Rugby is in the air. This morning my five-year old son Freddie started rugby. The Rugby World Cup starts soon at Twichenham. And this morning’s Sunday Worship on Radio 4 came from Rugby School where the game was invented.
What struck me in the snatches of the service I caught amidst the excitement of Freddie getting ready for rugby was the way the transcendent was avoided during the service. Swing Low Sweet Chariot was sung very beautifully and its central biblical imagery noted while origins –or at least use–in the American Civil Rights movement was mentioned. But that central biblical imagery–the chariots of fire which of course also give the name to the famous film dramatizing social and religious exclusion and exclusiveness–was not explored. There was no mention of the transcendent source of deliverance. Nor was there any mention of the ways that transcendence dwells in the everyday. In fact, the biblical passages speaks of this tension (2 Kings 6: 15ff):
15 When an attendant of the man of God rose early in the morning and went out, an army with horses and chariots was all around the city. His servant said, “Alas, master! What shall we do?” 16 He replied, “Do not be afraid, for there are more with us than there are with them.” 17 Then Elisha prayed: “OLord, please open his eyes that he may see.” So the Lord opened the eyes of the servant, and he saw; the mountain was full of horses and chariots of fire all around Elisha.
We are –perhaps quite rightly–hesitant these days to talk about what seems a Deus-ex-machina kind of God. But we also run the risk of forgetting that a crucial dimension of the Christian story and message is in the midst and beyond as the chariots are fire are.
As it happens, the lectionary gives us a story for today which brings us towards confronting the transcendent, the ultimate.
In Mark’s Gospel, Jesus takes measures to try to stop his disciples telling people who he is as the Messiah. This is partly because what people would expect him to be as the Messiah: a political revolutionary who would liberate his people from the Roman oppressor was now what he was. In Mark’s Gospel, the first person who does recognise him is in fact a Roman—the centurion at the foot of the Cross.
Jesus’ identity is revealed in his marginalization, his disabling by society, and yet it is that very society and its power which recognizes who he is at the point of ultimate disablement on the Cross.
Today we may go on about “when we receive a child and receiving Christ and the Father.” The call to receive refugees seems clear. But do we recognize too that the child in the biblical world is the marginal, the absolutely powerless, the dis-abled. We are called to stand with the disabled and so to open our hearts and our homes to the marginal–the transcendent among but also beyond us.