Mary Magdalene – a saint of defiant hope

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We kept the feast of St Mary Magdalene last Sunday. Preparing my sermon on her I was very moved to meditate on her story – not only her story as recorded in the Gospels but also the ‘fake news’ story that has followed her since the Middle Ages in the West up to now. For me, she is very much a saint for our time, a saint of defiant hope. My sermon was partially inspired by this beautiful icon by Br Robert Lentz which for me restores her reputation back to the fierce survivor she is:

Here is the text of my sermon:

Mary Magdalene is a survivor. She is one of the most enigmatic people in the gospels and probably the most enigmatic woman in the gospels – the only woman given a full name in the New Testament. Mary Magdalene is a survivor because we know that Jesus drove seven demons from her. We don’t know what language we would use now to describe what Jesus did for her, but my suspicion is that she came to Jesus deeply troubled – perhaps with a severe mental health problem and that he healed her fully of that. Mary Magdalene as we come to remember her today is also a survivor of a terrible fake news campaign that has raged since the middle ages about her. Many people conflated Mary Magdalene with Mary of Bethany who outrageously anoints Jesus’ feet with expensive perfume and dries them with her hair and also with the woman caught in adultery – the woman to whom Jesus gently says ‘go and sin no more’. These two other women are two separate people – not to be confused with Mary Magdalene whom we are celebrating today. Unfortunately because people made these 3 women into 1, Mary Magdalene has always been depicted as a reformed prostitute, she is always depicted in racy bright red robes, her hair flowing, uncovered, and in a posture of repentance.

The truth is, that Mary Magdalene is the apostle to the apostles. The reason she is honoured with being the first to see the resurrected Christ is that Mary stays when everyone else leaves. The disciples, led by Peter all profess at the last supper that they will stay with Jesus come what may, to the death – and they all agree. When it comes to it, though, the name repeated through all four gospels as being there as Jesus is crucified and put in the tomb and rises from the dead is Mary Magdalene.

Mary stays. She is fierce. She has had a hard life, Jesus cast out seven demons from her – who knows how long she’d lived with them or how old she was when Jesus healed her. But perhaps because she’s seen pain and suffering on a scale most people never experience, that is what makes her believe in resurrection. Mary experienced resurrection the first time she met Jesus, Jesus gave her her life back when he cast those demons out of her, it was like she was alive again, resurrected. Perhaps it is this that makes her stay. She’s not only there at the very end for Jesus but from the moment of her healing, she, along with other women who have been healed, fund Jesus’ ministry from their own money. So she was probably a wealthy woman too.

Mary is not afraid to look death in the eye. Mary is not afraid to sit in silence, to sit in her grief. She sets her face like flint (to use a psalmist’s phrase) and waits. Mary Magdalene is a saint of defiant hope.

I wanted to show you this beautiful icon of Mary Magdalene, written by Brother Robert Lentz.

This is how I like to picture her. You will see that Mary is holding and pointing to an egg. This is an ancient story about Mary. The Eastern Orthodox tradition tells us that after the Ascension she journeyed to Rome where she was admitted to the court of Tiberius Caesar because of her high social standing. After describing how poorly Pilate had administered justice at Jesus’ trial, she told Caesar that Jesus had risen from the dead. To help explain His resurrection she picked up an egg from the dinner table. Caesar responded that a human being could no more rise from the dead than the egg in her hand turn red. The egg turned red immediately.

Here in this icon, you can see Mary’s defiant hope in the resurrection. Her role is to point to the resurrected Jesus. Her song is ‘I have seen the Lord’!

Mary Magdalene is a survivor. She stands as the saint of defiant hope. She stands as living proof that resurrection is possible. She stays with Jesus, she never leaves his side: no wonder she wants to cling onto him when she sees him in the garden.

Mary Magdalene is someone I would like to be around. Someone that loves Jesus more than anyone else. Someone who has been ignored, vilified, not believed by the world but who is safe in the knowledge that her dear rabbi Jesus, knows her intimately, knows her name.

‘I have seen the Lord’ is her song. May it be my song, may it be your song, may it be our song. Alleluia! Amen.

Preaching in season and out of season…what to say after the Grenfell Tower tragedy?

