Friday, 21 March 2014

Pisces (2): Resurrection

Mark: Chapter 16

When the Sabbath was over, Mary Magdalene and Mary the mother of James and Salome bought spices with which to anoint him. Very early in the morning, on the first day of the week, they came to the tomb. The sun had risen. They were saying to each other, ‘Who will roll away the stone from the door of the tomb for us?’ But when they looked up they saw that the stone had already been rolled away, even though it was very large. Going inside the tomb they saw a young man dressed in white sitting on the right hand side. They were astonished. He said to them, ‘Don’t be so shocked! You are looking for Jesus the Nazarene, the one who was crucified; but he has been raised up. He’s not here. See the place where they laid him. Go and tell his disciples and Peter that he is going on ahead to Galilee. You will see him there, just as he told you.
      When they came out they ran away from the tomb because they were trembling with astonishment. And they said nothing to anyone because they were afraid. 

Story: The Elephant and the Rope

This is the procedure adopted by circus trainers to ensure that elephants never rebel – and I suspect it is also what happens with a lot of people.

When still a baby, the elephant is tethered by a very thick rope to a stake hammered into the ground. The elephant tries several times to get free, but it lacks the strength to do so.

After a year, the stake and the rope are still strong enough to keep a small elephant tethered, although it continues to try, unsuccessfully, to get free. At this point, the animal realises that the rope will always be too strong and so it gives up.

When it reaches adulthood, the elephant still remembers how, for a long time, it had wasted its energies trying to escape captivity. At this stage, the trainer can tether the elephant with a slender thread tied to a broom handle, and the elephant will make no attempt to escape to freedom



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Written in March 2008




Tolstoy’s novel Resurrection (sometimes called The Awakening) was first published in 1899 when he was 71 years old. A couple of decades earlier, he had experienced something of a religious conversion and this novel, his final one, expresses his religious convictions more comprehensively and more clearly than any of his other works. I’ve read it four or five times – it’s one of those novels I feel obliged to return to every now and again – and it never fails to uplift my spirits and to deepen my appreciation of the powerful images of new life which the Christian tradition presents to us at this time of the year. Tolstoy’s novel is about one man coming back from the dead: not as a reanimated corpse, but as a transformed individual, one who has found strength to break the ropes of convention and selfishness that have bound him since childhood, and to leave the tomb of corruption in which he has been buried by his acquisitive and hypocritical society. He has been reborn to a new life of service, wholeness, and freedom.
The novel opens with a description of the springtime. ‘The sun shone warm, the air was balmy, the grass, where it did not get scraped away, revived and sprang up everywhere.....All were glad: the plants, the birds, the insects, and the children.’ But, in contrast, ‘grown up men and women did not leave off cheating themselves and each other. It was not this spring morning men thought sacred and worthy of consideration, not the beauty of God’s world, given for a joy to all creatures – this beauty which inclines the heart to peace, to harmony, and to love – but only their own devices to enslave each other.’
    
