Before Lent: "The Law and the Spirit"

The Revd Brutus Green

My favourite joke of 2012 was Will Marsh’s one-liner: “I was raised as an only child, which really annoyed my sister.” It’s closely followed by Tim Vine’s: “Last night me and my girlfriend watched three DVDs back to back. Luckily I was the one facing the telly.” Apparently the public’s favourite was Stewart Francis with: “You know who really gives kids a bad name? Posh and Becks." This sort of humour works in a very straightforward way. The first line sets up an idea; then the second line surprises and changes the way you understand the first line. Understanding your misunderstanding, coupled with a little peculiarity or meanness, and the element of surprise - is the name of the game.

Art often plays a similar trick. Manet, who has an exhibition at the Royal Academy at the moment, in his most famous painting ‘Olympia’, has taken Titian’s ‘Venus of Urbino’ and stripped a whole painting tradition of naked goddesses of their divinity, turning it into an ordinary naked lady called Olympia. Goya’s equally famous ‘3rd of May, 1808’ shows a group of Spanish captives being shot by a French firing squad. The central figure holds his hands up in surrender, but his arms are outstretched and he alone is illuminated in what is clearly a modern depiction of a crucifixion. The associations of innocence and suffering, recalling that most emotive and spiritual image, have the intention of changing how you see both the horrors of war and the suffering of the Spanish people.

Poetry loves these tricks. One of Shakespeare’s sonnets begins ‘My mistress' eyes are nothing like the sun’ and goes on to catalogue the ‘black wires’ that grow on her head and ‘the breath that from my mistress reeks’, mocking the popular tradition of romantic poetry, but finishing: ‘And yet, by heaven, I think my love as rare/ As any she belied with false compare.’ Shakespeare at once mocks his contemporaries and raises the romantic stakes above the usual humdrum of praising a woman’s beauty. Having said that, if you’re looking for inspiration for Valentine’s Day cards on Thursday, I’d prefer one of the more traditional ones…

If you want the musical equivalent, look no further than blessed Britney Spears. Her track ‘Piece of Me’ runs: ‘I'm Miss American Dream since I was 17/ Don't matter if I step on the scene/ Or sneak away to the Philippines/ They're still gonna put pictures of my derriere in the magazine… I'm Miss bad media karma/Another day another drama/Guess I can't see the harm/ In working and being a mama/And with a kid on my arm/ I'm still an exceptional earner/ And you want a piece of me.’ On the face of it a song full of irony and self-reference about her exploitation of and by the media and the world. And yet, this woman has actually had multiple breakdowns, has had her children taken away, and is under the conservatorship of her father, who recently, without her, orchestrated a break up with her fiancee. Dark enough? But consider - she of course didn’t even write the song. That’s just some other guys making money out of the great flying Britney industry.

This is not to say that Britney is art, or the butt of a joke. What these examples show is that our minds and culture quickly set up situations as normal - watching DVDs back to back, admiring naked goddesses, praising the physical beauty of women, wishing we were celebrities - but that there is a role for humour, for art, for a little bit of thoughtfulness, to question this ‘normal’; to find what lurks beneath, to allow ourselves to be surprised by a truth that runs against the grain of the established normal.

Today’s readings are all about transcendence. Moses’ face literally glows as he brings the Law down from the mountain, because in receiving the Law he has met God and seen what truth and goodness is. But the prophets, Jesus and Paul continually remind us that it is not enough to stick to the letter of the Law. St Paul, in the epistle, speaks of the veil covering the fading splendour that inhibits finding God in Scripture. Rather we should find freedom in the Spirit, look beyond the letter, and, unveiled, behold the glory of the Lord, and be transformed by it.

