Words about God and Life for the Attention Deficit Generation

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Three Minute Theology: words about life and God for the Attention Deficit Generation

‘North’ versus ‘South’ for C. S. Lewis

The things I have symbolised by North and South, which are to me equal and opposite evils, each continually strengthened and made plausible by its critique of the other, enter our experience on many different levels. In agriculture we have to fear both the barren soil and the soil which is irresistibly fertile. … In art, we find on the one hand, purists and doctrinaires, who would rather … lose a hundred beauties than admit a single fault, and who cannot believe anything to be good if the unlearned spontaneously enjoy it: on the other hand, we find the uncritical and slovenly artists who will spoil the whole work rather than deny themselves any indulgence of sentiment or humour or sensationalism. Everyone can pick out among his own acquaintance the Northern and Southern types—the high noses, compressed lips, pale complexions, dryness and taciturnity of the one, the open mouths, the facile laughter and tears, the garrulity… . The Northerners are the men of rigid systems whether sceptical or dogmatic, Aristocrats, Stoics, Pharisees, Rigorists, signed and sealed members of highly organised ‘Parties’. The Southerners are by their very nature less definable; boneless souls whose doors stand open day and night to almost every visitant, but always with readiest welcome for those, whether Maenad or Mystagogue, who offer some sort of intoxication. The delicious tang of the forbidden and the unknown draws them on with fatal attraction; the smudging of all frontiers, the relaxation of all resistances, dream, opium, darkness, death, and the return to the womb. Every feeling is justified by the mere fact that it is felt: for a Northerner, every feeling on the same ground is suspect.

…In Theology also there is a North and South. The one cries ‘Drive out the bondmaid’s son,’ and the other ‘Quench not the smoking flax’. The one exaggerates the distinctness between Grace and Nature into a sheer opposition and …makes the way hard for those who are at the point of coming in. The other blurs the distinction altogether, flatters mere kindliness into thinking it is charity and vague optimisms or pantheisms into thinking that they are Faith, and makes the way out fatally easy and imperceptible for the budding apostate.

C. S. Lewis, ‘Preface to the Third Edition’, in The Pilgrim’s Regress, Rev. ED. (original Date 1933; London: Geoffrey Bles, 1943).

Dydactylos on philosophy

His philosophy was a mixture of three famous schools—the Cynics, the Stoics and the Epicureans—and summed up all three of them in his famous phrase, “You can’t trust any bugger further than you can throw him, and there’s nothing you can do about it, so let’s have a drink.”

Terry Pratchett, Small Gods 1992

Why Calvinists can’t be poets (and vice versa)?

…there is a fundamental sense in which a Protestant theology of grace poses a problem for poets. This is especially so in Calvin’s development of sola gratia, where the insistence on the total depravity of fallen humanity prevents human action from earning God’s gifts of salvation and sanctification. Human agency is thoroughly impotent in this regard, and apart from the direct intervention of God himself, all human actions are vitiated by sin. As Calvin’s Institutes articulate this notion, “only damnable things come forth from man’s corrupted nature.” [2.3.289] Thus all human actions seem either to be sinful, because they are the product of a totally depraved human nature, or not really human at all, since any “good” action can only be the direct result of God’s agency. This theology places the religious poet on the horns of a similar dilemma. On the one hand, it is surely the calling of the Christian poet to write Christian poetry; on the other, if faithful poetry is just a mark of an already complete saving act of God, what can the poet add to that act by writing? Does it not even risk blasphemy to try and write “in excess” of the command of God?

Shaun Ross, ‘Sacrifices of Thanksgiving: The Eucharist in “The Temple”’, George Herbert Journal 40, no. 1 (Fall  /Spring 2017 2016): p. 4.

Why is writing so damn hard…?

It had never really progressed, it had simply fallen apart into a series of fragments. And out of two years’ work that was all that he had to show — just fragments, incomplete in themselves and impossible to join together. On every one of those sheets of paper there was some hacked scrap of verse which had been written and rewritten and rewritten over intervals of months. There were not five hundred lines that you could say were definitely finished. And he had lost the power to add to it any longer; he could only tinker with this passage or that, groping now here, now there, in its confusion. It was no longer a thing that he created, it was merely a nightmare with which he struggled. For the rest, in two whole years he had produced nothing except a handful of short poems — perhaps a score in all. It was so rarely that he could attain the peace of mind in which poetry, or prose for that matter, has got to be written. The times when he ‘could not’ work grew commoner and commoner. Of all types of human being, only the artist takes it upon him to say that he ‘cannot’ work.