Maslova in the Dock
        The man who gradually rediscovers the beauties of God’s world is Prince Nekhlyudov, who, at the beginning of the novel is living a life of dissipation and frivolity in keeping with his wealth and his position in society. But, despite his status, he cannot escape the irksome task of jury service, so he finds himself reluctantly sitting in court one day, listening to the tedious account of a murder which has taken place in a local brothel. Three people are accused of the crime, a man and two women, and it is the younger of the two women who catches Nekhlyudov’s eye. Her name is Maslova, and he recognises her as the former servant of his two maiden aunts, the woman whom he callously seduced a decade before. He had forgotten about her. He vaguely recollected that she had left his aunts’ employ because she was pregnant, but now he learns for the first time about the life of degradation to which she has been reduced, and he realises the part he himself has played in her downfall. As the evidence is produced, he realises that she is obviously innocent of the crime she is accused of, but because of a mix up in the wording of the jury’s verdict, and the haste with which the court president wants the case to end so that he can meet his mistress, she is sentenced to four years penal servitude in Siberia.
            Nekhlyudov’s feelings of shame and guilt mark the first stage in his resurrection. He decides to follow Maslova to Siberia to see how he can help her, and the rest of the novel describes the stages of his gradual transformation as they occur during his journey. He is forced to look at himself and the life he is leading, and to the mores and values of a society which grants to him power and status, but which totally neglects and exploits the poor and the vulnerable.
            The legal system comes in for savage attack. Maslova’s treatment by the court is shameful because she is poor and has no one to plead her cause, but everywhere he looks Nekhlyudov finds similar examples of injustice perpetrated in the name of justice. Very early on we learn of a widow who is having her property taken from her by crafty lawyers whose knowledge of the intricacies of law enable them to swindle her perfectly legally. These men are ‘legal criminals’, a category which comprises millions of rich and powerful people who have shaped the laws and customs of society so that they can live in luxury on the backs of the dispossessed and powerless. How different are things now, a century after Tolstoy wrote Resurrection? How is it that the richest people in our society pay the least tax? How is it that 78% of British MPs are millionaires?How is it that the ability to pay a slick lawyer can so frequently enable the obviously guilty to walk away scot free? How is it that the children of American Senators and Congressmen are not fighting in Iraq? How is it that the person who will become the next President of the U.S.A. will be the millionaire who can spend the most on media image manipulation? As Bob Dylan said four decades ago, ‘Money doesn’t talk, it swears.’ And as Tolstoy’s narrator comments: ‘How can we – all of us - who are ourselves evil ever hope to correct evil’?
            Nekhlyudov also begins to see through the church (Tolstoy was eventually excommunicated by the Russian Orthodox Church). In the courtroom there is an old priest who administers the oath to defendants and jurors. How ironic, muses the novel’s narrator, that this priest has, over decades, required countless thousands of people to swear upon a book in which there is a condemnation of all such swearing of oaths? (Matthew 5:34) More significantly, Tolstoy condemns a church which offers stupefying ceremonies to the people instead of teaching them the fundamental precepts of the gospel. The procurator of the Russian Orthodox Church is a man called Toporov, who believes in nothing, but whose attitude to religion is the same as that of a poultry-keeper to the disgusting, rotting food he feeds to his hens; they seem to like it, so it is right to keep on feeding it to them. The people seem to like meaningless ceremonies and superstition, so let’s keep giving it to them.
           
