Song of Solomon 2.8-13;
Mark 7.1-8,14,15, 21-23
I WAS recently on pilgrimage in the north-east of England. If you've never been, do go. It's not exactly exotic, but it is the cradle of our English identity. The people are wonderful, the scenery breathtaking, the beer second to none, the food excellent, and the portions large.
Living history is part of the fascination of the area. The blend of spiritual, intellectual, and political interest that marked the emergence of such places as Lindisfarne, Bamburgh, Jarrow, Durham, and Whitby as vital centres of national and international life still resonates in the contemporary society and politics of the north-east.
A crucial figure in the emergence of the mature Celtic Church was St Bede, who had interesting things to say about two of the readings appointed for today. His observations illuminate the texts with insights from the monastic tradition, and he speaks to our concerns about the wonder of being human, our stewardship of the earth's resources, and the capacity of the creation to reflect the purposes of God.
Let's consider first the story Mark tells us about pots and pans. As a wise guide, Bede does not get embroiled in the details of the issue about washing and hygiene. He goes, literally, to the heart of the matter.
The point is, Bede maintains, that in the passage immediately before our Gospel reading, the people of the land of Gennesaret had brought their sick to Jesus, "that they might touch even the fringe of his cloak" (Mark 6.56). These were ordinary people, and capable of responding intuitively to a sense of the divine in their midst. Bede is implying that faith is a natural and characteristic aspect of being human.
By contrast, the Pharisees and some of the Scribes, "who ought to have been teachers of the people, run together to the Lord, not to seek for healing, but to move specious arguments". These arguments focus not on Jesus but on the behaviour of his disciples. They seek to undermine the impact of his ministry by turning attention away from amazement at the man who teaches with authority and power, and quibbling instead about the table manners of his associates.
Bede, the realist, then invites the readers of this Gospel story to reflect on the practical implications that arise from engagement with "the cares of temporal business" in daily life. Of course, we find ourselves embroiled in all manner of things that compromise our commitment to the values of the gospel. The struggle to live the life of the Kingdom is not an easy one.
The remedy is in repentance, "alms, tears, and the other fruits of righteousness". These are more demanding disciplines than the ceremonies of washing, which should, at best, symbolise them.
As someone who was familiar with the dynamics of the life of a small community, Bede also understands the ease with which we can deceive ourselves and misread the intentions of our hearts. He is the gentle disciplinarian who reminds us of the extent of our own culpability, condemning those "who suppose that thoughts are put into them by the devil, and do not arise from their own evil will".
This is a challenge to our contemporary culture of blame, in which we rarely admit to being principally responsible for something wrong. By contrast, the culture of Christian living is focused not on an admission of guilt, which burdens us with fear and gloom, but on repentance, which brings change, hope, and freedom.
Finally, we turn to the question of the resources of the earth and our humble enjoyment of them as God's gifts. The seaside towns of the north-east coast are replete with eating places. Fish and chips feature most prominently, but there is no shortage of stalls selling cockles, winkles, and mussels, and restaurants selling locally caught lobster and oysters. These are considered unclean under Jewish eating laws. We should admit that regulations also govern our handling and sale of these foods, which can cause serious poisoning if not properly prepared.
Not many north-easterners, however, would turn down this supply of good nourishment. Bede is eminently practical about our proper use of the gifts of the earth as God's provision for us, in order that we might flourish in gratitude and generosity. "Shellfish, hares, and animals of that sort" are all "food and God's creation", and so for our benefit.
Bede's observations on the reading from the Song of Solomon appointed for today are also about delight. He notes that the vines in blossom will produce wine that "brings spiritual joy and cheerfulness to the gathering of the Church".
This is all part of the fruition of summer: the sun releases a frozen earth, and rivers appear - the sign of baptism and new faith. Simple delight in the beauty of creation is central to Bede's vision of a Christian life lived in touch with the rhythms of the earth and an awareness that we are called to steward it, not to plunder and exploit it.
Bede and the Celtic saints have given us a legacy of holiness that is earthed in being human, being engaged with the politics of this world, and joyful delight in being sustained by the good earth. These are lessons we are still learning.
Canon Warner's new book, Between Heaven and Charing Cross: Finding a way to faith is published by Continuum, £9.99 (CT Bookshop £8.99; 978-1-84706538-4).
Text of readings
Song of Solomon 2.8-13;
8The voice of my beloved! Look, he comes, leaping upon the mountains, bounding over the hills. 9My beloved is like a gazelle or young stag. Look, there he stands behind our wall, gazing in at the windows, looking through the lattice. 10My beloved speaks and says to me: ‘Arise, my love, my fair one, and come away; 11for now the winter is past, the rain is over and gone. 12The flowers appear on the earth; the time of singing has come, and the voice of the turtle dove is heard in our land. 13The fig tree puts forth its figs, and the vines are in blossom; they give forth fragrance. Arise, my love, my fair one, and come away.’
17Every generous act of giving, with every perfect gift, is from above, coming down from the Father of lights, with whom there is no variation or shadow due to change. 18In fulfilment of his own purpose he gave us birth by the word of truth, so that we would become a kind of first fruits of his creatures.
19You must understand this, my beloved: let everyone be quick to listen, slow to speak, slow to anger; 20for your anger does not produce God’s righteousness. 21Therefore rid yourselves of all sordidness and rank growth of wickedness, and welcome with meekness the implanted word that has the power to save your souls.
22But be doers of the word, and not merely hearers who deceive themselves. 23For if any are hearers of the word and not doers, they are like those who look at themselves in a mirror; 24for they look at themselves and, on going away, immediately forget what they were like. 25But those who look into the perfect law, the law of liberty, and persevere, being not hearers who forget but doers who act – they will be blessed in their doing.
26If any think they are religious, and do not bridle their tongues but deceive their hearts, their religion is worthless. 27Religion that is pure and undefiled before God, the Father, is this: to care for orphans and widows in their distress, and to keep oneself unstained by the world.
Mark 7.1-8,14,15, 21-23
1When the Pharisees and some of the scribes who had come from Jerusalem gathered around Jesus, 2they noticed that some of his disciples were eating with defiled hands, that is, without washing them. 3(For the Pharisees, and all the Jews, do not eat unless they thoroughly wash their hands, thus observing the tradition of the elders; 4and they do not eat anything from the market unless they wash it; and there are also many other traditions that they observe, the washing of cups, pots, and bronze kettles.) 5So the Pharisees and the scribes asked him, ‘Why do your disciples not live according to the tradition of the elders, but eat with defiled hands?’ 6He said to them, ‘Isaiah prophesied rightly about you hypocrites, as it is written,
“This people honours me with their lips,
but their hearts are far from me;
7in vain do they worship me,
teaching human precepts as doctrines.”’
14Then he called the crowd again and said to them, ‘Listen to me, all of you, and understand: 15there is nothing outside a person that by going in can defile, but the things that come out are what defile.’ 21For it is from within, from the human heart, that evil intentions come: fornication, theft, murder, 22adultery, avarice, wickedness, deceit, licentiousness, envy, slander, pride, folly. 23All these evil things come from within, and they defile a person.’