Gordon’s agony, in George Orwell’s Keep the Aspidistra Flying, 1936

(HT @poetrypotion for the reminder)

Does it mean nothing to you? 4

Oh God! I don’t believe it! They’re back again! In the middle hours of the night, when all respectable, God-fearing people should be in bed with the door locked and windows closed, and only bandits, graverobbers and Romans are out and about, there’s a mutter of whispering and shuffling on the staircase outside my bedroom window. It takes me a bleary-eared couple of heartbeats to work out that those are Galilean accents, and I recognize one for sure: Big-Lump, the super-spy who’d come with the Galilean Rabbi on Thursday afternoon. My heart sinks. I had hoped to have seen the last of them when they left my furnished dining room on Thursday night, and even though Judas, the only decent one in the whole party, never showed up on Friday to pay the account, I would rather take the financial hit than deal with that lot again.

And anyway, who said that innkeepers have to be insurrectionists as well? I keep rooms in which Passovers may be eaten—hospitality for pilgrims is my business. I didn’t set out to be a base for every bandit in Judea to plot and regroup. I thought, on Thursday night, that they were just a bunch of stuck-up and slightly thick provincials. The usual crowd to make money from. And then, after what happened on Friday I realise that this lot are dangerous. “We’re leaving to continue our worship somewhere else,” said the high-handed Rabbi to me. “We don’t want to be disturbed.” Well he did me a favour according to all accounts. Temple guards and Roman soldiers arrested them in their prayer meeting, and the drippy Galilean was taken off to Caiaphas’s house. Can you imagine the complaints from the neighbours if the soldiers had come here? “Oi! It’s the night before Passover! Can’t you keep the noise down?” “Sorry, sorry,” I’d’ve had to shout back. “Not my fault I rented rooms to revolutionaries”!

Thaddeus told me that the Rabbi had been executed on Friday. Pincer movement between the High Priest and the Governor. Don’t like seeing anyone getting killed by the Romans, even a stuck-up sneak like that Galilean, but I like bodies in the street even less. I remember the last insurrection. Not pleasant, I can tell you, and if the death of one (or two!) Galilean rabbis means we don’t have to live through all that again, well— it’s a price worth paying.

But now they’re back! I stick my head out of the window and look at them milling pathetically around in the courtyard below. “What do you think you’re doing?” I hiss. “Go away!”

“We’ve got nowhere else to go to,” says one, not Big-Lump, who I can see standing to one side, arms wrapped around himself, staring into space.

“Not my problem. Go away!”

“Please! We need somewhere to rest. We’ve been on the move for two days.”

I’m about to swear at them when I see shutters beginning to move on the other side of the squares. Which is worse: neighbours or Galileans? Hard choice, but without really knowing why, I go downstairs and lift the bolt from the door, and let them in.

“Quickly” I hiss. “Before the neighbours hear.”

“Thank you, thank you,” they all mutter. Their gratitude makes me cringe more than the drunken arrogance of two days ago.

“Yes, yes, quickly. Inside.”

I take them upstairs, back into the large dining room I had hired to them for the Passover. Hired, but not been paid for. “You can stay here for the moment,” I say. “But I want to be paid for the dinner. Judas was supposed to pay me on Friday. Where is he?” There’s an embarrassed pause, and the one who spoke to me outside answers.

“Judas is dead. Killed himself. Buried in the potter’s field.” I sigh.

“With or without his money?”

Another pause: “Without. The temple priests took the money back from him.”

“Temple priests? Why did they have his money? My money? No, don’t tell me. I think it’s safer for me to know as little about you lot as possible. Two of you dead in two days. What do you reckon your chances of survival are?” At this Big-Lump shakes himself out of his stupor.

“Survival? Not good. Not good at all. We will not survive. We don’t deserve to survive.” Another pause.

“Well,” says I, business-like. “I’m glad to see the party mood continuing. You can stay the day. Then I want you out at night-fall, and I suggest you get out of the city then. You can usually get through the Dung Gate before the curfew sets in. But that’s your problem.” There’s no response from them, but they all just collapse on the cushions on the floor. They look as if they have slept since Thursday night. Well, trouble-making is a tiring business. And if I sound unsympathetic, then that’s because I am.