At the end of the novel, Nekhlyudov takes his copy of the Bible and reads the Gospels, particularly the Sermon on the Mount, and realises that in these few neglected pages lie all the moral guidance we human beings need in order for us to live fulfilled and compassionate lives. ‘A perfectly new life dawned that night for Nekhlyudov; not because he had entered into new conditions of life, but because everything he did after that night had a new and quite different meaning for him.’          
The Gospel of Mark, which we have been considering for a year now describes a similar kind of journey. The Gospel comprises a series of narratives, which seem on the surface to be historical reminiscences strung together almost randomly, but which, on closer examination, show themselves to be profound teachings on the spiritual life, very carefully arranged so that the interior journey of the aspirant towards transformation reflects the annual journey of the sun in the sky.
            Each of these stages is a step on the way towards wholeness – ‘redemption’, if you like that kind of language – and although they are presented consecutively, we are not meant to infer from this that we have to approach them sequentially. Individuals will vary in the way they assimilate these lessons. Some we will find easy; others will take a lifetime to master.
            Here, by way of recapitulation, are the twelve steps towards redemption – awakening, resurrection - presented to us by the Gospel of Mark.
            The lesson of Aries, the springtime sign, concerns our relationship with the past. We are not to let the past with its sins and its guilt, and its failures paralyse our present. ‘Your sins are forgiven,’ says Jesus to the paralysed man, ‘so pick up your bed and walk!’ This first section teaches that embarking on the spiritual life requires courage and a willingness to break free from debilitating personal habits of thought and behaviour, and from social and family relationships which hinder our resolve to pursue the spiritual life.
            In the Taurus section we learn that steadfastness, sticking to our resolve is vital to our spiritual growth; we must not be like the seed that grows well for a while but which then is choked by thorns – the physical appetites, and the cares and concerns of the world. Taurus also teaches us that light will come if only we persevere.
            Gemini, the Twins, highlights the fragmented nature of the psyche; that in each of us there is a whole crowd of personalities jostling for attention, and we have to try to create a harmony between them, ‘to get them to sit down at the same table’ as Art Lester puts it. This section also teaches us that our ordinary condition is that we are asleep, reacting to circumstances rather than choosing our actions. Waking up from this sleep – as Jairus’ daughter is awakened by Jesus – is a necessary step on the way to wholeness.
            Cancer teaches us that we are closed off from others like the crab is enclosed in its shell, but we must break through this carapace and be prepared to encounter ‘the other’. We are semi-blind, the story tells us; we can see other people, but they seem like trees walking about. We need to learn to see others as ends in themselves and not as means to our own ends.
            In Leo, which includes the scene of the Transfiguration, we are taught about the true nature of the human being. We are all children of God, divine beings, eagles who think we are chickens. Each of us is a glorious emanation from God with a vital and unique part to play in the drama of the universe.
            However, no sooner are we told this than we are taught the virtues of humility and service, the great lessons of Virgo. ‘Don’t get above yourself,’ says Jesus to his apostles. ‘Never mind arguing with each other about who is the greatest. Serve one another, and, in addition, cultivate the mind of a child and learn to perceive the world afresh.’
            The equinoctial sign of Libra, which the sun enters when day and night are equal, carries the lessons of mutuality and reciprocity, of entering into caring and supportive relationships with people. Here we learn about the ‘sacred marriage’, the union of male and female, of yang and yin, within the individual psyche. We are taught, too, that wealth can be a severe hindrance to our spiritual progress, deflecting us from the life of the spirit by fostering self-indulgence and distraction.
            In the Scorpio section, which comes as Jesus and the apostles approach Jericho, the lowest inhabited place on earth, we are warned not to seek power over others, and taught about those hidden connections which bind us one to another, so that no individual acts to and for himself alone; our actions, for good or ill have consequences for ourselves and for others.
            At the beginning of the Sagittarius section, Jesus rides into Jerusalem on an unbroken horse, symbolising the mastery of the bestial by the divine, mastery which each of us is called to attain. Each of us is a ‘place where two roads meet’. Here we learn about the power of prayer and of faith to bring about remarkable changes in our world.
            In Capricorn we learn about the attitude we should cultivate towards all religious authority – bishops, priests, ministers, traditions, church councils, holy books and the like. We must not cravenly follow the lead of others. We must take responsibility for our own spiritual progress.
            The Aquarius section teaches the importance of standing out from the crowd, and of being willing to offer our unique gifts to society. We also learn that coming to a state of enlightened transformation will turn our interior universe upside down.
            Finally, in the lengthy Pisces section, we see a dramatic presentation of the crucifixion of the false self which has kept us enslaved in our own egotism and craving but which has never been able to deliver the happiness it has constantly promised.

           In the final few verses of the Gospel of Mark we read about the Resurrection, the empty tomb, which happens on the first day of the week – Sunday -, just as the sun has risen. These references to the sun are not accidental or peripheral. The interior journey of the sun in the sky reflects the life journey of the spiritual aspirant. Just as the sun is ‘resurrected’ each year at the equinox, and each day at dawn; just as winter is transformed into spring; just as the caterpillar is transformed into the butterfly; just as Nekhlyudov is transformed by his journey to Siberia, so the spiritual journey outlined by Mark results in the birth of a new creature, a resurrected creature, someone who has overcome the sleep of the unlived life and who is now prepared to enter into life with new attitudes, new visions, new hopes. Jesus’ disciples are to meet him in Galilee, that is, back where it all started. Galilee comes from the Hebrew word ‘galil’ which means circle. Resurrection doesn’t take us away from the cycle of ordinary life, it sends us back on to it once more, but this time, in the words of T.S. Elliot, ‘we’ll know the place for the first time’.
            All valid religion is a call to resurrection. Not to life after death, but to a new kind of life achievable now. As Balzac says, at the end of his novel Louis Lambert, ‘The resurrection is brought about by the winds of heaven which sweep the worlds. The angel borne upon the blast saith not, “Arise, ye dead!” but “Arise, ye living!”
            This is the message of the Gospel. This is the real message of Easter. 

The Resurrection, by Fra Angelico
       
                 


Monday, 17 March 2014

Pisces (1): The King must Die

Pisces, by Dan Hodgkin
The Two Fish. Pisces is Mutable Water and is the sign in which the sun ‘dies’ before being ‘born anew’ at the spring equinox when it enters Aries once again. Ruled by Jupiter, it is a sign of extreme sensitivity and benevolence, but it was also associated in the ancient world with secret enemies, betrayal, cowardice, diffidence, sleep, dreams, all of which appear in this final, lengthy section of the Gospel. The three decans are The Band, Cepheus (the King), and Andromeda (the Chained Woman). Both Cepheus and Andromeda are clearly referred to in the story of the crucifixion.