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Today was the first time I’ve had to preach and take note of current events – I think all the other times there has been a major event in the news that my Training Incumbent has been around and so she has taken on the preaching on those occasions. But today, it fell to me to preach (as she is away) and I knew that I couldn’t *not* mention the recent terrible tragedy of the Grenfell Tower fire.

Already, when I first checked the gospel reading set for today, this verse jumped out at me:

Matt 9 36

When he saw the crowds, he had compassion for them, because they were harassed and helpless, like sheep without a shepherd. Matthew 9:36

And it raised a wry smile initially as this was immediately after the election result was announced.

I had no idea that in the end this would still be the verse I would choose to focus on in my sermon – but for quite a different reason than I originally thought.

Here is a slightly edited version of what I preached this morning:

I don’t know about you but too many times recently I’ve had a bad feeling in my stomach when I’ve woken up to either switch on the radio or check the news on my phone. Recently it’s felt like there has been a tremendous tragedy for us to take in every week. Not least this last week with the terrible fire at the Grenfell Tower in London – made even worse by the fact that it was a preventable tragedy. There is understandably a lot of anger around. An uneasy feeling in the pit of the stomach, a mixture of grief and outrage.

In the ancient world, they believed that the centre of the emotions was not the brain or the heart – but the stomach. When you think about it, it makes sense. Our young people have been doing their exams these last few weeks, I can remember the feeling I got just before an exam – it was always in my stomach, a queasy feeling. Or, when you’re thrilled about seeing someone you love, that feeling you might describe as butterflies in your stomach – a lighter feeling of anticipation. Even now, we often say ‘I’ve got a gut feeling about this’ or we talk about ‘gut instincts’. In Greek, the language that the New Testament was written in, there is a word, a funny sounding word that is only used a few times, that word is splagchnizomai and it means to be moved from the bowels or for your stomach to flip upside down (as someone rather graphically put it to me!) Our version of the bible translates this word as compassion and we heard it in our Gospel reading this morning:

When he saw the crowds, he had compassion for them, because they were harassed and helpless, like sheep without a shepherd. (Matthew 9:36)

Jesus saw the crowds of people coming to him with all manner of needs and he had a reaction in the pit of his stomach. A reaction of compassion, of pity, of love.

Where else in the Gospels is Jesus described as having this reaction? He has this compassion when he sees the widow attending her son’s funeral. Jesus is moved to compassion when he hears two blind men calling out to him for healing. Jesus is moved to compassion for the crowd of 5000 people that have come to hear him speak and have gone without food all day. Interestingly the same word is also used to describe the response of the Good Samaritan when he sees the man lying by the roadside and to describe the response of the father of the Prodigal Son as he sees him at a distance returning home.

The interesting thing about Jesus’ gut reaction of love is that it is always accompanied by action. Jesus has the feeling in the pit of his stomach and then he acts, he heals, he transforms, he feeds.

In the gospel reading we had today, Jesus’ action on having compassion on the crowd of helpless sheep is to send the disciples to them, to do his work of healing and transformation.

Jesus says to the disciples whom he has called by name, ‘Go to the lost sheep of the house of Israel and as you go, proclaim the Good News ‘the kingdom of heaven has come near’. As you go – in other words, set off and while you’re talking about the kingdom, show them what it looks like!

Jesus tells the disciples to ask the Lord to send labourers into the harvest and then promptly reveals to them that they are those labourers! Perhaps we are those labourers!

Compassion means very little without action. The letter of James says ‘If a brother or sister is naked and lacks daily food, and one of you says to them, ‘Go in peace; keep warm and eat your fill’, and yet you do not supply their bodily needs, what is the good of that? So faith by itself, if it has no works, is dead.’ (James 2)

We might well ask, ‘where is God in all this?’ when we look at the footage of that burning tower. But in the gut reactions of compassion of people of many different backgrounds and religions we can see an outpouring of love and support in churches, mosques and community centres. We saw it in Manchester as homeless men ran into the bombed arena to carry out injured children. We saw it in the Muslim doctors who worked through the night to operate on the injured. We saw it in the response of ordinary people to the attack on London Bridge.

Where there is compassion and action – there is Jesus – working in and through us to bring wholeness and healing.

