The Revd Margaret Legg
The current blockbuster exhibition at the British Museum – Life and Death: Pompeii and Herculaneum – is fascinating. Well worth a visit. Beautifully preserved, carbonised artefacts on display range from the everyday: a loaf of bread, to the poignant: a wooden cradle that still rocks on its runners, a fragment of a blanket inside and the evocative: a mosaic of a skeleton holding a wine jug in each hand and gracing the triclinium or dining area of a wealthy home. At the end, plaster casts of the dead are displayed. The ones who ran away but didn’t make it. There is a guard dog, chained to a post, coiled in fear, people on the beach, hunched up, vaporised by a 400*C avalanche of volcanic debris.
Elijah and Paul, in our readings, are also running away, not from a pyroclastic surge but Elijah from the wrath of King Ahab on whose kingdom he has pronounced a drought because of his idol worship and Paul from his mission to persecute the church, abandoning it and heading to Arabia after his vision of Christ while on the road to Damascus. There are no doubt times when we run away or feel like it, yet our readings at the same time encourage us not to clear off, but to stand firm. God is ready and willing to get involved in our lives. In our Gospel Jesus doesn’t run away. When he notices the funeral procession, he comes forward, he gets involved. He does this because he cares about us. He cares so much that he will go out of his way to help. The widow of Nain was probably facing a dire future of poverty and privation because her only son had died. So he comes forward and touches the bier (even though to do so means he will be unclean for 7 days). He brings the dead man back to life and gives his mother hope for the future.
Running away can take many different guises.
Our responsibilities,for those everyday tasks and phone calls that are sometimes so tricky, so they slip to the bottom of the pile – again; the projects that we put off ; sorting our stuff, or like a friend, trying to write a book. She has a publisher, an advance payment and a deadline, but I no longer ask her how it’s coming along. She has become a master at de-placement activity!
Experiences that have been painful and we now run away from a repeat at all costs. Perhaps we’ve been through a bruising interview, been let down by someone we trusted, had an accident. Many years ago I was a passenger in a road accident. We were driving through the African plains in a Volkswagon (deux chevaux as they were affectionately known) and were literally blown over by the power of the down draught of a very fast lorry, as it hurtled past us. We ended up topsy turvy. Through the car window we saw the face of a curious elephant. We weren’t hurt and managed somehow to extricate ourselves, turn the vehicle over and continue our journey. These experiences can hold us back, sap our confidence. They can take a long time to get over. For years after that road accident my stomach would turn over whenever my car tilted slightly to negotiate a bend. Our readings remind us that God comes forward and is alongside us for the long haul. Elijah is on the run from Ahab for years, it is 3 years before Paul finally goes to Jerusalem to meet Peter and God is alongside them, guiding them all the while.
The skeleton mosaic
A long haul which continues after death itself. It may seem odd to us that it is a skeleton that holds the wine jugs in the dining room mosaic at the Pompeii exhibition, but that’s because the message is that death is inevitable. Even at the feast, death is coming, albeit with a wine jug in each hand! Luke is foreshadowing the resurrection when he writes of the miracle at Nain, and while the son’s raising can only ever be temporary, Jesus’ resurrection is permanent. When Jesus comes forward and gets involved with us, he comes not as a skeleton, but as one who brings life!
As the populations of Herculaneum and Pompeii fled in terror, many carried good luck charms of Isis-Fortuna, (composite goddess: Egyptian Isis, who could provide a better afterlife and Fortuna, fertility, controlling fate of cities and people). They sought the protection of the gods. But they found they were at their mercy. May we, when we feel like running away, seek God’s protection, carrying with us faith in his mercy, faith in the onewho brings life even in death. Amen.