Mark 15:1-39

In the evening he came with the twelve, and as they were sitting eating at the table, Jesus said, ‘I’ll be honest with you. One of you who is eating with me, will betray me.’ They were greatly saddened by this, and said to him, one after another, ‘It’s not me, is it?’ Jesus said to them, ‘It is one of the twelve, one who is dipping into the same dish with me. The son of man is going away, just as it is written about him, but woe to that man by whom the son of man is betrayed! It would be better for that man if he hadn’t been born!’
            As they were eating, he took a loaf, blessed it, broke it, and gave it to them. He said, ‘Take this. It is my body.’ And he took the cup, offered thanks, and gave it to them. They all drank from it. He said to them, ‘This is my blood of the covenant which is shed for many. I’m telling you the truth: I shall not drink the fruit of the vine again until I drink it new in the kingdom of God.’ When they had sung a hymn they went out to the Mount of Olives.
      Jesus said to them, ‘You will all desert me, because it is written, “I shall strike the shepherd and the sheep will be scattered.” But when I have been raised up I shall go ahead of you into Galilee.’ Peter said to him, ‘Even if all the others desert you, I won’t!’ Jesus said to him, ‘I’m telling you this: today, this very night, before a cock crows twice, you will disown me three times.’ But Peter protested vehemently, ‘Even if I have to die with you, I won’t deny you!’ And the rest said the same.
      They went to a place called Gethsemane and he said to his disciples, ‘Sit down here while I pray.’ He took Peter, James, and John with him, and he began to be distressed and troubled. He said to them, ‘My soul is overwhelmed with deadly grief. Stay here, and stay awake.’ He walked on a little before falling to the ground, praying that, if possible, the hour might pass from him. He said, ‘Abba, father! All things are possible to you. Take this cup from me; but not what I want, what you want.’ He came and found them sleeping, and he said to Peter, ‘Simon, are you asleep? Didn’t you have the strength to stay awake for one hour? Stay awake and pray that you won’t be tempted. The spirit is willing, but the flesh is weak.’
      He went off again and prayed as before, and when he returned once more he found them sleeping because their eyes were heavy. They didn’t know what to say to him. He came back a third time and said to them, ‘You are asleep, and taking your rest. But that’s enough. It’s time. Look, the son of man is being handed over to sinners. Get up and let’s be going. See, my betrayer has approached.’
      While he was still speaking, Judas, one of the twelve, came straight up to him. He was accompanied by a crowd from the chief priests, scribes, and elders, and they were carrying swords and clubs. His betrayer had given them an agreed signal: ‘The one I kiss is the one (you want). Grab him and take him off under guard.’ Coming up to him he said, ‘Rabbi!’ and he kissed him. So they grabbed hold of him. However, one of those standing by drew his sword and struck the high priest’s slave, cutting off his ear. Jesus said to them, ‘Have you come to arrest me with swords and clubs as you would arrest a robber? Day after day I was with you in the temple and you didn’t arrest me. But let it be, so that the scriptures may be fulfilled.’ And they all abandoned him and fled, but a young man wearing just a linen sheet over his naked body followed him. They grabbed at him, but he left his linen sheet behind and ran off naked.
      They led Jesus to the high priest, and all the chief priests, legal experts, and elders were assembled. Peter followed him at a distance as far as the courtyard of the high priest where he was sitting with the servants warming himself by the fire. The chief priests and the whole council were looking for evidence against Jesus so that they could execute him, but they couldn’t find any. Many people were telling lies about him, but their evidence was conflicting. Some stood up and lied that they had heard him say, ‘I shall destroy this temple made with hands and after three days build one not made with hands.’ But their testimonies did not agree even about this.
      The high priest stood up the middle of them all and questioned Jesus. ‘Have you nothing to say in reply? What is it that these people are saying against you?’ Jesus was silent; he didn’t reply at all. So the high priest asked him, ‘Are you the Christ, the son of the Blessed One?’ Jesus said, ‘I am, and you will see the son of man sitting at the right hand of power, coming with the clouds of heaven.’ The high priest tore his own garments and said, ‘We don’t need any more witnesses. You heard the blasphemy! What’s your verdict?’ They all judged him deserving of death. Some started to spit at him, to cover up his face, and to strike him, all the while saying, ‘Prophesy!’ Slapping his face, the attendants took him away.
One of the high priest’s servant girls saw Peter as he was warming himself. She looked closely at him and said, ‘You were with the Nazarene, with Jesus!’ But Peter denied it. ‘I don’t know what you’re talking about,’ he said. He went outside into the porch and the cock crowed. The servant girl spotted him and began to say to those standing around, ‘This is one of them!’ Peter denied it again. A little later the bystanders said to Peter, ‘Yes, you are one of them. You’re from Galilee!’ Peter started to curse and swear. ‘I don’t know the man you’re talking about!’ he said. Immediately the cock crowed a second time, and Peter remembered that Jesus had told him, ‘Before the cock crows twice, you will deny me three times.’ And throwing his cloak around his head he broke down and wept.