There’s peace and quiet for a few hours, but I can hear, before the city’s cockerels begin their usual cry, feet running to the foot of the staircase. There’s a thump, thump, thump on the door—not strong or insistent enough to a soldier’s demand to be let in—and then the door opens and there’s a hurried, babbling conversation. I make out a“I don’t believe it!” and I sympathise.

“I know what you mean, legate. I let you back in on the condition you keep your heads down, and before the sun is up, you’re drawing the attention of the whole neighbourhood to my inn. I don’t believe it, indeed.”

As I’m getting my robe on, more furious whispering and the door bangs shut, and I hear feet running away from the inn: three or four people this time.

By the time I get to upper room all the provincials are awake and huddled in gossipy debate. I look out the one who took the lead in the night.

“What is it now?!” I don’t mind showing my irritation.

He looks at me, and shakes his head. “It’s the women. They’ve come back with some kind of cock and bull story about Jesus.”

“Jesus?” I ask.

“The rabbi.” Funny. I had never heard his name before then.

“What about him? Still dead, is he?”

“That’s just it,” he says, half-way between smiling and crying. “The women went to his tomb this morning, to finish off the funeral rites. They didn’t have time on Friday, what with Sabbath beginning, and the storm, and the Roman soldiers. They say,”—  he put emphasis on ‘say’— “that when they got to the tomb, the stone was rolled away, and the body gone.”

“Gone? Gone where?”

“They don’t know. They just came back here to tell us, and Simon Peter and John have gone to check.”

“Very wise, legate. Sounds like a typical woman’s story to me. Wrong tomb, wrong grave yard, wrong body. Wrong everything. Unless… You haven’t already nicked the body, have you? I won’t have graverobbers in my inn!”

“Not us! We couldn’t have anyway. The Governor put a guard on the tomb. We’d never have got passed the soldiers.”

“Soldiers! So where are they now then?”

“I have no idea, but I tell you, unless I see it for myself, I’m not going to believe it. Too much has happened this week for me to get my hopes up.”

Just as he is speaking Big-Lump arrives back, with the Handsome one in tow. They’re out of breath. Big-Lump has woken out of his stupor then.

“They’re right,” he says. “No body there. No guards. Just the grave clothes folded neatly in the corner.”

“And…?” says the one I was speaking to.

“And what, Thomas.”

“Didn’t you look for the Master’s body? Where’s it gone?”

“I have no idea, Thomas. All I can say is that it isn’t there.”

“Peter! You are hopeless! That is no answer.”

All I think is that I am glad the revolution isn’t dependent on this lot. They can’t even keep track of their Master’s body. As the argument develops between the group, some following Thomas and not believing a word of it, others following Peter and John thinking that something, anything, has happened, a woman slowly slips into the room, and stands there. I’m the only one to notice her, at first, but gradually the argument quietens down. She is red in the face, and obviously moved in some way, and equally obviously, trying to keep her emotions under control.

Peter finally notices that everyone else has shut up, and turns to the woman. “Mary. You’re back.”

She catches her breath, and then it all come out. “Peter. He’s alive. I have seen him, almost touched him. He spoke my name. He tells me to tell you all that he is ascending to his Father.”

All this in a room of absolute stillness. She finishes and the silence continues for a moment, and then pandemonium.


“Don’t be ridiculous!”

“He’s dead, Mary. I saw his body on the tree!”

“There were spears, and nails. Of course, he’s dead!”

“A woman’s witness! What’s that worth!”

In all this, I notice something strange. Mary doesn’t attempt to argue or explain. She doesn’t find more words to describe what happened. She doesn’t join in. She just stands there, as sure as she would’ve been if she had told them that the sun had risen that morning. They could disagree all they liked, but the sun would still have risen, and its light would still be in the sky.

Despite myself, I’m getting involved. I don’t say anything. Rather, I find myself caring. Perhaps this woman is right. Perhaps the Galilean rabbi is alive, risen from the tomb. What would that mean if he has? What would that mean for me? For Jerusalem? What would that mean for the world? As I think these thoughts, such unexpected ideas, I find myself overwhelmed with excitement, no, not excitement, a joy like a meal with good friends and the birth of a child and the wonder of dawn and the songs of a high day in the Temple, all rolled into one. This means everything, I think. If only it were true. If only it wasn’t just a story told by a woman.

