Preparing the end of Access Control – Advent 2

Access control is big business.
Access control secures environments, assets and information. With the technological revolution, the systems for access control border on being science-fictional, There are card scanners, chip scanners, fingerprint and even iris-of-your-eye scanners to check that only authorized people are given access to the controlled area.

Access control however is not something new. It has for centuries been the practice of organised religion. Visit any Christian Cathedral and you will be confronted by “The Rood Screen”. This screen is usually located at the intersection between the body of the church(the nave) and the chancel (the area reserved for choir and clergy, and is the line where the Rood (the Anglo Saxon words for cross or crucifix) is positioned. The rood screen usually contains wooden lattice work which partially obscures the view of the high altar and the choir stalls. In the liturgy of the Holy Communion or of the other offices of Morning and Evening prayer and so on, the congregation were intended to observe whilst the officials carried out the Opus Dei, the work of God. The Crucifix screened the populace from the true worship of God going on behind.

All of this was of course based on architectural precedents described in the Old Testament Temples and Tabernacles of the Ancient and Pre-Christian Jews of Israel. The Jewish temples were designed as nested rectangles or courts, and access to the central courts was determined by the level or status of the person in the religious hierarchy.
At the centre of the Jerusalem temple was the Holy of Holies, where God lived,and here access was only permitted once a year on the day of Atonement, and only to a single person, the High Priest.

It was believed that nothing impure could survive in the holy presence of God and the High Priest accessing the space and surviving was a sign that God had accepted all the sacrifices offered in the preceding year, since the last Day of Atonement. So strict was the access control that should something go wrong and the High Priest collapse or be smitten by God whilst in the Holy of Holies, a rope was tied around his ankle so that he could be pulled out of the space, because no other official could have gone in to get his body out!

Now that is serious access control.

Access level in accordance with level of security clearance“, would be the
norm with access control in a security system. “Access according to degree of religious status” would be the church equivalent. Only the Holiest man, (and it was only, ever a man) may enter the Holy of Holies or approach the High Altar of the Cathedral. In fact those levels of rank are still maintained in the titles given to clergy. The Reverend, for the lowly vicar. Right Reverend for the Bishop and topping the summit, the Most Reverend for the Archbishop!

All of this is simply to illustrate how scandalous the message of John the Baptiser must have seemed to those from the religious hierarchy who heard him preach, “Prepare the way of the Lord, make his paths straight. Every valley shall be filled, and every mountain and hill shall be made low, and the crooked shall be made straight, and the rough ways made smooth; and all flesh shall see the salvation of God.

John wasn’t being original, he was quoting the prophet Isaiah.
Comfort, O comfort my people“, says your God. “Speak tenderly to Jerusalem, and cry to her that she has served her term, that her penalty is paid, that she has received from the LORD’s hand double for all her sins. A voice cries out: “In the wilderness prepare the way of the LORD, make straight in the desert a highway for our God. Every valley shall be lifted up, and every mountain and hill be made low; the uneven ground shall become level, and the rough places a plain. Then the glory of the LORD shall be revealed, and all people shall see it together, for the mouth of the LORD has spoken.

John used the Isaiah call as a basis, but included an interesting twist from Ecclesiastes 1. That depressive and ever so cynical writer had said, ” I, the Teacher, when king over Israel in Jerusalem, applied my mind to seek and to search out by wisdom all that is done under heaven; it is an unhappy business that God has given to human beings to be busy with. I saw all the deeds that are done under the sun; and see, all is vanity and a chasing after wind. What is crooked cannot be made straight, and what is lacking cannot be counted.

John the Baptizer disagrees with the Ecclesiastes writer.
The crooked can be made straight.
In fact John is pointing to an amazing dynamic that is going to be brought to be in the ministry of the coming one he is adverting to.

Let’s unpack the geo-physical aspects of John’s call.
The mountains are made low: the places where people went to worship. Mountain tops were important real estate as worship sites. To understand the significance of mountains we need to remember that ours are the first generations to be able to get off the ground and into the air and view the earth from above. We cannot know what that has done to our collective religious consciousness. Before manned flight the closest one could get to “heaven” was to go to a mountain top. Small wonder then, that the preferred sites of worship were mountains. The high places competed with each other to be the “best place”. Not only as Jewish places of worship but in all the religions of the time. When the temple was finally built on Mount Zion it was seen as that high place triumphing over all the other altars that existed in Palestine at the time.