Story: The Wee, Wise Bird

Long ago in a faraway land a certain man took great pride in his beautiful garden. Each day he worked in some part of it, digging or planting, weeding or trimming the bushes. Each morning he strolled into all parts of his garden as if he wanted to encourage each little plant to keep on growing and to give a friendly smile to every bud that had opened into a flower.
            One morning on taking his usual walk, the gardener noticed that leaves had been torn from some of his plants and that many of his flowers had been completely pecked to pieces. The gardener was puzzled and angry. He was determined to find out who had been destroying his garden.
            The next morning he was again walking in the garden. He found more plants stripped of their leaves and more flowers torn into pieces. But this time he was prepared and he hid himself where he would not frighten any animal or bird that might be there.
            As he waited, he was surprised to see a very small bird light upon a rosebud and peck it to pieces in almost no time at all. But the gardener, too, was quick. Before the wee bird had finished eating its second flower, he had it tight in his hand, and was carrying it off, intending to kill it. But, strange to tell, the small bird began to talk to the gardener.
            ‘Please, do not kill me, kind sir. I am only a small bird. If you cook me and eat me, I would give you only a mouthful – not one hundredth part of what a big man like you needs for a meal. I promise I will never come into your garden again. Please, let me go free. And what is more, I will teach you something that will be of great use to you and to your friends as long as you live.’
            The surprised gardener was in no mood to let this small bird get away from him. He talked back crossly.
            ‘You may be a very small bird, but you are a very big nuisance. I will either make a quick end of you or you will make a quick end of my garden. I intend to kill you right now and eat you for supper. You are a bad little bird.’
            Even while the gardener was speaking so crossly, the wee bird felt soft and helpless in his hand. Its little heart beat so fast and so hard against his skin that he began to feel sorry for it. What is more, he began to be curious. What could this advice be that this wee bird wanted to give him? Would it really be useful to him? When the gardener again spoke, he voice was gentle.
            ‘I am not a hateful or a cruel man, little bird. I am always glad to learn something new and useful. If from now on you will keep away from my garden, I will let you go free.’
            As soon as the wee bird promised, the gardener opened his hand. But the bird did not fly away at once. Instead it stood right up straight in his open hand and again began talking.
            ‘Listen, kind sir! Here are three rules for you to remember always. If you follow them, they will make your life easier and better. The first is this. Never cry for milk that is spilt. Second, do not wish to have something that you know cannot be had. Third, do not believe what you know cannot possibly be true.’
            Having given the gardener these three wise rules, the wee bid lifted its wings and flew away and lighted upon the top branch of a nearby tree. From this high spot it began to call back with a sharp voice.
            ‘What a silly man! The very idea of your letting me get away! If you only knew what you have lost! But it is too late now.’ Angrily the man called back: ‘What have I lost?’
            ‘Why, if you had killed me, as you intended, you would have found inside my body a beautiful pearl, as large as a goose’s egg, and you would have sold that pearl and have been a rich man the rest of your life.’ The gardener, believing the little bird, thought to himself: ‘What a fool I have been! I must persuade the bird to come back to me. I must have that big pearl!’
            ‘Dear little bird,’ he cried in his kindest voice, ‘sweet little bird, I will do you no harm if only you will come back to me. I will treat you as if you were my own child. I will give you fruit and flowers to eat every day. I promise you truly I will not kill you.’ But the wee bird shoot its head and said firmly, ‘What a silly man you are! How could you forget so soon the advice which I gave you a few moments ago? I told you not to cry for spilt milk. And here you are crying over my being free. There is nothing you can do about that, just as you would gain nothing by crying over milk that has already been spilt on the floor.
            ‘And besides I told you not to wish for what cannot be had. And now you are already wishing you could catch me again.
            ‘And finally, I warned you against believing what you know cannot possibly be true, and yet you are thinking I told you the truth when I said a pearl was inside my body, as big as a goose’s egg! You very well know that a goose’s egg is larger than I am, and could not possibly be inside my body. You certainly are a silly and forgetful man. If you ever want to become wise you will have to remember your lessons better and longer than that.’
            With these words, the wee, wise bird lifted its small head in disgust and flew away. Although the foolish gardener never saw the bird again, he never forgot the advice it had given him.