And as I think that, the noise of arguing men fades away, and the room grows warm, like the heat of a summer’s morning burning off the dew, and a sweet breeze blows through the stuffy and scruffy upper room, and he stands in the middle of the swirling group, and as I fall to my knees, the light and joy disarms me and all I hear is his voice, saying, promising, bringing: “Peace.”

Does it mean nothing to you? 3

“It’s a dirty job”, they usually say. But then they add, “and I’m glad it’s not me that has to do it.” And without a hint of gratitude. No: “and I’m glad that somebody does it”, or even: “and I’m glad that you do it, Bartholomew.” I mean, I don’t expect much in this world, and I know that I live in hard times in a hard land, but just occasionally, it would be good if a little word of thanks could fall like refreshing rain onto my path.

Of course, I know all the reasons why I get ignored in this way. Everybody dies, and no one wants to be reminded of it. Everyone, in the long run, is dead, and nobody wants the long run to be shortened. It’s funny, it’s as if being reminded of death, or coming into contact with death will somehow shorten their lifespan. “That’s not the case,” a Rabbi once told me, with a scarf wrapped around his face in case he forgot to keep away from me. “Being near the dead does not shorten our lives—it just shortens our useful lives. Coming into contact with the dead is a good thing, when we are performing the duties required of us towards our mother and father. But even then, it means that we become ritually impure, and are thus unable to worship God in the way he requires. Cleansing ourselves of such impurity takes times, and that is time away from the study of God’s word, away from worshipping God in synagogue and Temple, away from sacrifice. Life is too short to miss out on the important things.” And then he threw a copper coin at me, and told me to go away in most unrabbinical language.

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Does it mean nothing to you? 2

Apparently, it’s a holiday. Although, to be honest, most days seem to be a holiday here. And not the sort of decent, joyful, singing-in-the-street sort of holidays we’re used to back home. Here the holidays go on for days at a time, and everyone stays indoors, only emerging to look stroppy and bad-tempered and ready for a fight. Too much religion and not enough wine. Something to do with their miserable mountain god, I suppose.

Anyway, I hate holidays in Judea. Holiday for the Jews, double overtime for the soldiers. You never know when the empty streets will suddenly fill, for no apparent reason, with crowds looking to roll-over a legionary. There are forty crosses on a roadside in Galilee which I filled after the last holiday: I know I told the legates it had been an insurrection, and it probably was, but in my book, as soon as a sword or a club or a rock was lifted towards a Roman, I don’t care what the motivation is. I’ve been a centurion for long enough to know that Pax Romana is not concerned with fine distinctions, and neither is the Governor.

But now here I am, in the capital, for the longest and worst holiday of the year. Appropriate, I suppose, for this is the smallest and worst capital in the Empire. Stuck high up on a desert mountain, where water is short and the air is thin, and nights are freezing cold. The olives are wizened and the wine is worse. All in all, I almost prefer being in Britannia. And the crowds!

The whole of Judea is here, and swarms of people from all over the Empire, pouring into the tiny city as if their lives depend on it. And for such a strange religion as well: a cruel and capricious and changeable god (only one!), who makes demand after demand on his people, and never allows them anything in exchange. Such an exclusive god as well. I’m a well-brought up Roman citizen, and I’m perfectly prepared to offer libations at the altar of Mithras and Zoroaster and Toutatis and Lud. But when I arrived in Jerusalem I was told, in no uncertain terms, that I am NOT to go to the Temple, and I am NOT to attempt to pay respects to the Jewish god: “a jealous god” they call him. Psycho, more like.

And now dumped into mopping up duties. Mopping up after another religious-political mess up. A man who claims (or doesn’t claim) to be a holy man; claims (or doesn’t claim) to be a prophet; claims (or doesn’t claim) to be a political leader; claims (or doesn’t claim) to be a rival King to Caesar. Honestly the story isn’t straight, and I don’t think it ever will get straight. Any little respect I might have had for the Jewish religious leaders, and the little respect I have for legates and governors has long gone. The naked pursuit of private agendas is one thing: how else did Pax Romana get to be Pax Romana without it being imposed so decisively? What really annoys me is the incompetence shown by the priests and the Governor. This trouble-maker could’ve been arrested long before the holiday, or he could’ve been “disappeared” until after the crowds dispersed. But a public trial and a public execution on the day before the holiday when the city was at its most volatile? … well! If you want a problem solved, best call the Legion VI Ferrata!

