"Follow the child. And if you look you'll find the child" - an Advent meditation on the Gospel of Mary

Whatever else Advent is about it surely concerns humanity's search for Divinity dwelling in the world. To use one of my favourite thoughts - it is about discovering the commingling of God and Nature - symbolised for us in the vulnerable Christ-child.

Depending on the basic attitude of any given church the commingling will be understood to range from the minimal (divinity dwelling only in Jesus) to a maximal pantheism or panentheism (divinity being encountered in - or as - every aspect of Nature). Naturally the  Unitarian church tradition to which I belong leans decidedly towards the latter end of this spectrum. But, as I noted earlier this season if God is already and always here the thought that God comes to us is problematic - such a present, immanent God doesn't go or come anywhere. Given this I suggested that Advent might better be understood as being more about us doing the 'coming', about ways we might seek the Divine amongst or within us and thereby to experience a certain kind of revelation - a revelation that does 'feel' like God has come to us.

Today's address looks at a second-century Christian text concerned with the idea of Divinity dwelling amongst us but, before I get to it, it is worth noting why I was thinking about this during the week. It has nothing to do with the season and everything to do with the very contingent fact that Susanna (my wife) went away to visit her mum and I took the opportunity to watch a couple of films I knew she would have absolutely no interest in - The Comancheros (a 1961 western starring John Wayne) and the Da Vinci Code based on Dan Brown's best-selling novel. You'll be pleased (possibly) that I am going to refer to the Da Vinci Code and not The Comancheros . . .

For those of you who know nothing about the story of the Da Vinci Code here is Wikipedia's two sentence summary:


"The Da Vinci Code is a 2003 mystery-detective fiction novel written by American author Dan Brown. It follows symbologist Robert Langdon and Sophie Neveu as they investigate a murder in Paris's Louvre Museum and discovers a battle between the Priory of Sion and Opus Dei over the possibility of Jesus Christ of Nazareth having been married to and fathering a child with Mary Magdalene."

One might say many uncomplimentary things about the book and film (I have and still could) but the immediate reason for finally taking a look at the film - I tried to read the book again but found it harder to digest than Spinoza - is that since it was published and the film was made I have had a number of people say to me that, putting aside the many ludicrous elements of the plot, the book and film enabled them radically to rethink their relationship with the Christian tradition and also, therefore, the person of Jesus.

At the heart of the reflections I have been told about is the general thought - often made publicly available to them for the first time - that Jesus was a MAN born naturally of a woman who also led a thoroughly human life which included a profound friendship and possible sexual relationship with a woman - Mary Magdalene. The key thing I want you to note with regard to Dan Brown is the fact that his novel and film (for all their many faults) made the idea of Jesus' humanity PUBLICLY AVAILABLE to many people for the first time - and that thought was exciting.

As a Unitarian church (a church which, at considerable cost, has proclaimed the humanity of Christ for some four-and-a-half centuries) I think that we sometimes underestimate this great and powerful gift we have inherited from our forebears and the film showed, if nothing else, that there remains a deep inherited interest in Jesus of Nazareth that we could be more alert to.

Additionally the film and book awakened popular interest in the plethora of early Christian texts which for complicated contingent reasons didn't make it into what came to be called New Testament - a text whose modern form dates from only around 367CE. Jackie looked at one of those texts (the Didache) and the lessons we might learn from it a few weeks ago.

Although this interest in the so-called 'apocryphal' texts has had many healthy outplayings one unhealthy side-effect is that rather too many people naively thought that the Truth (capital 'T' truth) of Christianity would be found in them - a Truth which many felt the early Catholic church, the church of the Roman Empire, tried to suppress in the creation of an authorized New Testament. But the reality is, thankfully, somewhat more prosaic. What we have discovered through good historical scholarship is simply that Christianity was never one thing - rather it was always several, always radically plural. There never was Christianity, there were only Christianities. That is the truth (lower case 't') of the matter.