Jesus looks on us with compassion, he has an angry gut reaction to the injustice in our world and then he rises to act, with healing in his wings.

Let us each find a way to ensure that not only do we have that gut reaction of compassion but that we also demonstrate that love of God in action – reaching out to those around us in need, being a voice for the voiceless, sharing our resources, knowing that as Jesus sends each one of us, he equips us with his Holy Spirit to do his work.

 

But Mary stood weeping outside the tomb…

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Alleluia, Christ is Risen!

This year I preached for the first time on Easter day. I think it’s the first time I’ve ever thumped the pulpit!

Here is the text of my sermon on Mary Magdalene at the empty tomb (John 20:1-18). May you know the presence of the Risen Christ with you always!

Giovanni_Girolamo_Savoldo_-_Mary_Magdalene_-_Google_Art_Project

I wonder if you’re any good in a crisis? Isn’t it horrible when you get an unexpected phone call that brings bad news? Even worse when it’s a phone call that requires you to act, and act immediately. When that happens it feels like all the breath has gone out of you. First you freeze and then you think, who can I call? Who will know what to do?

Well, very early in the morning, on the first day of the week, Mary Magdalene finds herself in just such a crisis. She has gone to the tomb and found it empty. Her only conclusion is that they have taken Jesus’ body somewhere else. They probably being the Roman guards on duty. So she thinks, ‘I must get Peter, he’ll know what to do’ and runs to find him. Peter comes along with John and they come with urgency running to the tomb. They look in and see that the body of Jesus has gone. And then, there is quite a devastating sentence in the gospel, devastating at least for Mary. Then the disciples returned to their homes. Mary is left by the empty tomb, all alone in her grief. She’s not content to leave like Peter and John, she’s not happy with their response to this crisis, she stays, weeping for all that has happened, perhaps weeping because Peter and John didn’t seem to have an answer. So she sits in her grief, but maybe, just maybe, in deciding to stay by the tomb, the first seed of hope is growing in her.

Did you notice in the reading that the angels that appear to Mary in the tomb do not have any effect on her. They don’t frighten her, they don’t stun her into silence. They ask Mary why she is weeping and she can only repeat the refrain ‘they have taken away my Lord’. Her grief is so overwhelming that she doesn’t even notice that they’re angels. Perhaps you have known grief or trouble as desperate as that? Such deep sorrow that you can’t connect with the things of God at all, you are just numb.

Jesus is already there with Mary in her grief, even before she knows it. Who knows how long he’s been standing there behind her. He knows what she’s going through. He’s experienced a similar deep sorrow in a different garden only three days before. Jesus is with Mary in her grief even when she doesn’t know it.

Then Mary turns around and sees someone, and like the angels, he asks the same question ‘why are you weeping? Who are you looking for?’ Mary repeats the same refrain, ‘they have taken away my Lord, they have taken away my Lord’. Mary doesn’t notice that it is Jesus, just as she didn’t notice the angels speaking to her. But Jesus recognises her. He doesn’t just recognise her, he knows her intimately, knows her troubled history more than anyone because he had freed her of seven demons. In saying her name, Jesus is reminding her how well he knows and loves her, one word, ‘Mary’ and she is jolted out of grief and into joy as she sees that it is Him.

Mary’s cry of ‘they’ve taken away my Lord’ is transformed into the joyful message ‘I have seen the Lord’! Mary becomes the first apostle, the apostle to the apostles, the one sent to the others to proclaim that Jesus is alive!

Mary’s story is also our story. When we are going through hard times, Jesus is with us, even when we don’t notice, even when we can’t feel it, Jesus is standing behind us, with us, patiently waiting for us to tell him what’s happened. Jesus knows pain, Isaiah describes God’s servant as a man of grief, acquainted with suffering. Because Jesus not only suffered and died but rose again, defeating death, he is always and especially present with us in times of sorrow, in the dark times of our lives.

When we baptise people we give them a special candle that has been lit from our beautiful Easter Candle – this light which is to us the light of the Risen Jesus. I always say to the families as I give them the candle that this means that Jesus will always be a light shining in that child’s life and most especially during those times that are the darkest. A candle shines most brightly, of course, in the dark. The Risen Christ is with us always.