From Long Ago and Many Lands, (1995), Sophia Lyon Fahs, Skinner House Books, Boston. First published in 1948, pages 146-149.

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Written in March 2008
Pisces (1): The King Must Die

The story of the death of Jesus is probably the most famous story in the Western world. The Gospel accounts will be read in Christian churches over the Easter season, just as they have been read for millennia. It has inspired novels, poems, paintings, oratorios, hymns, theological tracts, meditations, historical investigations and, relatively recently, feature films. Cecil B. DeMille’s seminal King of Kings (1927);  Pasolini’s political The Gospel of St. Matthew (1964); George Stevens’ sentimental The Greatest Story Ever Told (1965); Zeffirelli’s lengthy Jesus of Nazareth (1977); Mel Gibson’s bloodfest The Passion of the Christ (2004), are just some of the many films devoted to it. Then there are the stage plays and musicals, notably Godspel and Jesus Christ Superstar, and television plays like Dennis Potter’s controversial 1969 play Son of Man.
Jesus in Pasolini's Gospel of St. Matthew (1964)
            There is no getting away from the fact that this is a very powerful and influential story, inspiring people as diverse as the ultra-orthodox Catholic Mel Gibson and the gay Marxist atheist Pierre Paolo Pasolini. It is loved by those who believe the death and resurrection of Jesus to be the central events of human history, securing the salvation of the human race, and by more secular types (like us) who see the story as an account of a brave and selfless person who was prepared to give his life for what he believed in. No other story has generated as much artistic interest or as much theological controversy. It is undoubtedly unique.
            And yet, the central incident – the crucifixion – is hardly unique. Crucifixion was a common method of execution among the Romans (the Jews stoned criminals) because it was cheap and easy, and because it was extremely painful and lengthy. It was cheap because all you needed were a few nails and a tree, and it was painful because the nails would be driven into the wrist, close to the nerve. Death came from asphyxiation – pulling oneself up in order to breathe would cause intolerable pain and so ultimately the person would give up, but this could take days, particularly if the criminal was tied rather than nailed. According to Mark’s Gospel, Jesus was on the cross for six hours – from 9 am to 3 pm – and so, in a sense, he got off lightly.  Roman citizens accused of capital crimes could opt for beheading – much quicker and cleaner – but miscreants among slaves and subject peoples (like the Jews) were crucified. The slaves’ revolt, under Spartacus, about 70 years before the time of Jesus, ended in the crucifixion of 6,600 slaves along the Appian Way, the road from Brundisium to Rome, and, apparently, the order was never given for the bodies to be taken down, so travellers were forced to see the decaying bodies for months, perhaps even years afterwards.