Even in this civilised country the Law is continually changing, sometimes at an astonishing rate. This week, of course, saw a landmark move towards same-sex marriages, when Scotland and Northern Ireland only decriminalised homosexuality in the eighties, and it remains illegal in much of the world to the point of execution. The law must continually change, though, because it does not exist for itself, but for the sake of justice. Although, the law is expected never to be finalised, the idea of justice is understood as constant - even if human perceptions of it change over time. As Jesus’ debates with the Pharisees continually demonstrate, the law can obstruct justice; the letter may kill; seeking justice may require us, like St Paul after the road to Damascus, like the slave-owning writer of ‘Amazing Grace’, to let the scales to fall from our eyes. This does not abolish the law but breaths new life and renewed authority into it.

When Peter sees Christ transfigured on the mountain, he responds as most of us do - this is good let’s keep it like that - and suggested building them houses. He’s found a piece of God and he wants to hold on to it. But you cannot simply hold on to transcendence. Moses’ face loses its shine and so he veils it. To remain behind the veil is to miss the experience, to miss the point, to replace that original glory with a human obfuscation. When I saw the pope perform the Easter Vigil at the Vatican, thousands of phones clicked and flashed seeking to immortalize their memory of the holy father, only to destroy the lived experience of the peaceful darkness of Holy Saturday.

Picasso said: “You have to wake people up. To revolutionize their way of identifying things. You’ve got to create images they won’t accept. Make them foam at the mouth. Force them to understand that they’re living in a pretty queer world. A world that’s not reassuring. A world that’s not what they think it is.”

This is a hard saying. It’s easier to accept things at face value; to not have our beliefs and opinions challenged; to remain with the cosy group of people we’ve gathered round ourselves. None of us would think of ourselves as sexist but are there not times when we find ourselves judging men and women with a double standard? Perhaps in regard to sex, or dress, or work, perhaps to domestic roles? No one calls themselves racist, but do we sometimes make blanket assumptions when we people talk about Poles? Gypsies? Muslims?

The teaching of Jesus and St Paul aims a warhead at legalism. Political correctness here though is another enemy. We might get our words right, but all Jesus and Paul are interested in is do you love your neighbour, your brother and sister, your enemy. Are you treating people as an ‘it’ - an object defined by certain characteristics, white, female, blonde, uneducated, whatever; - or as a ‘you’, as a person in the image of God, to be loved and nurtured as far as is possible.

But even here we can enter into tricky ground. I’ve just finished the psychoanalyst Stephen Grosz’s book of case studies. In it he tells of one client called Thomas, a young boy who had Asperger’s and an anger problem. After expulsion from school and many violent threats to family and other children, Stephen took on Thomas, who throughout the therapy, swore at him, threatened him and spat at him. This continued for some time until the therapist finally realised that Thomas needed people to be angry. If the therapist were still angry then it meant that he believed Thomas could change, that he could be fixed. Thomas realised in his own words that his brain was ‘broken’, that he was not like other children, and he desperately wanted to be fixed, to be like everyone else. The truth is he had a permanent condition. He could not be fixed because he was not broken. There was never a possibility of a Thomas without Asperger’s and the desire of Thomas, colluded by those around him, was that he could be fixed. The inevitable failure of this left Thomas perpetually angry and dependent on his anger. Thomas did later find peace and lived a life not dominated by anger, but only by understanding and accepting those conditions that made him who he was.

Sometimes we can be fixed - we speak of God as bringing healing and wholeness as Jesus healed the demoniac; but more often the images in Scripture are of transfiguration and transformation. Today it is Christ the man, as he is, whose face and clothes are transformed to dazzling white. We are moving now towards Lent and the cross, where it is a broken body which is held up to the world and there is no wholeness or healing. In this eucharist as we sing the hymn to the Lamb of God the body of Christ is again held up and broken, with each of us sharing in this broken body. This is not about healing, but about transfiguration and transformation. It is about discovering Christ’s peace in relation to God and one another. It is about learning to see the world as it really is, looking beyond the obvious and the material; like those two paintings by Manet and Goya, seeing the human in the divine and the divine in the human; it’s about training our minds to reject prejudice. And, more than anything, this transfiguration is about being unafraid to be surprised and to take joy in the mysteries and delights of God’s good creation.