Have you ever noticed that we always use the present tense when we talk about the resurrection? We say Jesus is risen, not Jesus has risen, because Jesus is alive, he is in the present, he is alive and with us now.

Not only is Mary’s story, our story, but Jesus’ story becomes our story. Our lives now reflect the pattern of Christ, we travel through the abandonment of Good Friday, the silence of Holy Saturday but our destination is always Easter Sunday and resurrection, new life, transformation. Because God raised Jesus from the dead, so too will we be raised! Paul writes to the Romans that the same spirit that raised Jesus from the dead is alive in each of you! So we, like Mary can say ‘I have seen the Lord!’ Alleluia!


Image attribution: Girolamo Savoldo [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons. On the Sunday morning after the Crucifixion, Mary Magdalene visited the tomb of Jesus, but found it empty. The story is recounted in the New Testament (John 20), and Mary Magdalene is here identified by the pot of ointment with which she anointed Christ’s body, and by the glimpse of her traditional red dress beneath a silver-grey cloak. She was the first person to see Christ after the Resurrection. Several other versions of this composition by Savoldo are known. The landscape background appears to represent Venice and its lagoon.

A meditation on St Veronica

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This week in our evening service talks we have been looking at some of the less well-known people who were there during Jesus’ passion. I chose to preach about St Veronica.

I can hear the evangelicals among you gasping that I chose to preach on a person who is not even found in scripture! The only point at which most of us meet Veronica is through the Stations of the Cross – she is the sixth. However, the more I explored this character, the more moved I became. I found the wikipedia page very helpful and also this beautiful poem by Malcolm Guite. The Isaiah 50:4-9a reading set for Wednesday night (when I preached) also fit beautifully into the theme.

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Veronica is kind of like an every-woman figure. There are so many unnamed women in the bible and the passion scenes are crowded with women – the men noticeably absent. So Veronica represents so much to do with the ministry of Jesus. As I was preparing my sermon I was struck by what an intimate act wiping another’s face is – the only person really that has ever done that for me is my mother. I was also struck by the fact that the last gentle intimate touch Jesus received before his arrest was the kiss of betrayal from Judas – the next gentle hands Jesus feels are from Veronica, stepping forward to courageously touch the bloody victim – just as Jesus had radically touched the unclean throughout his ministry.

Here is the text of my sermon:

There is a huge crowd, everyone pressing around Jesus, wanting to get near. A woman is on the edge of the crowd, slowly working her way to the centre, using her practised elbows to move forwards in the crush of bodies. If only I could just touch the hem of his garment, that would be enough, she thinks, she surges forward and grasps the tassels on the edge of Jesus’ outer garment. A few more steps and then he stops. The woman turns away, she got what she wanted, just a touch, that was all she needed.

Another day, this time in Jerusalem, there is a huge crowd, everyone pressing around Jesus, following his stumbling path through the streets, trying to steer clear of the brutal soldiers and their whips. Men jostle and see who can spit so that it lands on Jesus’ face. His face is ugly with pain and covered in filth, blood, sweat and phlegm. A sight people are turning away from, averting their gaze. A woman is on the edge of the crowd, slowly working her way closer. If only I could just touch him. If only I could just wipe away that filth from his face, as a mother would from their child’s face. If only I could just touch. That would be enough, she thinks.

Jesus had once removed this woman’s shame, he had healed her of her bleeding disease, restoring her body and soul back into her community. It was shameful for a woman to remove her headscarf in public but this time she is compelled, she removes it so that she can wipe away all that filth, all that anger thrown at Jesus’ face, wipe away that kiss of betrayal, wipe away the spit of contempt. An intimate act of compassion to wipe away the intimate kiss of betrayal in Jesus’ last hours.

