Corporate Communion October 2022
The Revd Dr Megan Daffern, Acting Dean
Do not answer before you listen, and do not interrupt when another is speaking. (Sirach 11:8)
Apart from wise words to wannabe hecklers to the Acting Dean’s sermons, that sounds like it could be your DoS’s advice before a supervision or seminar.
Do not find fault before you investigate; examine first, and then criticize.
That could be the counsel of a master negotiator, or someone offering guidance on how to get on with housemates.
Sayings like these abound in the Hebrew and Greek Scriptures, in the so-called Wisdom material. Poetic Wisdom literature (do ask if you’re nonplussed by the different Bible or Apocryphal books – I always welcome questions) often contains aphorisms or proverbs. They often seem aimed at helping people live more fulfilled lives; a kind of search for Aristotelian eudaimonia. Guiding people towards thriving. Wanting people to flourish and blossom. Like this College community, desiring personal growth and the wellbeing both of individuals and communities.
The big thought in our first reading today is that even if we follow the best advice, life can still go either way.
Good things and bad, life and death, poverty and wealth, come from the Lord. (Sir 11:14)
This is not saying that God wills both good and bad things. But it is saying that there’s stuff beyond our control in life. We can’t make sure that such-and-such a thing will or won’t happen, however hard we try. There is something about life that is just beyond us, beyond our rationalizing, beyond our power. Sirach highlights that there simply are things beyond our control or understanding.
If that’s true, then to blame or congratulate ourselves for happenings x, y, or z won’t always be helpful. If there are things that are beyond our control or understanding, then we’re better off not insisting to ourselves that we make sense of them. Instead we can explore learning to live with things we can’t control or understand. Sirach makes us think about what actually is within our control. That may be about thinking why we are feeling a, b, or c, about x, y, or z. It may be about thinking of our wellbeing and compassion on ourselves in the face of life experiences. Whatever it is, it’s about our agency.
But, at first glance, tonight’s Gospel reading seems to be not about agency but passivity, not about what Jesus does but what is done to him. Jesus is arrested. He is led away. “They” – the armed crowd from the chief priests, scribes, and elders – are the ones who are doing things. They’re the ones with agency. The Greek word St. Mark keeps writing here – four times in quick succession – is kratew, a word about power. Like democracy, where the people have power; or autocratic, where one person controls others. The people who are in control here are the armed crowd. By force, they wield power.
BUT – there’s another word that Mark uses a lot in Chapter 14, and that’s the verb paradidwmi – the one about betrayal. Handing over. And that’s a really interesting word for three reasons. First, its verb forms do not differentiate between the self-reflexive “handing oneself over” and the passive “being handed over”. Second, St. Paul uses it to describe the handing over of the bread and wine at Holy Communion. And third, when it’s put into Latin, it is trado – like trade, tradition.
So, what’s happening on the night Jesus is betrayed is also that he has some mysterious agency or co-agency about his being handed over. Just a moment before in the Gospel, he has handed over the bread at the Last Supper, saying it is his body – as we’ll shortly have repeated in our Eucharistic Prayer. What’s also happening is that Jesus is creating something for handing on, the transmission of himself through Holy Communion, a tradition to be taught, spoken, heard – or, given, and received. A teaching, a wisdom, that’s worth handing on.
Church does all sorts of tradition. Within our chapel, we have the tradition of choral worship, where the choir “does” our words for the rest of us; doing them beautifully with music. Sometimes that’s in a Reformation tradition, as in our Sunday Evensong. Sometimes we glimpse our pre-Reformation English Church history, traditions from holy earthly kings like Edward the Confessor whom the Church of England commemorates today. Our traditions can be wonderfully varied, like a good diet through your MDR. Try a variety of Chapel services, like the Caius USP of Choral Vespers, a half-hour service of scripture and reflections where you basically let the words and music wash over you as you settle into the evening.
Yes, sometimes church traditions can seem somewhat mysterious. Mystery is valuable because it expresses something beyond our understanding. We need ways to reflect on that which is beyond us: spiritual experiences, something set apart, something holy. Because – back where I started – although we sometimes have agency or co-agency, there are also things that are completely beyond us, beyond our control.
The agency of tradition, handing over, is what we choose to receive, and what we don’t choose to receive. Tonight you can receive the bread and wine if that’s your tradition, making your communion with Christ – divine tradition enfleshed, made human. If that isn’t your tradition, but you still want to receive something physically, come for a blessing. And if you don’t feel comfortable outwardly to participate, just be here, it’s fine for you to receive however you may want.
What things would you like to receive from this Chapel, College, and the communities of which you are a part? What traditions do you or might you value? And what things do you want to hand over to those who come after?
We have nothing we have not received. In this is wisdom: that we think on what we have received, and on what we regard as valuable to be handed on to others.