The execution spot, just outside the city walls, is prepared. Golgotha, the Jews called it (barbarous tongue): Calvary to civilized folk. We’ve had executions there regularly, the last three days ago, and the bodies have been taken down this morning. There are four crosses ready, although we’re only going to need three: one for the Galilean political, and two for ordinary criminals— robbers? bandits? something like that. The next problem to sort out is getting to the execution ground. The streets between the Governor’s palace, the Antonia, and the nearest gate to Calvary are narrow, and bound to be crowded. Short swords might be needed, but clubs will be more effective for close-up work. Better make sure that the detail are issued with them. I’ll pick up the execution party (party! Great name for it!) at the Antonia, and lead them through. Should I ride? No, that’s foolhardy in these streets. I’ll have more control on foot. Easier to get to miscreants at their level.

The robbers are not pleased to see me: one swears, one cries. The “political” says nothing, and just stands there. Is he too dazed to know what is going on? His face and back are certainly streaked with blood and bruising. Let’s see when I order them to shoulder the cross-bars. Hmm… he’s looking around him, like he’s examining the guards who will accompany him to Calvary. He knows what’s going on. More than that: he thinks he’s in control. He’ll learn soon enough.

The streets are tumultuous, but there doesn’t seem to be any resistance. In fact, the crowds are out to jeer at the prisoners. That’s unusual. Jews don’t normally take against the subjects of Roman justice like this. A man could be a rapist and a murderer, but if he was being killed by Roman law, then he immediately turns into a hero for the crowds. But I know enough Aramaic to recognise an insult when I hear one. Ugh! And the air is filled with curses and spit. “Watch it, you! Improve your aim if you don’t want to end up on a cross!”. Better keep a close eye on the political. No reaction. He’s staggering under the weight of the cross bar, banging its outstretched ends into walls and corners and people. But he’s not answering back. His eyes are focussed on the man ahead of him. Sometimes he’s looking into the crowd, like he’s looking for someone in particular. He’s not going to find them, not in this mob. They are always disappointed. No rescue crew coming. He still hasn’t said a word, though. Nice quiet prisoner.

There’s space to breathe outside the city walls, and the air is fresher. Fresh enough for a rain storm? Dammit. I wish I’d brought my long winter cloak. I’m going to get soaked through on this exposed hill waiting for the prisoners to die. I’m going to get a brazier and break their legs after four hours if they aren’t dead by then. No point in prolonging my inconvenience.

Strip the prisoners naked, throw them to the ground, lay them upon their cross bars in front of the uprights we’ve already fixed into the ground. Arms stretched out. Legionaries! Get those nails in! Hope the cross-bars haven’t been used too many times before. Sometimes it’s hard for the nails to grip in stained and splintered wood as they go through the prisoners’ wrists. Two of the three cry out. Ah! A grimace of pain from the political! Still alive then, and not drugged out his suffering by some friendly supporter. Thread the ropes through the hooks on the back of the cross bars and over more hooks on the tops of the stake. Drag the prisoners upright. Pull them to the tops of the stakes. No, I don’t care if their bodies dangle in the air for a bit whilst you get things sorted, legionary! You’ve made sure their arms are tied to the cross bar as well? I don’t want them dying of suffocation too quickly. That always happens if it’s just nails. The people need to see Roman justice, and that takes time.

All three prisoners make it to the cross alive. Practice and professionalism! Final nails into the feet! Push their legs up into a crouch. Just enough purchase to lift their bodies up when they feel their lungs being crushed. Longer to die, and longer to bring the message home to the people about Roman justice.

One last job for the political. Get me a ladder against the political’s cross. Climbing up, I can see the crowds, a decent, and safe distance away. Hand me the titulus. No, that wooden board. A last nail to fix it above the political’s head. “Jesus of Nazareth, King of the Jews”. So that’s his name. Some Jewish VIPs shout at me as I climb down the ladder: “You can’t put that up there!” “Speak to Pilate.” “But, he’s not our king!” “Speak to Pilate.” “Put ‘He said he was king of the Jews’”. “Speak to Pilate. And don’t speak to me again.” This last with my hand on my sword. They shut up.

