It’s not every day that we appoint an expert in monsters to three country parishes in Cambridgeshire. You’ll be pleased to know that the monsters in question are safely trapped in a treatise on the Wonders of the East inside the pages of an Anglo-Saxon manuscript that Alun studied for his PhD, the same manuscript in fact that contains the story of Beowulf fighting off the monsters who attacked his lord’s feasting hall.
I wonder why our ancestors were so fascinated by these wonders. Alun knows the answers better than I do, but I think it must have been something to do with order and chaos. Life for the Anglo-Saxons was bloody, brutal and short, as one historian famously put it. They loved to work intricately ordered jewellery and wrote complex poetry; they were good lawmakers and achieved a famously ordered society – but outside the mead-hall the dark winds of chaos were very real, and this unruly unknown both fascinated them and horrified them, whether it was old Roman ruins that seemed like the work of giants, or vicious raids by later generations of Northmen, or plagues and pestilences that they did not really understand and could not counter.
That is the world that the first Horning of Horningsea or the swamp dwellers of Fen Ditton or the shepherds of Teversham lived in – wondering whether magic, or the ancestors, or this new-fangled faith from Rome could make some sense for them of a world in which there could be so much that was good, but there was also so much that was dark; so much they understood and could control but so much they could not. As one of King Edwin’s pagan advisors put it when he was invited by St Paulinus to become a Christian,
“The present life of man upon earth, O king, seems to me, in comparison with that time which is unknown to us, like to the swift flight of a sparrow through the house wherein you sit at supper in winter, with your ealdormen and thegns, while the fire blazes in the midst, and the hall is warmed, but the wintry storms of rain or snow are raging abroad. The sparrow, flying in at one door and immediately out at another, whilst he is within, is safe from the wintry tempest; but after a short space of fair weather, he immediately vanishes out of your sight, passing from winter into winter again. So this life of man appears for a little while, but of what is to follow or what went before we know nothing at all. If, therefore, this new doctrine tells us something more certain, it seems justly to deserve to be followed.”
So is it so different for us now? We work technological miracles every day and enjoy lives for the most part and for most of us that are far from bloody, brutal and short – and yet, the darkness is still at the door. New viruses appear to threaten us, and indeed our computers; we crack the tiniest components of the atom but discover too a world of complexity and chaos that defies prediction; unruly terrorism breaks out just when we thought we were at peace; and outright war raises its head just as we thought we had got on top of the terrorism. What indeed is truth, we wonder; is there such a thing; or is the world only a menagerie of competing and often monstrous claims? Is there meaning and purpose to our lives? Is there anything sacred?
St Paul perhaps had something of this in mind when he said that the whole creation was subjected to futility or frustration, and was groaning for the new creation to be given birth. This is not a property of one time or a few places; it is the human condition.
So it is also our condition here in these Cambridgeshire parishes. You have done some wonderful things, but you have also known frustrations. You have huge hopes for this energetic, engaging priest who will provide spiritual leadership and help foster your many opportunities to reach out into your local communities, as you put it in your parish profile – so no pressure Alun – but I remember too the sardonic story of the old country churchwarden who warmly congratulated his vicar on his leaving day that his successor would never be able to live up to him. “Why do you say that, John,” asked the Vicar; “we’ve often disagreed.” “It’s simple,” replied John. “I’ve seen five vicars come and five vicars go, and not one of them was as good as the one before him.”
Friends, you have fine vicar here in Alun and it’s time to be rejoicing and getting stuck in together; but I have news for you: he is not Jesus. But I also have news for you: Jesus really is no figment of our imagination. He did live and die and rise again two thousand years ago, with hard historical evidence for it that is as good as one can get. He did inspire the hearts and minds of his followers then and has done over the centuries since, in the biggest and deepest intellectual and spiritual movement the world has even seen, that made our society what it is today.
And more than that. Did you notice the strange idea in that reading from Romans that it was God himself who had subjected us to this frustration, or at least allowed it? Even way back in the Middle Ages bishops and theologians were seeing that if God is God, he must have known from the beginning that his creation, given its freedom, would go awry – but have chosen that it, that we were worth it, much as we do when we bring a child into the world full of joy despite the challenges it will face. And they saw that the rescue plan in Christ Jesus must in some way have also then been in God’s mind, that he chose to make up the difference and save us as really as a dad today might save his child from the path of an oncoming car. In a deep sense not just the order but the chaos, not just polite society but the monsters, are his and part of his plan.
That’s why St Paul in tonight’s reading can say that we and all creation can have hope despite the frustrations of humanity; because of Jesus, because of God. Alun can read the funeral service over your parents, but only God can turn the words we say in hope about heaven into reality. Alan can baptise your children and proclaim the gift to them of eternal life; but that life comes from God alone.
The risk our forefathers took way back in those Anglo-Saxon days was to dare to believe that it was all not just words, but deeply true. You and I face the same choice now.
We can choose the path of cynicism and disbelief; but with it comes a world just as bleak as the Saxon seafarer adrift on the ocean with no lord to go to. A world in which truth and goodness mean no more than what the loudest voice says they mean; a world in which there is no reason beyond our own convenience that anyone else really matters. We can choose not to choose; but what sort of way of life is that, always the spectator and never on the pitch; always the one with the wisecrack but never the one with wisdom.
Or we can choose life. We can choose to follow the sort of life and the way of life that Jesus showed us, transcending our selfish genes as even Richard Dawkins says is our human calling, but doing it knowing that the deepest power of the cosmos has as its DNA self-giving love, and that when we live in love, we live in him, and will live in him for ever, and that love will win.
See more pictures of monsters at http://blogs.bl.uk/digitisedmanuscripts/2013/03/monsters-and-marvels-in-the-beowulf-manuscript.html which is where the one at the top is taken from (Detail of a miniature of a blemmya, from the Marvels of the East, England, 4th quarter of the 10th century, Cotton MS Vitellius A XV, f. 102v)