The Revd Brutus Green
I snuck off to Poland last week and beheld an exotic sight. People smoking indoors. It is in fact only 5 years since the smoking ban came into force here, but already it seems wrong; a distant memory of a more decadent, Mad-men-like, louche society. It’s amazing how quickly humans adapt. I remember vividly it coming in; a student club I occasionally frequented, Arena-na, suddenly revealed that behind its typical dingy, stale melange lay a hideously painted, shabby dive infested with the most gruesome odours that human bodies in extremis can produce. With the smoke gone the olfactory truth of underbudget-cleaning and teenage delinquency was brought to light.
In theatre this moment is called “anagnorisis” - “recognition”: when Macbeth realises the witches have tricked him, Othello finally sees Iago for who he is, Oedipus hits the couch in realisation of awkward familial relationships. Fans of Happy Days collectively experienced this, realizing that the show was finished, as they saw the Fonz jump over a shark, now sealed in as a commonly used phrase; ‘it’s jumped the shark’; for example,
“Andrej’s started demolishing the church hall in order to create more parking”
“yeah, he’s finally jumped the shark.”
The Gospel understands this moment, the moment of recognition - of truth, as the moment of revelation; followed by a reversal, not in this case the onset of disaster but metanoia - “conversion”. St Paul provides the model for this, falling off his horse on the way to Damascus; from his spiritual darkness he is blinded by the light; and then switches from persecutor of the church to preacher and martyr of the Gospel. Blind Bartimaeus in today’s Gospel follows the same pattern: he is healed by his faith in meeting Jesus, then he turns and follows him.
The story is also metaphorical. In John’s account of the healing of the blind man Jesus says, ‘I came into this world for judgement so that those who do not see may see, and those who do see may become blind.’ The pharisees and those who do not believe are blind through their lack of insight, just as the wicked are associated with darkness, Judas goes out to betray Jesus and we are told “it was night”. Jesus on the other hand is the Light of the World, revealing its truth; and we are told from the beginning that the light shines in the darkness and the darkness has not overcome it.
While I was in Poland I visited Auschwitz. Rather than joining a tour I went under my own steam though this creates a certain amount of discomfort. On the one hand, there is a slight ghoulishness in visiting the scene of such an appalling crime, a sort of macabre death tourism; but on the other it felt like a moral demand to make the visit; that not going would be to discredit, or make light of the suffering that had happened there. Booking bus tickets to Aushwitz though, stepping through the infamous gate, felt uneasy, like slowing down while driving to glimpse the carnage of a car crash in the far lane.
The site itself is perhaps not as emotive as you might expect. The excellent holocaust exhibition at the Imperial War Museum here in many ways is more disturbing. What strikes you about Auschwitz is that it is intended to stand as a whole; as a giant, immovable piece of incontrovertible evidence of holocaust. A perpetual memory of death. Hundreds of banal-seeming documents are arranged, great rooms full of ordinary possessions, artistic reconstructions, and row upon row upon row of photographed faces, as a single argument of proof of mass murder.
There are undoubtedly some who would see Auschwitz as a piece of evidence against God’s existence. Some of the most moving exhibits in the museum though show etchings made in the camp of stars of David, prayers, the crucifixion and sacred heart of Jesus, along with evidence of eucharistic celebration. The thought of the eucharist, which means ‘thanksgiving’ being celebrated in that black place is both disturbing and wonderful. Can God really be present there?
At the bottom of the last building can be seen cells where prisoners were starved to death. In one stands a candle remembering the priest Max Kolbe. He was imprisoned for providing shelter to among others 2000 Polish Jews, and continued his charity in the camp by passing what little food he had to others, saying mass and encouraging his fellow inmates. When ten prisoners were selected to be starved to death for the disappearance of three others earlier, Kolbe volunteered in the place of a man who had a family. He was the last of the ten to survive and after two weeks was put to death by lethal injection. The man whose life he stood for survived the war and lived for a further 53 years. The question that Auschwitz raises, even more powerfully than the crucifixion, is not how can God allow this, but how can people do this?
