Walking in Darkness

I’ve been quite fascinated by the dramatisation of ‘His Dark Materials’ on BBC1 on a Sunday evening. This latest series is the final instalment of Philip Pullman’s epic fantasy trilogy that contains a robust critique of institutional religion. Last week, the main characters Lyra and Will made it to the land of the dead in their search for lost friend, Roger. This place is not a heavenly place of eternal joy and peace, although, neither is it a place of unremitting torment. It is a grey and utterly lifeless place. The people stuck there are like the undead. All colour and purpose has gone and they have no memory of what life, light and hope are. Yet, as Lyra starts to recount stories of her and Roger’s adventures growing up, the inhabitants of the land of the dead start to remember curiosity, exploration, the blue sky above them, soft green grass beneath their feet, feelings such as apprehension, happiness and camaraderie and the sensory wonders of smell, taste and touch. As they do so, they begin to get colour and their expressionless faces start to become animated again. They had forgotten who they were, but now they are reminded, they begin to believe, mobilise and act in order to get back what they remember they have lost.

They were people walking in darkness. Matthew similarly makes this observation about the Jews of Jesus’s time by referring back to the prophecy of Isaiah in chapter 9, verse 2. However, they are not left in this state of hopelessness for they, “have seen a great light.” These are the descendants of those whose God heard their cries of suffering and injustice, and led them out of slavery in Egypt through the waters of the Red Sea to the promised land. And God is again enacting a rescue mission of liberation and salvation, but this time, by sending His own Son. The Catholic missiologist Vincent Donovan says St Paul’s shortest articulation of the good news of Christ is found in Titus chapter 3, verse 4, “..when the kindness and love of God our Saviour appeared, he saved us, not because of righteous things we had done, but because of his mercy.”

This week my students at St Augustine’s theological college, which trains ordinands and lay people in the South East of England for a variety of Christian ministries, have been learning about culture. I love this particular quote from Howell and Williams Paris in their book ‘Introducing Cultural Anthropology’, “Without culture, we have no language, no symbols, no revelation, no community.” and, I might add, no identity. It’s vital we know who we are. This is what gives us purpose and meaning. But also we need others to share this with. When we get discouraged and forget, who will remind us and be a mirror to reflect back who we still are?

Our identity is found in relationship. Like us, Jesus needed others to share his vision with, those to walk and talk and get excited with, and friends to pass on his wisdom and God-given mission. As we read further into Matthew 14 verses 12-23, we see him calling some of his disciples to leave the familiarity of home and work to become the nucleus of the new community of faith that we join and participate in today. They then, as we do, together recognise the light Jesus brings to the darkness and partner with Him to reveal it to others. This is so we can all find inspiration for a better and fairer world, as well as release from the weight of missed opportunities, regret at wrongdoing and the burden of hurt we have inflicted upon others.

In baptism we have a wonderful picture of how we find identity and are initiated into a family and community that has these shared memories and stories of God’s faithfulness and provision at it’s heart. It is in this rite of passage that we get our name, which is how we are seen and known. We are washed with water that cleanses, refreshes and commemorates the liberation of God’s people from slavery as a way for their escape was made through the sea. We are anointed with a sign of the cross to show that through our acceptance of Jesus as Lord, we participate in His death and resurrection to eternal life and are welcomed into the household of God, that is the Church, both local and universal.

In this ritual, we have received a name and been given an identity, not just by virtue of our genes via earthly parents, but from our heavenly father. We are seen, we are loved and Jesus wants us to enjoy abundant life. Not a grey, undead existence, rather one that is filled with purpose, memory, sensory experience, feeling and hope. The choice is ours whether to answer the invitation that is also made to us to follow him. Like Peter and Andrew, James and John, it might mean leaving some known security behind, but we will be stepping out onto a wild ride of change, challenge and transformation.

Avatar 2: A Cowboy film

Yesterday I went to see Avatar: the way of water. It’s a very similar reworking of the first Avatar film, but I loved the beauty of the underwater scenes in particular. And it struck me how much like a modern day Western it was, although set in an alternative universe on an alien planet somewhere in outer space. The big difference is, we are now very definitely on the side of the indigenous people. The message of the film was colonisation is bad and leads to the destruction of nature, other unique cultures and civilisations.

This has to be a good thing. Hollywood confronting it’s past and owning the damage that was done to ensure the survival of white settlers who stole land that belonged to no-one and upset the delicate balance between humanity and the natural environment, carefully maintained by native American tribes.

There were other values articulated in the film which I could applaud too. A recognition that conflict settled by violence only leads to more violence and how unity, even where there is difference, has greater force in overcoming aggression than lone vigilantism. It is strength that comes from sticking together as a family, as part of a wider community, which is celebrated in this franchise.

I especially enjoy seeing male and female working together as equals and, in Avatar, there was also an appreciation of the spiritual and emotional, over the mechanistic and scientific. Once again there is the recurrent theme of the search for identity and the quest for a parent who loves unconditionally, nurtures, as well as disciplines, and has a character their offspring can be proud of and emulate in their own lives.

I was also intrigued by the worship of the ‘Great Mother’. She seems to be the protective Spirit at the heart of this community, who gives creative energy in birth and takes it back in death. By plugging into her presence, which is represented by a tree, she gives wisdom and prophetic insight. In their most perilous moment, the mother of the family at the centre of the narrative, while desperately trying to rescue her daughters, cries out for help to the ‘Great Mother’.

I was interested in this for a number of reasons. Firstly, in the Western world we tend to refer to ‘Mother’ earth. This makes a clear contrast with Creator God who is described by Jesus as ‘our Father in heaven’. Yet, we must be clear that the divine Spirit is neither male nor female. Or, maybe, it would be more accurate to say God encompasses both male and female. I think we need to rediscover the female attributes of God, who brings newness into being as only women can and is described using the feminine title ‘Wisdom’ or ‘Sophia’ in the ancient Hebrew texts.

Secondly, that help is sought from ‘Great Mother’ at all. Over Christmas I had a conversation with a friend who works with those in recovery from addiction and she was saying that the people she seeks to support are encouraged to find strength and hope from within themselves, rather than look outside to a higher power.

Finally, I liked that Great Mother’s spiritual presence was manifest as a tree. In November last year, I read the book ‘Naked Pilgrim’ by Nick Mayhew-Smith. In it, he says, that while in Northern Europe Christian missionaries in the 7th and 8th centuries cut down trees that were intrinsic to pagan worship, Celtic missionaries to the British Isles incorporated them into Christian worship and built churches nearby. My husband and I visited one such tree last weekend. It’s 1500 years old and adjacent to the church of St Mary and All Saints in Dunsfold, Surrey.

Trees are a rich source of symbolism in the Christian tradition. There’s the tree of the knowledge of good and evil in the Garden of Eden, at the start of the story of God’s interaction with humanity. And, at the end of the sacred scriptures, in Revelation chapter 22 verse 2, there’s reference to a tree that will have leaves to bring about the healing of the nations. Given our contemporary need to protect and preserve Creation, and how in ancient times being in nature led to worship of the Spirit who brought about it’s beauty, it seems perfectly natural to continue to celebrate and revere our ancient trees. We can allow them to speak to us of the goodness and abundant provision of a God who gives us an identity as His children, loves us and is there when we call to Her for help.