The bringing low of the mountains in this statement from John and Isaiah could have a few angles of meaning. It might mean the dissolution of competitive religion. It could point to the flattening of the hierarchical and patriarchal hegemonies of the high place, “Most Reverend” cults. It might also have alluded to the fact that God was drawing closer to humankind. No longer dwelling up there, but coming to be Emmanuel, God with us. In all these scenarios, there is a clear statement of the ending of access control.

Now if mountains were where people worshiped and sacrificed, then valleys were where people fought and worked. Most the battles recorded in scripture occur in valleys and on the plains. Valleys, because they are furthest from God up there, were considered to be furthest from grace. The Valley of the shadow of death is the most famous, but there is also the Valley of Tears, the Valley of Bitterness, and of course the Valley of Hinnom where the early Jerusalem inhabitants sacrificed their children to Molech, and which came to be known as Gehenna the gate of the underworld, and by quite a logical stretch this Gehenna became the foundation of the Christian notion of Hell.

It is these Valleys that will be filled, according to John and Isaiah. Those who feel furthest from God in the Valleys of hell, mourning and suffering will be lifted up onto the level ground, and they will stand equal with the mighty and arrogant “Most Reverend” priests, whose Hierarchical mountains have been brought low.

“Impossible!”, you say.
Well,” answers John, “the writer of Ecclesiastes said it was impossible for crooked ways to be made straight, but the Coming One, is going to accomplish the impossible, and what is more, all flesh, all creation, will see the Salvation of God”.

It is disturbing to realise just how two thousand years after the preparation, and advent of the Son of Man amongst us, the mountains and high places of religion are still in competition for being the only and best altar, on which the innocent are still sacrificed for their money and their adulation.

Just as disturbing are the unfilled valleys and ravines of poverty, inequality, suffering and hell, that Jesus gave his life to fill up once and for all.

So for as long as the crooked still run their paths, as long as the ways are still rough for the weak and powerless, for as long as religious people gaze dispassionately from the lofty heights at their sisters and brothers suffering in the hellish valleys below; for that long, this preacher will try to uphold the cry of the Baptizer,

For God’s sake, Prepare the Way of the Lord!
Dismantle the Access Control to the Kingdom.
This is a freeway not a cattle crush!”

May that cry indeed bring some small comfort to God’s people.

Consider the whales…

A week ago I walked along the high water mark as I always do, heading from the West Pier to Kelly’s Beach. The scalloped lines of wave ironed sand make a firmer surface in which to lay out my morning trail of footprints that will be gone with the next wave’s press. Walking along the high water mark like this also helps to keep me in the present as I have to keep an eye out for that high wave, they say it’s the seventh, but I never bother to count, that will soak my shoes.

The clouds of yesterday had broken up and formed the cumulus parasol for the sun that set fire to their outer rim. The sea was still pretty wild and just enough wind blew to puff plumes off the breakers as they jostled into position like athletes getting ready for the final sprint to the sand.

The clouds of my conflict of yesterday had also begun to break up and so the outer vista of the beach was in many ways the canvas of my mind and I felt the more urgent surge of my breath and heard it echoed in the crashing surf. Yesterday had been one of those days when the realities of the suffering world crashed into my relatively calm space. Differences of values and motivation between a colleague and I had boiled over into angry statements on his part and had brought me back to the desolate place I have been so often where I wonder why I am still bothering to hold to the old ways and values when no one seems to give a crab’s claw about them.

The tension that had hovered over me during the night was lifting when I saw three seagulls ahead on the smooth sand. From a distance one of the three seemed to have his head buried in the sand, and the other two were dancing around curiously.

As I got closer I realised that it was not the gull’s head that was on the sand but a small, whole fish that he had in his beak that gave his head an elongated look. Neither were the two other gulls dancing around, they were trying to get at the fish!
The fish holder, his grip seemed too precarious to call him “owner”, was frantic to get the fish away but it was slightly too large for him to be able to hold in his beak and fly with. So he alternated between dropping the fish and rushing at the others, careful always not to get too far from his treasure so as to risk a flank attack. Once he reached his outer safe limit he would scurry back to the fish and try to make his escape, only to be chased down by the two challengers and the sequence would begin again. The poor bird was in hellish suffering.

On any other day this event may have passed through my awareness as an interesting moment of beach life. This morning however it became a sermon. I was able to see how disturbed and perturbed one can become if you believe that what you have before you is the only fish in the sea and all that stands between you and starvation. If that is allowed to become your understanding of the world and is allowed to shape your reality, then suffering will be the result and that sense of threat will consume your life.