Not for long though. They turn their attention to the political. Abuse and curses and religious language, I suppose, though I have no idea what most of it means. They must really hate him. The political says nothing for a long while. The screaming continues until one of the robbers joins in as well. Even on a cross you can find someone worse off than yourself. Eventually the political opens his mouth. Finally! “Father, forgive”! In barely a whisper. It stops the abuse for the moment. Everyone looks slightly bemused, as if surprised to find themselves where they are, in a boneyard, screaming at dying men.

The sky’s clouded over. The storm is coming. Good job I ordered that brazier. Three of the lads are playing dice in its warmth. The crowds have thinned now, sensibly enough. The political isn’t going anywhere. Two people remain, standing as close to the cordon of soldiers as they dare. The political is speaking to them, a man and an older woman. Something about looking after each other. You should’ve thought about your will before you got into trouble, sonny.

One of the robbers has already died. The other is close to it. A hour inside my timetable. Good job too, because it’s now as dark as pitch, and the rain is lashing down. Only the political is still going, pushing himself up on his nailed feet, stretching towards the heavens. “I have finished…” (true enough, sonny). “Father, into your hands, I commit my spirit.” And then the political shudders, and dies.

That’s odd. What’s was that all about? Have I missed something in all the events of the day. Perhaps, all in all, this man really was righteous? Even so, righteous or not, he’s dead.

Thank the gods that was over. Mopping up successfully accomplished. Time to get the body down before sunset. Let the relatives have him, and then we can forget all about him. I wonder if the water is hot in the barrack bath house?

Does it mean nothing to you? 1

I bloody hate holidays, me. Everyone asks, every year, “what you doing for Passover?” “Celebrating passover with anyone nice this year?” “Who’s hosting your passover meal for you this year?” “The usual”; “No”; “Me” are my standard answers. Passover doesn’t mean holidays for innkeepers. Passover means extra work, ungrateful clients, absent servants, inflated prices that I can’t pass on to the ungrateful customers, and crowds, crowds, crowds.

I mean, look at what happened yesterday. She had gone again. Whatsherface? Tabitha. Takes off every high day and holy day, and leaves me to do the women’s work, the servant’s work. If we’re going to hire the rooms for the provincials’ passover parties then the rooms need to be cleaned. Even Galileans can tell when a room hasn’t been swept, and Galileans especially would take that as a reason for a discount. So rooms need to be cleaned, and brooms need to be used and water needs to be fetched. Women’s work, servant’s work. And then Tabitha disappears again, and I have to go to the well to fetch the water. Honestly, if I hadn’t got all those bookings, I wouldn’t have bothered. The grief I get from the neighbours! “Here comes the dancing girl!” “Give us a drink, love!”. I’ll give you a bloody drink!

So there I am, on the third trip back from well, with that enormous jar under my arms (how do women manage them on their heads),when up comes creeping two of the Galileans, all cloak and dagger, like, as if they were on some secret mission. And they were pathetically obvious. Provincials, with their scruffy clothes and worse accents.

“The Teacher says…”, they start. “Teacher? What teacher?” says I, knowing full well that it’s the Galilean rabbi who made the booking three days ago. (Rabbi? Another nutter, more like). But they have to go through the whole “on his majesty’s imperial secret service” routine. “The teacher wishes to know where is the guest room.” “Oh”, says I, thinking to have some fun. “And the screech owl hoots in the valley of the tombs,” and gesture to them to give the pass-code. The look on their faces! Pure panic!“Don’t worry, legates. I know who the teacher is, and I know where his booking is. Come with me. Lovely room, freshly swept, ideal for intimate Passovers for family and friends. Good times guaranteed. When Elijah comes, these are the rooms he’ll use for his Passover”. Honestly, like shooting fish in a barrel. No sense of humour, Galileans.

So along they come, and sniff out the room, like they’ve ever seen anything better, mutter things about “the teacher’s place at table” and “away from the scribes”, still playing the frumentarii secret service nonsense. And then they hang around, getting under my feet, all afternoon, as I boil the eggs, and lay out the plates and cups, and roast the lamb, and pour the wine in the jars around the room. “We’ll need more wine”, they say. “More?” says I. “How many cups of the Passover do you propose to drink tonight? The usual twenty-three?” “There are only four cups of the Passover,” says the big one, a lumpen fool if I ever saw one. “But there will be thirteen or more of us for the meal”. More wine it is then.