We just heard from the book of Isaiah a description of the face of the suffering servant: I gave my back to those who struck me, and my cheeks to those who pulled out the beard; I did not hide my face from insult and spitting. Later in Isaiah, the prophet says ‘as one from whom others hide their faces he was despised’. The face of Jesus on the day of his crucifixion was a face one would turn away from. Blood would be pouring from the marks the thorns had made in his brow down his face, mingling with his tears of pain and with sweat. And then there was the spitting of the crowd, men jostling to get a hit. And if you have ever been spat at, you know that the first instinct is to wipe it away. But what can Jesus do? His hands are strapped to the heavy cross bar. Truly a face to turn away from, covered in filth, ugly with pain. And legend has it that a woman comes, named Berenice in Greek but Veronica in Latin, and she takes off her veil and wipes Jesus’ face with it, the face everyone else is turning away from. An astonishingly intimate act, maybe even more intimate than Mary of Bethany wiping Jesus feet with her hair as this act is out in the open, surrounded by a baying crowd. The legend says that this woman, Veronica, came away with an image of Christ on her veil. The name Veronica in Latin means ‘true image’. She bears the image of Christ. This woman with two names, Berenice, meaning bearer of victory, and Veronica meaning ‘true image’ – she carries with her the true image of Christ victorious, the image of the crucified Christ by whom we are made whole, by whose wounds we are healed. A small, but beautiful and memorable act of mercy – not recorded in the gospels, but that has captured the hearts of Christians down the centuries.

Veronica is every person who has ever been on the edge, on the outside, made to feel ashamed – these are the people who bear the image of Christ, who have received from Christ and carry his grace and mercy with them wherever they go. Veronica demonstrates in a small but significant act of mercy what Christ came to do – the wiping away of sin and betrayal, the restoring and making whole of the broken, and how we each carry with us the true image of Christ. May we be able to find the true image of Christ in the face of suffering, in the faces of those around us, in the faces of those from whom we would avert our gaze. We stop on our journey to Golgotha to gaze at the face of Jesus.

On the Feast of Stephen

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This year I asked my training incumbent if we could keep the feast of St Stephen on Sunday 27th December (the actual feast is Boxing Day). It’s a feast nearly always subsumed by Christmas and I thought it would be good to meditate on the feast of the first martyr of the faith, the Deacon St Stephen.

Vincenzo Foppa [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

 

Here is an extract from the sermon I preached:

‘The love that brought Christ from heaven to earth raised Stephen from earth to heaven’ [1] and the same is true for us. Following Jesus costs everything. We will not all die a violent martyr’s death like Stephen, but our lives follow Jesus’ pattern – through suffering, death and resurrection, we are raised with him.

We are reminded by the martyrdom of Stephen that the crib is never very far away from the cross, but we are also pointed to our ultimate destination.

In coming to earth, Jesus broke the power of death – Mary swaddles the infant Jesus in bands of cloth and in the tomb,[2] Jesus breaks those bands of cloth, the death that binds us and is risen in glory, the bands of cloth are cast aside, the grave clothes are left folded in the tomb, destroying the power of death. Stephen, the first martyr, is the first to follow this pattern set for us in Christ: humbled and raised to new life in him. Let us follow Stephen as he followed the pattern of Christ that we too might be raised to eternal life. Amen.

 

Notes:

[1] a quotation from a sermon of Bishop Fulgentius from the 6th century.

[2] An analogy drawn by Malcolm Guite in his wonderful Advent and Christmas book ‘Waiting on the Word‘ p89.

What I learned about preaching from watching Masterchef

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I gorged on Masterchef in my week off after Easter as I’d missed that a new series was on and so watched 13 episodes back to back in bed on my iPad! I’ve already managed to get that into a sermon (I preached on the gospel where Jesus asks for a piece of fish all about the centrality of food to the resurrection accounts!)

Watching Masterchef on my iPad

Watching Masterchef on my iPad

Watching so many episodes in a row enabled me to see the progress of the contestants ‘up close’ so to speak. This made me reflect a bit on my last year as a deacon and particularly on how I’ve developed as a preacher.

At the beginning of Masterchef, the contestants like to show off any special techniques they know. There’ll be something sous vide; there’ll be a smear of some kind of puree on the plate; there’ll be a quenelle somewhere; perhaps some crisped chicken skin and, this year, lots of the desserts included some kind of ‘soil’ (not very appetising sounding is it?) Usually, they either mess up the technique or get them right but just have too many ingredients on the plate.