It is important to realise that one will not, in any absolute sense, find any more truth in an apocryphal, excluded text than in a canonical, included text. All we can say is that the discoveries of these early Christian texts have brought before us a wider spectrum of early Christian ideas and truth claims than we once knew about and, almost inevitably, some of the rediscovered ideas have resonated strongly with us as twenty-first century humans. The sizeable emotional hit we get when we encounter such resonant and once lost (mislaid) ideas is in great part simply due to the fact that for centuries we have been told Christianity only said X and never Y, and now we can see clearly that there were Christianities which did said Y.

Anyway, as the credits of the Da Vinci Code film rolled, I made a cup of tea and pulled off my shelves the translation I have of the Gospel of Mary Magdalene made by Willis Barnstone. (An online version of a different translation can be found here.) I remember liking this second-century text the first time I read it because it contained themes very congenial to my own philosophical position but reading it in Advent, and with the idea of the commingling of God and Nature very much in my mind, I found two passages that seem worthy of reflection during Advent - I share them with you here.

At the beginning of the extant text (probably about half-way through the original document) Jesus says the following words:


'Each nature and shaped thing and every creature
Lives in and with each other, and will dissolve 
Into distinctive roots, but the nature of matter
Will dissolve into the root of nature.
Whoever has ears to hear should hear.'

Well, we all have ears to hear and, even though we will hear slightly different things to each other and almost certainly different things to a second-century hearer of the Gospel, surely this text is encouraging us all to think about the idea that all things commingle and somehow subsist in the 'root of nature.'

In a week during which world leaders are contemplating humankind's fraught relationship with Nature in Copenhagen this thought surely has additional resonance.

The second passage I wish to draw your attention to occurs shortly after the first. Before he leaves the disciples - Jesus says to them:

'Peace be with you, receive my peace. Take care that no one sends you lost into the wrong, saying, "Look over here," or "Look over there." The human child [Son of Man] exists in you. Follow the child. And if you look you'll find the child. Go out and preach the good news about the kingdom. Don't seek any rules other than what I give you. Establish no law as lawgivers have done, or by those laws each one of you will end up bound.'

Again we seem to be pointed to a Divine presence in the midst of things. The kingdom is within and amongst us like a child. Jesus seems to be encouraging us simply to preach - that is to say live in - this present kingdom and not to go on to make complicated rules about it. This request I take to mean that we should avoid engaging in any kind of dogmatic theology. What we seem to be being shown here is a way of being in the world and not a theory about the world. As you know this is a theme I return to regularly.

The wonderful promise Jesus is making is that if we look we will find the child - what could be a more appropriate Advent theme than this?

-o0o-

In a way I should, perhaps, end here but the briefest of appendices is in order because to stop here would be to ignore the profound context in which the suggestive words of Jesus you have heard are offered to us. Remember they are found in a Gospel ascribed to a woman; but not just any woman rather one whom, in the words of Levi (one of Jesus' disciples), 'the saviour made worthy'. Startling to ears attuned only to the canonical New Testament, Levi goes on to say that 'the saviour knows her well. That is why he has loved her more than we are loved.'

We are, I fervently hope, at the tail end of the male dominance of Christianity and in this early Christian text we catch an uplifting glimpse that this dominance was not always the case. In this text we see that in certain communities women held valuable and honoured places and here in this Gospel we encounter Mary not simply as a disciple but as *the* 'beloved disciple.'

It may be incomplete and fragmentary but her Gospel bears contemplation and I recommend it to you - especially this Advent: 'Follow the child. And if you look you'll find the child.'

Comments

Yewtree said…
One thing I have noticed about the apocryphal gospels is that the sayings attributed to Jesus are generally more profound than those in the canonical gospels.

I first became aware of the stuff about Jesus and Mary Magdalene when I read The Holy Blood and the Holy Grail (also a deeply flawed book) in the 1980s. The history in HBHG and The Da Vinci Code may be inaccurate, but it's certainly true that Christianity has been very patriarchal up till now.
Matt said…
Thankyou for this post, and best wishes this Christmas.

Matt
Yewtree said…
Merry Christmas Andrew, and best wishes for the New Year.
Thank you Yewtree. I return your kind wishes and also want to say thank you for your conversation during the year which has always been stimulating, appropriately critical and supportive. A rare thing.

Warmest wishes,