‘a hairy bag of chemicals’; others, ‘incipient compost’. But what do you say a human being is? This is the mystic’s answer: ‘A human being is an infinitely precious child of God, an irreplaceable spark of the divine, with a glorious and eternal destiny.’ You may appear to be a nobody, but in reality you are a royal personage. You have been told that you are a lowly chicken, but in essence you are a superb eagle. And so is everyone else. Now this, I suggest, is the basis for a genuine morality.
|The Transfiguration, by Raphael|
This is the real meaning of these strange stories, and I’m sure the earliest Christians did approach them in this way. One clue that this is so lies in the celebration of the Feast of the Transfiguration. Do you know when it is? Tomorrow. August 6th, when the sun is in the very centre of Leo. Tomorrow Catholics will be proclaiming the undoubted truth that Jesus was a manifestation of God; but the higher truth is that we all are.
My book The Gospel and the Zodiac: The Secret Truth about Jesus is available for a mere £6.89 from
My book The Gospel and the Zodiac: The Secret Truth about Jesus is available for a mere £6.89 from