And then, as it gets dark, the rest of them turn up, more frumentarii secret service nonsense. This time literally cloak and daggers: some are packing ironmongery under their travelling cloaks and I think to myself, “Great. Legions every where and no weapons in the city, and I’ve got the Maccabees Brothers’ reunion Passover happening in my rooms!” The Teacher turns up, and then I remember why I didn’t like him when I took the booking earlier in the week. It’s the same bloke who encouraged all that fuss the day after the Sabbath: donkeys, colts, branches and shouting. The holidays are bad enough without adding street theatre to it as well. People’s tempers are short enough without angering the Temple guards and the Roman soldiers. Typical drippy Galilean rabbi: all sweet smiles until something annoys him, and then its cursing fig trees and condemning pigs. Thank God Passover is over in a night; at least I haven’t got them for a week of Tabernacles.So in comes drippy rabbi, and he immediately starts changing things and ordering people around. I’m standing there, holding the water and the towel (and biting my tongue in best servile manner), and he nicks them off me and starts washing his guests’ feet. It’s that kind of inverted snobbery I can’t stand. I’m the most important person in this room, and to make sure you all know it, I’m going to take the servant’s job from him and ostentatiously do the foot-washing.
Big-Lump objects, and at first I think he’s brighter than he looks. You’re being called out on your inverted snobbery, Rabbi, thinks I, but then I realise that Big-Lump just doesn’t get it either. Big-Lump thinks he should be doing the washing. What about the servants! I want to shout. If we don’t wash you, we don’t get the tips. Are you planning to roast the lamb as well. Don’t suppose you’ll get into a fight about the washing-up, will you?

So they get the foot-washing sorted out, and there’s a sort of embarrass pause as they all realise what the Boss has done, and then they’re back into squabbling mode, trying to get a cushion closest to the boss at the top table. Handsome  wins, and sits at Boss’s right hand. The rest settle themselves discontentedly. As they are doing so, one of the guests, the one with the money satchel, catches my eye. He raises an eyebrow and gives me a quick grin. Yeah, you’re a sharp cookie, thinks I. You know what’s going on.

So the meal starts and carries on in the usual way, and I’m rushed off my feet serving wine, because these Galileans are thirsty chaps, and they drink the four cups of Passover, and five or six cups of greed between. I’m going to have to change my pricing scheme for next year: I can’t afford all-inclusive rates. And as I rushing in I realise that the Rabbi is doing his own version of Passover. It’s not just good old Moses stuff, but he’s giving his own commentary, his own explanations. Worse than that, he’s inserting himself into the stories: “I have earnestly desired to eat this Passover with you before I suffer”; “this is my blood of the covenant”; “Do this in remembrance of me.” I don’t know about you, but I happen to thing that if it was good enough for Moses then it was good enough for me. I don’t hold with new-fangled mucking with the Passover.

And then the wine started to have its effect, and the Boss started getting testy with his guests. Something about “betrayal” and “hands raised against me”. Ah, thinks I, divide and conquer. And, of course, an argument breaks out, with Big-Lump denying stuff and Handsome whispering questions and Boss handing out bits of bread and making pointed remarks. Honestly, people forget that servants are there, and that we hear everything.

So Boss hands a bit of bread to the wry guest I shared a grin with earlier, and mutters something to him, and wry guest grabs his satchel and stumbles his way to the door. Most of the rest of them are too bleary-eyed to notice, but I do. I go to the door just as Wry Guest gets there. I decide to be helpful, as he was the only one of the whole lot I liked. “Can I get you, anything Master?” He looks distracted, and fiddles inside his satchel, before looking up at me. “Um.. No.. Thanks. No, I’ve just got to.. Do an errand or something.” “Well let me get the door for you, in any case.” And I open the door, helpfully, for him, and let him out in the night air. My goodness, but it’s dark. As if Jerusalem has never heard of lanterns. He stumbles off into the darkness, and I shout, cheerily after him “Thank you for your custom! See you again, I hope!” And he waves a hand as he disappears.

It’s what I call the “destruction of the temple” stage of the evening. Everything is eaten, and most everything is drunk. The story (with additions!) has been told, and there’s not much left to do but sleep it all off, and wait for the quiet of the Sabbath the next day. But Boss-Rabbi is hassling his guests once more, and they are all looking for sandals and cloaks (and the swords they have hidden in them).