Spartacus
(Bronnikov)

            There are one or two other things I want to say about the story of Jesus’ crucifixion before I outline what I believe to be its spiritual meaning. First, the dating of the event: the Gospel says that it took place on the day of the Passover. Now, the Passover was the biggest festival of the Jews and it was compulsory for every adult male Jew who lived within 15 miles of Jerusalem to go to the city to celebrate it. But not only local men attended; since it was the ambition of every Jew to celebrate at least one Jerusalem Passover in their life, Jews from all over the Mediterranean world would flock to Jerusalem at this time. All lodging in the city was free and Jerusalem could not contain the crowds, so the pilgrims would overflow into the surrounding villages. According to the Jewish historian Josephus, in 65 CE 265,000 lambs were slain for the Passover celebrations, and because it was customary for a minimum of ten people to share one lamb, it would seem that there were nearly 3,000,000 people in the city. This is probably a gross exaggeration, but there can be no doubt that Jerusalem would be packed, nor can there be any doubt that strong patriotic feelings would be in evidence: during Passover, the Jews celebrated their release from bondage in Egypt under Moses, so it would be only natural for them to feel added resentment against their current Roman overlords at Passover time. The Romans, who were well aware that the atmosphere was volatile, drafted in extra troops in case of some impromptu nationalist rebellion.
            Against that background, can you imagine the Romans being foolish enough to crucify a Jewish citizen, particularly one who had messianic pretensions, that is, one who was announcing a new kingdom, a new kind of freedom for the Jews? Even the execution of a Jewish criminal would have been asking for trouble, and the Romans were anything but stupid. In addition, this was the busiest time of the year for the Temple priests. Their job was not counselling the people like prototypical social workers, or conducting worship in synagogues; they sacrificed the animals, and with countless thousands to slaughter, there would be little time for plotting the death of Jesus. If he had to die, it would be best left for a few days.
            The way the story is told should also alert us to the fact that we are not dealing with history – or, at least, not primarily history. The whole account is full of allusions to the Jewish scriptures, principally the Psalms. The derision of the crowds (15:29) quotes from Psalm 22 (verse 7); Jesus’ cry of dereliction from the cross ‘My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?’ (15:34) is the first line of that Psalm, and a little later in the same Psalm we read ‘they divide my clothes among themselves, and for my clothing they cast lots’ (verse 18); ‘they gave him sour wine to drink’ comes from Psalm 69 (verse 21); the people looking on from a distance is taken from Psalm 38 (verse 11). Is history written in this way?
Jesus in the Garden of Gethsemane, by Mantegna
            We might also ask where the author of the Gospel got his information from. When Jesus goes off to pray in the Garden of Gethsemane he goes alone; his companions are sleeping, and yet Mark gives us a pretty comprehensive account of his prayer (15: 32-42). Who was listening? Was some stenographer or other hiding in the bushes noting down Jesus’ words? Was Tony Brady there with his recording equipment? Jesus prays in private, and yet we have his words. This part of the story is obviously fictional.
            Have you ever considered just how much activity is said to have taken place in a few brief hours? There’s the last supper, the Garden of Gethsemane episode, betrayal by Judas, trial before the Sanhedrin, trial before Pilate, (plus a trial before Herod according to Luke), and then the final scourging, journey to Calvary, and the actual crucifixion. It’s unlikely that all this could have happened in the available time, and the unlikely nature of these incidents is further underlined by the fact that the Sanhedrin, the Jewish Council, was not allowed to meet in the hours of darkness.  
The story is implausible, but, according to the early Christian writer Origen, some biblical stories are meant to be implausible, so that we will go beneath the literal meaning in order to seek the deeper, spiritual meaning. As the bird advises in our story today, we shouldn’t force ourselves to believe what we know can’t be true. We don’t need to ‘believe’ the story: we need to probe it, to examine it with our imagination. This is a deeply symbolic story which literalism renders absurd. One reason why Jesus has to die at Passover time is because his death symbolises the passing over of the sun’s position at the spring equinox from Aries to Pisces. The ‘Lamb’ of Aries is slain to be replaced by the Fish of Pisces
            Jesus is slain as a symbolic lamb, but he is also crucified as a king. Pilate asks him if he is a king; the soldiers dress him as a king, and pay mock homage to him as a king; and the inscription above the cross reads ‘The king of the Jews’. Why all this stuff about a king?
Andromeda (Dan Hodgkin)
'On a virgin cross the maiden hung' (Manilius)
