Sermon for Eucharist (Trinity 16)

26 September 2004 at :00 am

Sermon for Eucharist, Trinity 16, 26 September 2004, Westminster Abbey

by the Reverend David Hutt, Sub Dean

On Wednesday of this week we shall be keeping the Feast of St Michael and All Angels.

From the Revelations of St John the Divine: “There was war in Heaven. Michael and his angels fought against the dragon and the dragon and his angels fought, but they were defeated and there was no longer any place for them in Heaven. And the great dragon was thrown down, that ancient serpent, who is called the devil and satan, the deceiver of the whole world. He was the thrown down to the earth and his angels were thrown down with him …” (Rev 12 7…)

Folk tales, fairy stories and the classical myths of ancient Greece and Rome may not be as commonplace and familiar as once they were. But the fascination of dinosaurs does not pall and the appeal of monsters is as healthy as ever.

The Bible begins with the Book of Genesis and ends with Revelation. On the fifth day of Creation, we are told, God made things that swarm in the waters and wing across the skies.

First, in order of Creation, are the sea monsters. We may think of whales and sharks, coelacanths and giant squids but those responsible for the record were undoubtedly thinking of the mythical sea-dragon – Leviathan. We have our own, familiar legendary monsters, creatures from the deep, the Loch Ness Monster; killers of the sea in film and fiction, Moby Dick and Jaws… There are two ways in which people usually deal with dragons and mythical monsters. One is to pretend that they do not exist, the other is to fight them. Perhaps the failed attempt to remove St George, the dragon-slayer from the Church’s official calendar marked a transition from an aggressive strategy to a dismissive one.

The authors of Genesis are neither aggressive nor dismissive but we must remember that the priestly account of the creation carries dark undertones of a more ancient civilization.

There existed other epic descriptions of creations as, for example, in the Babylonian Saga, Marduk the King of the Gods who pursues and slays Tiamat, the chaos monster of the earth. Echoes of this primitive myth are found throughout the Old Testament and here, at the beginning of the book called ‘Genesis’ or ‘origins’ they are present in a disguised form.

There is no primeval battle in the Old Testament account. God is greater than Marduk and the Divine Authority does not need to be established by conflict. The cosmic dragon who wrestled with the King of the Gods in the pagan account is demoted, secularised and made multiform, slipping into the order of creation on the fifth day along with the whales, sharks, crocodiles, birds and fish; no longer an opponent but a creature of God…

The knowledge of mythical beasts through saga and folk-memory gives shape to the primitive layers of our own personalities. They belong to an older and deeper strata of existence – carrying for us a mythological significance. We attempt to understand them with our minds because it is with our minds that we demonstrate our superiority, to comprehend the existence of real monsters, to wrestle and to gain mastery is an instinct, powerfully present within us.

‘The Bridge’ between the Old Testament and the New is the ministry of John the Baptist and the baptism of Jesus. The liturgy of Baptism speaks of a re-birth, a return to innocence. In this initiation we wash-away the guilt that accrues to primal sin, the inheritance of shame and falsehood.

By going down into the symbolic depths of the water we experience an immersion in life and death. Our understanding of apparent opposites is deepened and given new meaning. We descend into the deep to rediscover a primal-self which is both animal and spiritual – and there we find Christ – the Word made flesh.

Baptism should make us more human, more alive, more accepting of the ambivalences which exist within each of us. It should provide us with the courage to accept the dark and the unknown, to learn from the mystery of the human body and the rich and complex range of instinctive drives. All too often in Christian experience the New Life of Christ has been presented as a Life where the human will subdues and dominates the instinctive. It is seen as a life of control over the ‘inner darkness’ and instead of going down into the waters of death and coming-up alive with the primal instincts re-energised because of their acceptance – Baptism can all too easily come to represent a death to the life of the body and to manifest a cold aridity in which life is contained and directed by the intellect and the will. Instead of being seen as a source of grace the instincts and the body are identified with the dragon, with evil and with danger.

Christian coldness ends-up ruling by denial and repression, masking its true nature in the rhetoric of freedom and love. Instead of being incorporated into Christ, the Christian ‘self’ incorporates the monster into conscious life and becomes frigid, cut-off, distanced and depressed. The antithesis of life.

There’s ample evidence that, throughout long centuries, the Church has waged war on the body and the unconscious. It has carried the war outside itself and projected its hatred onto women, non-Christians, particularly Jews and Islamists, foreigners, gays and anyone who may be perceived as ‘different’. Today, we in the Church are more likely to deny or domesticate the monsters. But it is always the case that those who deny the dragon are the ones who are most in danger of being swallowed-up by it!

The tragedy is that by denying the great monsters within us we cut ourselves off, not only from truth but from primitive vitality, power and beauty.

It is not only our niceness that God has created but also our wildness as well. The problem lies in bringing them together so that they stop making war on one another.

If you have ever visited that amazing encyclopaedia in stone, wood and glass – the Cathedral at Charties – you will have seen now the prophets and the saints are depicted along with their devils – the demons and the creatures at their feet are part of their story, they lie couched, defeated or compliant – but nevertheless there. Still, in some sense, essential to the holiness of the figures portrayed.

The art of the lives of the saints, and why their lives are important, is that they learned to distinguish between good and evil. They faced the ambiguity of their own natures and discovered what belonged where.

Often their attempts to be true to God and to themselves led them into deep suffering. They were often misunderstood by their fellow Christians because their sense of good and evil was rarely contained by the bounds of contemporary morality.

For all of us there are times for warfare – for an aggressive strategy against the monsters – and there are times when they must be listened-to because we need their power and healing–energy.

The great dragon, the serpent of myth, can be the embodiment of evil cast-down and defeated by Michael and the angels. But Moses, you will recall, lifted-up the serpent in the wilderness and in that pre-figuration we behold the healing-wisdom of the Cross.

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