I know my sermons were like this right at the beginning. Fresh out of theological college with a load of unthumbed bible commentaries I was all ready to show my credentials, to show off stuff that I’d found out. What would happen when I appeared before the ‘judges’ was that they said things like ‘this purée here was delicious but was totally overpowered by your sauce, that was the only thing we could taste’.

As the Masterchef series goes on you start to see contestants learn to keep things simple, put fewer ingredients on the plate, not give themselves so many processes to follow under the tight time constraints available.

I have started to learn the same things. I’ve learnt that I don’t necessarily have to preach on every verse of that week’s gospel reading – focusing on just one verse can work (and let’s face it, with at least 30 years in ministry ahead of me, God-willing, I will preach through the lectionary quite a few times!) I’ve also learnt that it’s a good idea to source your ingredients locally – this will then resonate with the congregation better.

I’m definitely not Masterchef final standard yet, but I’m learning and the metaphor of the Masterchef signature dish is one I will keep in mind each time I sit down to prepare a sermon. Think: ‘what would Gregg and John say if this sermon was a dish?’

Sermon: ‘Too heavenly minded to be of any earthly use? The 7 heavenly virtues’ – Hatfield College, Durham

Elisabetta Sirani [CC-BY-SA-3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0) or GFDL (http://www.gnu.org/copyleft/fdl.html)], via Wikimedia Commons
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This term I am undertaking a placement at Hatfield College, Durham. For the choral evensong services of the Epiphany term, the college are following a series on the 7 heavenly virtues (the 7 deadly sins were the theme of last term’s services). Dr Bash, the Chaplain and Senior Tutor invited me to speak at the first service of term and provide an introduction to the series.

This was a challenging but fun sermon to write – I haven’t preached without a set bible passage before and the congregation is mostly academics and students – so a bit of a different setting from what I am used to.

Here is the sermon:

“Too heavenly minded to be of any earthly use? The seven heavenly virtues.”

I heard that last term you had a series looking at the 7 deadly sins. So when I met with Dr Bash to discuss my placement here he suggested I do the first sermon of the Epiphany term. “Oh good”, I thought, “I wonder what topic that will be on – sounds like they do racy topics at Hatfield”. Then he told me – ‘now we’ve done the 7 deadly sins, we’re going to move onto the 7 heavenly virtues’. I’m a bit embarrassed at my initial lack of enthusiasm for the subject. Why does it sound so uncool? Isn’t it curious that the word virtuous is nearly always used in a pejorative way? Maybe you’ve said it a few times this month already ‘oh he’s being really virtuous, he’s not drinking for the whole of January’. Always used in a negative way – it implies ‘that person thinks they’re better than me’. We rarely commend another person on their virtue. It sounds, well, old fashioned. Even the title of the sermon given to me phrases things negatively: ‘too heavenly minded to be of any earthly good’.

I shared an article the other day on Facebook about awful ‘pink princess’ marketing towards little girls. There was one objection that a friend had to the article. The journalist wrote:

‘The Harrods Disney experience, complete with sparkly makeover and deluxe princess dress, is aimed at girls aged three to 12 and culminates in an oath where princesses’ vow, among other things, to be “kind and gentle”. Perhaps not the best advice for future boardroom battles or climbing the steely managerial ladder, but of course, those aren’t the sort of roles one would expect a princess to aspire to.’

My friend asked ‘what’s wrong with promising to be kind?’

It got me thinking: particularly when I discovered that kindness is one of the 7 heavenly virtues.

So, we’d better start at the beginning. What are the 7 heavenly virtues and where do they come from?

Initially it was the ancient Greeks that came up with a list of virtues – these are temperance, justice, courage and wisdom. The early Christians, the educated of which would have been taught these, added 3 further theological virtues taken from Paul’s First Letter to the Corinthians – faith, hope and charity. This list of 7 became known as the ‘cardinal’ virtues – from the Latin word ‘hinge’ – giving the idea that these virtues are what everything else hinges on. The 7 heavenly virtues, however, came a little later with the publication of a poem in the 4th century by the poet Prudentius called the Psychomachia – translated into English by HJ Thomson (in the only version I managed to download for free from the internet) as ‘The fight for mansoul’ – mansoul being one word which I found rather quirky! This text became incredibly popular in the Middle Ages and it is from this that we get the lists of the 7 deadly sins and the 7 heavenly virtues which are their counterparts. The 7 heavenly virtues are chastity, charity, diligence, patience, kindness, humility and temperance – I’ll let you work out which are their opposing vices!