“Are you going anywhere, Master?” I politely ask, without a bit of irritation. “We wish to continue our worship elsewhere,” he replies. “We don’t wish to disturb you or your neighbours. Or be disturbed. We will leave. Did Judas settle the account?” “Judas?” I ask. “The disciple who left.” “No. Not yet. But I trust him. He can pay me in the morning. He looks like a reliable man with money.” Just a harrumph from the Boss. I don’t know why I bother trying to compliment anyone.I open the door, and they all sweep out, most unsteadily, into the night, Boss, Big-Lump and Handsome in the lead. The others launch, a bit uncertainly, into a hymn as they go. A rather wobbly hymn, to be honest. It would be better once they sober up a bit.

“Good night! Good night! Happy Passover! A peaceful Sabbath to you all! And perhaps next year in Galilee!” (I added that last bit under my breath– I don’t want them back, but I don’t want to lose the custom).

Eventually, before midnight, they’re gone. What a relief. I can’t tell you how glad I am, and I hope I don’t see them again. I have no idea why that nice man Judas hangs around with them. Perhaps I’ll be able to share a cup of wine with him when he pays the bill in the morning.

In the meantime, without Tabitha, the clearing up is left to me. That’s the worst thing about holidays.

Psalm Sonnet

The smooth round stone lies coolly in my hand,
Its whorls and scars glint, clipped from mountain’s scree,
Erosion’s circles formed by softest sand,
In river pools falling into the sea.
From sediments pressed before old Adam—
Stars in the heavens are more juvenile.
My bones will be gone, my grave forgotten,

When my stone will form eternity’s dial.
The temporary holds the permanent,
Massed dust and fluid gainsays gravity,
A blink pretends it is not transient;
Dirt relinquishes immortality.

’Tis grace to know such fleetingness at last.
I cling to the tower; God holds me fast.

“In all that ruin of the world for the moment he felt only joy, great joy.”
JRR Tolkien, Return of the King, VI.3

..the dark places of the land are full of the haunts of violence…

A mourning psalm for this Holy Week:

Psalm 74

1 O God, why do you cast us off for ever?
Why does your anger smoke against the sheep of your pasture?
2 Remember your congregation, which you acquired long ago,
which you redeemed to be the tribe of your heritage.
Remember Mount Zion, where you came to dwell.
3 Direct your steps to the perpetual ruins;
the enemy has destroyed everything in the sanctuary.

4 Your foes have roared within your holy place;
they set up their emblems there.
5 At the upper entrance they hacked
the wooden trellis with axes.
6 And then, with hatchets and hammers,
they smashed all its carved work.
7 They set your sanctuary on fire;
they desecrated the dwelling-place of your name,
bringing it to the ground.
8 They said to themselves, ‘We will utterly subdue them’;
they burned all the meeting-places of God in the land.

9 We do not see our emblems;
there is no longer any prophet,
and there is no one among us who knows how long.
10 How long, O God, is the foe to scoff?
Is the enemy to revile your name for ever?
11 Why do you hold back your hand;
why do you keep your hand in your bosom?

12 Yet God my King is from of old,
working salvation in the earth.
13 You divided the sea by your might;
you broke the heads of the dragons in the waters.
14 You crushed the heads of Leviathan;
you gave him as food for the creatures of the wilderness.
15 You cut openings for springs and torrents;
you dried up ever-flowing streams.
16 Yours is the day, yours also the night;
you established the luminaries and the sun.
17 You have fixed all the bounds of the earth;
you made summer and winter.

18 Remember this, O Lord, how the enemy scoffs,
and an impious people reviles your name.
19 Do not deliver the soul of your dove to the wild animals;
do not forget the life of your poor for ever.

20 Have regard for your covenant,
for the dark places of the land are full of the haunts of violence.
21 Do not let the downtrodden be put to shame;
let the poor and needy praise your name.
22 Rise up, O God, plead your cause;
remember how the impious scoff at you all day long.
23 Do not forget the clamour of your foes,
the uproar of your adversaries that goes up continually.

Mary, mother of our Saviour, prayer for us and the people of Paris.
Jesus, who stretched out your arms in love for the world, save us.

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