I saw in that seagull all the frantic fear of those who have attached too deeply to the material realms and who live out of scarcity believing that there cannot possibly be enough for everyone. I looked again at the waves and beyond where almost daily at this time of the year I see the whales playing in the deep water. Those Leviathans devour tons of krill and seafood every day, and yet I have never seen them displaying the frantic phobia of this relatively small gull before me.

How did the whales know of the abundance that this poor stressed bird hadn’t discovered? I don’t know. But I know who is experiencing the greater joy. As I left the squawking squabble behind me and gazed out to sea again, I knew whose temperament I would want to emulate in my life.

Perhaps if Jesus was teaching here on this beach this morning, he would have changed his sermon to, “Consider the whales, and don’t fuss and worry like the birds”?

A heavy heart or an elevated eye?

This Sunday begins the waiting season of Advent.  As with all Christian Festivals it makes more sense in the Northern hemisphere where it came into practice.  Here on the tip of Africa the days are getting longer, not shorter as they are up north.  Our fore-parents celebrated the gathering gloom with an act of defiance.  They lit candles against the encroaching dark. Each week an additional candle in the Advent wreath. A passive protestation of trust in the One who enlightens humankind.

Jesus warns us in Luke 21:25-36, the reading of the day, that there will soon be a time for his disciples when the whole world will seem to be thrown into chaos.  In their own lifetimes, he says, these things will happen.  Of course, it is easy for Luke to record this because he knows that the Temple in Jerusalem has already been destroyed as he writes his gospel. He records Jesus saying, “Be on guard so that your hearts are not weighed down with dissipation and drunkenness and the worries of this life, and that day catch you unexpectedly, like a trap….” It would seem that even though Jesus is speaking about very time specific events that have already played out in the lives of the disciples, there are also transcendental truths here that are timeless and worthy of our attention.

Personally I have never been able to get myself too excited about all the end times speculation and conjecture that seems to enthrall large sections of the Christian community.  It is not that I don’t have a penchant for fantasy and wierdness, after all, I am an avid Stephen King fan! No my reluctance is that there is so much else that Jesus seems to consider important in the following of the path, that precludes me gazing whistfully into the future with my calendar and calculator in hand! I hear Jesus again and again saying, “Don’t be afraid”, “Don’t be overwhelmed” and in this Sunday’s gospel he says, ” Don’t let your hearts get weighed down with dissipation and drunkenness and the worries of this life”. Anthropologists, Archaeologists and Biblical scholars all concur that in times of uncertainty, preoccupation with the future and the Apocalypse move onto centre stage in human awareness.  It is happening today.

Climate change, eco-tragedy, global recession, viral pandemics, geo-disasters, and politcal flux create a potent environment in which fear and panic seem the only possible responses. Jesus suggests there are other ways of being in these realities.

It is true that we who live in the information age are not only able to hear of the wars and rumours of wars that Jesus speaks about, we can watch them on YouTube, Google the casualty lists, Blog our opinion and “unfriend” (there I used the word of the year) those from Facebook who don’t support our opinions of the conflicts.  Yet, as informed as we are, it would be a mistake to assume that the anxiety and fear of our world is more intense than it was for our fore-parents. In this year in which we celebrate the bicentennial anniversary of Charles Darwin’s birth and the sesquicentennial of the publication of “The Origin of Species”, we need to remember that the world has always been a hostile place. That is why we evolved.  We are the fittest who have survived…so far…

Heavy hearts are not the way to make it through the challenges of constant change.  Jesus has an interesting list of activities that weigh down our hearts. He calls them, “dissipation, drunkenness and the worries of this life” If I were to unpack those words they could probably be stated as, fragmented, numbed and overwhelmed.  Are these not the traps of our culture and context in this age? Torn apart by multi-layered and multi-roled lives, addicted to whatever plugs the emptiness and boredom inside, and fearful of everything from the overdrawn bank statements to the soon to expire Mayan calendars.

Jesus calls these obsessions a trap.  He counsels his followers that rather than allowing their hearts to become overladen and heavy, they should “stand up and raise your heads, for your redemption is drawing nigh“. The mistake we have made in the church is to project this coming redemption into some distant future end time and forget that Jesus had already said that his hearers would witness the things he was warning of in their lifetimes. You see, the redemption is not down some linear corridor of time. Redemption dances in the circle of time where, as in the Large Haldron Collider at CERN in France, the energies of past and future meet and in nanosecond moments of insight that remind us that it is all perfect.  Right here.  Right now.

So this Advent, as in centuries before, people of trust will not fear and panic.  They will light candles and lift their heads just those few degrees upward, to see the dawn that is always just a rotation of the planet away.