I was wondering why on earth a poem written in the 4th century by a Roman Christian became so popular in the Middle Ages. Then I read it. It’s brilliant! The poem is a graphic account of the battle that takes place in our soul as we try and live well. Prudentius personifies the 7 vices and virtues as warrior women engaged in a vicious fight. It reminded me quite a lot of Game of Thrones (both the books and the TV series) – it’s very racy, let me read you an extract:

Next to step forth ready to engage on the grassy field is the maiden Chastity, shining in beauteous armour. On her falls Lust the Sodomite, girt with the firebrands of her country, and thrusts into her face a torch of pinewood blazing murkily with pitch and burning sulphur, attacking her modest eyes with the flames and seeking to cover them with the foul smoke. But the maiden undismayed smites with a stone the inflamed fiend’s hand and the cursed whore’s burning weapon, striking the brand away from her holy face. Then with a sword thrust she pierces the disarmed harlot’s throat, and she spews out hot fumes with clots of foul blood, and the unclean breath defiles the air nearby. “A hit!” cries the triumphant princess. “This shall be thy last end; forever shalt thou dare to cast thy deadly flames against God’s man-servants or his maid-servants.”

Sirani virtues

Is that what is going on in your soul? Does it ever feel like life is a battle that ferocious?

This doesn’t sound like ‘heavenly minded’ stuff. This sounds like very earthly stuff to me. And that is the challenge of Christianity. We have just celebrated the great feast of the Incarnation – Christmas. What that feast tells us about the Christian God is that He is not ‘up in the clouds’ aloof from the world but right down in the dirt, violence and pain of our world. Living life to the full – as Jesus challenges us to do in John 10:10 is a messy business – and a lot of that messiness goes on for us internally – within our very souls.

I would suggest that there are two main reasons it’s going to be worth us spending some time this term looking at the virtues. Firstly, a worldly reason. Our society is struggling for lack of focusing on the right things, on the common good – what we would call the virtues. The biggest issue facing us in the UK at the moment is the recession. What caused that? It was the greed of the banks and the belief that it is possible to undertake banking without thinking ethically. You might remember back in 2011 all the problems at St Paul’s Cathedral with the Occupy movement? Following that, the Bishop of London commissioned Ken Costa, an investment banker to help the banking sector rediscover its moral compass. Since then we have had a new Archbishop of Canterbury who has put the focus back onto ethics in banking in challenging Wonga and payday loans and we’ve had the Pope directly challenging trickle down capitalism in his first papal encyclical. This was so shocking to business leaders in America that they absurdly threatened to stop giving money to the church because of the Pope’s “outrageous” views. I don’t know what courses you are all studying, but I know many of you will go on to be business leaders, lawyers, politicians and government workers. Perhaps your generation can heal the mistakes made by the current generation of leaders that have lost their ‘moral compass’? You will influence society for good or ill when you leave this place – so it’s probably a good idea for us to look together at the virtues – it will help provide you with a framework for the way you live your life.

The second reason I think it’s worth us spending time looking at the virtues is for our own selves and personal growth in Christ. Plato and Aristotle – and later on Thomas Aquinas –  believed that the virtues could only be learnt through practice. There is something to be said for repetition, we are very forgetful people. This seems appropriate for a new year – think of these next few weeks of choral evensong at Hatfield as a training academy for your soul. When John Wesley set up his Methodist societies – groups for people to attend to encourage each other in the faith – he charged each person to have someone ask them each week

‘how is it with your soul?’

It is a piercing question is it not?

Perhaps you feel like your soul is in a raging battle – like the one described by Prudentius in the Psychomachia. Or perhaps you feel a bit like me, to be honest, I haven’t given much attention to my soul recently – it’s been a bit dormant. So let’s try and wake up, let’s wake up to what is going on in our soul. I want to get spiritually fit this year as well as physically fit. Let’s ask ourselves each week this term, ‘how is it with my soul?’ and let us learn together how we can truly live life in all its fullness with the help of the Holy Spirit. Amen.