First, one of the constellations surrounding Pisces – which the sun entered on 21st February - is Cepheus, the mythological king whose wife was Cassiopeia and whose daughter was Andromeda. Cepheus is always depicted as ‘a glorious king, wearing his royal robe, bearing aloft a branch or sceptre, and having on his head a crown of stars.’– precisely as Jesus is dressed by the Roman soldiers. Andromeda is depicted as a crucified maiden; the Roman astrological writer Manilius - a contemporary of the author of the Gospel of Mark - wrote of her: et cruce virginea moritura puella pependit, 'on the virgin cross hung the maid about to die'; these two 'decans' of Pisces are clearly evident in the story of the death of Jesus.
But in order to understand the image of the executed king fully we must also consider the custom – according to Sir James Frazer, found all over the ancient world – of the ageing king being put to death in order to secure the prosperity of the people. Since the king symbolised the nation, his powers were thought to be related to national power and vigour. As the king’s strength failed with age, the people feared that his physical weakness would be transferred to them, and his sterility would be reflected in the crops. So he had to die, and a new, young king had to be inaugurated in order to ensure the vitality of the people and the fecundity of the earth. The obvious time for the actual – or, later, the symbolic – enactment of this ceremony would be the springtime, when the people were preparing to sow their crops and the continuing fertility of the earth was uppermost in their mind.
Cepheus, the King (Dan Hodgkin)
            But the ancient people were also conscious of another cycle of decline at this time of the year. The sun is coming to the end of its annual journey round the zodiac, a journey that began when it entered the sign of Aries on the first day of spring last year. Now it is in Pisces, the sign which symbolises the sun’s weakness. Just as the old king has to die before the new king can take over, so the ‘old’ solar cycle has to end before a new one can begin. The sun ‘dies’ annually in Pisces before being ‘reborn’ again in Aries. 
Pisces symbolises this period of decline and eventual death, which is why it was considered a malign sign by many ancient cultures, indicative of weakness and lack of courage. But while Piscean people can often be quiet and unassuming, their lack of self-promotion is not so much a mark of cowardice as of extreme sensitivity. Pisces is a Water sign, a sign of strong emotion and intuition, and the typical Piscean is remarkably perceptive, mediumistic even, with a marked degree of empathy for suffering humanity. They tend to be kind and gentle, but there is something of the martyr about them, and often, of the hypochondriac. The old text books say that the Pisces person is either the victim or the redeemer – the Gospel story shows us Jesus in both roles.
Pisces, by Salvador Dali
Pisces is associated with drugs and alcohol, counterfeit satisfactions for the spiritual succour that Pisces people crave, and astrological writers down the ages have invariably warned Piscean people to stay away from both. Contemporary Pisceans are often interested in film and photography, creative expressions of the desire to remould reality, to gain some measure of control in a world which overwhelms the sensitive Piscean soul. Sleep and dreams are also part of this network of associations, and both feature prominently in the Gospel accounts of the last days of Jesus.
  The evolved Piscean soul, writes Joan Hodgson in Wisdom in the Stars, ‘will work in the most sordid conditions, and do anything to lighten the load for others. We find children of Pisces from all levels of society devoting their strength and their time to nursing, healing........wherever the sick, the desolate and the outcast are to be found; and this with no thought of personal reward. Thus the inmost spirit begins to find that which it seeks, the secret of true heavenly peace. It learns that union with the Infinite comes only through renunciation of the self.’
            ‘Renunciation of the self’, the chief characteristic of the evolved Piscean, is one of the major lessons of these final Gospel stories. The king must die; the ego must die; the false self must die before the new, transformed self can be born. ‘The death of the ego is the birth of everything else,’ wrote Carl Jung. It is the ego, the ‘king’ within the psyche, which is crucified on the cross. Just as the seed ‘dies’ so that the flower can be born, and as the chrysalis dies so that the butterfly can be born, so the grasping, fearful, defensive self must die in order to bring to birth the new, transformed person. As Aldous Huxley puts it in The Perennial Philosophy:
'Our kingdom go’ is the necessary and unavoidable corollary of ‘Thy kingdom come’. For the more there is of self, the less there is of God. The divine eternal fullness of life can be gained only by those who have deliberately lost the partial, separative life of craving and self-interest, of egocentric thinking, feeling, wishing and acting.
Crucifixion is not just about one man’s death, which may or may not have happened 2000 years ago. It’s about the death of something which must happen in every person who endeavours to live a spiritual life: the old self must die before the new self can be born.
The birth of the new self from the old is the real meaning of resurrection, and it’s the theme we’ll be considering on Easter Sunday.