We are all great believers in the objectivity of our own views, and we adjust to change so quickly that previously held views can seem absurd or baffling within a short period of time. Seven years of the sixties in Britain saw Lady Chatterly’s Lover bring a marked change to censorship, the legalization of gambling, the abolishment of the death penalty, the introduction of state-financed family planning clinics, the reform of the law on homosexuality, the legalization of abortion and a new Divorce Act, beginning the shift from 1 in 60 to 1 in 3. Incidentally, upon being asked whether he would allow his wife or maidservant to read Lady Chatterley one proponent at the trial quipped, that this would not trouble him in the least, but he would never allow it into the hands of his gamekeeper!
Now you may well hold that every single one of those reforms has been to the detriment of society, but what is certainly clear is that within a generation, moral and social norms have been radically redefined. If nothing else this should encourage us to think about our own norms and values and question ourselves: what matters of justice and virtue are we overlooking in our own times? Where should the church be defending against modern trends and where should it be leading the way?
And this is also a personal question. When I was 15, like all teenagers, I rebelled against my parents becoming a typical gloomy teenager, wearing a lot of black, listening to plaintive, grungy howling exacerbated by Kurt Cobain’s death. It was only when I reached my mid-twenties though that I actually started to see my parents as human beings. Before that they had been gods - perhaps capricious gods - but actually unexamined in many respects. Now in my very, very, late twenties I see them again in a quite different light. Not more or less lovingly, but more truthfully.
The point is that our formative years shape us definitively by creating norms and standards. We never know an abstract “father” or “mother” or “love”; we have the father and mother and love we experience and it is from there and further experience that we develop our sense of them. If our primary language is offset by deeply wounding early experiences, then it may take a lifetime - or more - to come to a healthy understanding of ourselves. Consider how difficult it must be for a child to call God Father when her own experience of ‘father’ has been violent or abusive.
When Jesus first appears preaching repent-and-believe it is because he sees the people of God as caught up in spiritual blindness, and his healing of the blind echoes this point. As we approach Advent and Christmas once again we will hear the readings from Isaiah and Matthew: “The people who have walked in darkness have seen a great light.” Our faith is based on the assertion that the person of Jesus reveals the character of God and the model of human living. This is not characterized by law so much as the principles that emerge from his life: the worth of a single human being, the practice of forgiveness, humility and service, the desire for peace and reconciliation and above all the primacy of sacrificial love. These are all present in his Incarnation, teaching, miracles, death and resurrection and they are the yardstick by which we should judge history and our own generation. Fascism shows how far human blindness can become endemic across an educated, civilized continent. Christ is the light that shines in the darkness and is not overcome.
History can be a great teacher here, but it is our imagination to see the world again that is the key; to make that recognition in the light of the Gospel and its values. You may have read Simon Kuper’s article in the paper on Saturday about the statistician Richard Doll, who despite opposition from manufacturers and governments, got across the danger of cigarettes, effectively saving millions of lives, though perhaps less in Poland than here. The healing of the blind man calls us to examine our own lives, society and values. Where is our blindness? How might we be healed? How might we turn and follow him?
Before sharing the bread, we break it, remembering that it is Christ’s wounded and broken body we are sharing, with the words ‘though we are many, we are one body, because we all share in one bread.’ The eucharist gathers together all worshippers, past, present and future, and so as we remember our communion with Max Kolbe and all who celebrated and still celebrate God’s presence in darkness, I will finish with his words:
"No one in the world can change Truth. What we can do and and should do is to seek truth and to serve it when we have found it. The real conflict is the inner conflict. Beyond armies of occupation and the hetacombs of extermination camps, there are two irreconcilable enemies in the depth of every soul: good and evil, sin and love. And what use are the victories on the battlefield if we are ourselves are defeated in our innermost personal selves?"