Some years ago I was taught by a wise churchwarden that it’s a good idea to leave open church doors in hot weather. The circulating warm breeze takes any damp edge off the air inside, and dries out the old stones and plaster. All very well, but when the protective wire netting over the doorframes is as holey and ragged as it is at St Michael’s it means, as today, you may have to share Morning Prayer with an unexpected congregant.
My arrival this morning is disturbing; not for me: a pigeon flaps vainly around in the rafters. But when I take a seat in the chancel, she settles and perches on a metal rail above the altar, looking all the while warily down at me. I choose to read the psalms and scriptures out loud today for her benefit. And she seems to appreciate it. Particularly perhaps
Who is like the Lord our GodPsalm 113:5-6
who is seated on high,
who looks far down
on the heavens and the earth?
It’s the day in the Church calendar on which we remember the Virgin Mary’s visit to her cousin Elizabeth: the Visitation. Both women are with child, Mary with our Lord Jesus Christ; and Elizabeth, a few months further gone, with John the Baptist. It’s one of the most intimate and moving stories in the Bible.
In those days Mary set out and went with haste to a Judean town in the hill country, where she entered the house of Zechariah and greeted Elizabeth. When Elizabeth heard Mary’s greeting, the child leaped in her womb. And Elizabeth was filled with the Holy Spirit and exclaimed with a loud cry, “Blessed are you among women, and blessed is the fruit of your womb. And why has this happened to me, that the mother of my Lord comes to me? For as soon as I heard the sound of your greeting, the child in my womb leaped for joy. And blessed is she who believed that there would be a fulfillment of what was spoken to her by the Lord.Luke 1:39-45
One of the great blessings of the Christian faith is, I think, its bodiliness, its physicality. These two pregnant women in a hilltop town of Roman occupied Judea are the cosmic hinge on which the world turns. And they know it in their bodies.
Amongst all the mosaics decorating the sixth century basilica of St. Euphrasius in Poreč in Northern Croatia is a wonderful depiction of the Visitation. Taking considerable liberty with Luke’s words, the artist has chosen to include an entirely non-scriptural character in the scene: a young woman holding aside a curtain or veil in order to eavesdrop on the women’s conversation.
It’s a brilliant device. The girl’s spying presence allows us into the scene. With her, we can listen in on the intensely private conversation. She serves to underline the intimacy and domesticity of the moment. But she also alerts us to the underlying miracle. The portrayal of shock on the girl’s face is touching: she holds a finger to her open mouth, recognising in a flash that this apparently mundane meeting between two pregnant women, is the key to her salvation. To the salvation of the world.
The girl in the mosaic reminds me of that moment in The Wizard of Oz when Dorothy finally reaches the throne room of the Kingdom. There’s grand architecture designed to overwhelm, a booming voice, an impressive throne, clouds of coloured smoke, flames. Church, basically.
I am Oz, the great and powerful. Who are you?
Dorothy and her friends quake with fear. The cowardly lion declares he wants to go home.
But then Dorothy pulls aside a curtain to discover the real wizard, a man of regular height, modest appearance, and unimpressive mien – a man with a microphone. She and her friends are indignant. It’s all a trick, a fraud. This Wizard is just ‘a humbug,’ says Dorothy.
But wait a second, this humbug has been able to show the Tinman, the Lion and the Scarecrow and Dorothy that what they had needed, what they had been searching for all this time – brains, heart, courage – deep down they’d had all along. He transforms them by showing them themselves.
The reality of this kind man, this humbug, is infinitely more powerful than any smoke and mirrors effects.
Tinman: How can I ever thank you enough?
Wizard: Well, you can’t!
And like Dorothy in The Wizard of Oz, that girl in the sixth century mosaic pulls aside the curtain of the world to reveal for us: the truth. Not a king who is terrifying, who demands our humble obeisance, whose promises – like the Wizard’s – are always delayed till tomorrow. But a baby in a womb, a king who humbles himself so as to live with us and die for us. A king who doesn’t guard his kingdom but gives it away to the undeserving. (Remember Elizabeth’s question: why has this happened to me?) A king who, when he comes, transforms, reveals and redeems without the trappings of worldly power and might. With the very opposite of worldly power and might. With love.
My grace is sufficient for you, for power is made perfect in weakness.2 Corinthians 12:9
In the hemispherical half-dome of the basilica’s apse is another mosaic, this one depicting sainted bishops and martyrs approaching a throne against a backdrop of shimmering gold. It’s as awesome as Oz’s throne room. But seated on the throne in majesty is… a mother and child. Never forget how radical that image is.
Above Mary’s head, like a dove, is the Holy Spirit, reaching down, offering a crown.
Standing up after Morning Prayer, I feel blessed by the presence of the pigeon, almost as Elizabeth is blessed, filled by the Holy Spirit. She’s reminded me to be like the girl in the mosaic, to be like Dorothy, to pull the curtain aside and to see the reality behind everything: a Kingdom…
The twelfth century Sufi poem and fable The Conference of the Birds by Farid ud-Din Attar tells the story of how all the birds of the world go, like Dorothy and her companions, in search of a leader, a king, a God; in this case, a mythical bird called the Simurgh. But they find:
The different types of birds that are seen in the world are only the shadow of Simurgh. Know then, that when you understand this you will understand exactly your relation to the Simurgh. Ponder over this mystery. He who acquires this knowledge sinks into the immensity of the Simurgh; though he must not think that he is God on that account. If you become this of which I speak you will not be God, but you will be immersed in God.The Conference of the Birds, chapter 13
This is British composer and bassist Dave Holland’s beautiful and much-loved track The Conference of the Birds from 1973:
Reality behind reality,
grant us the wisdom and courage
to pull aside the curtain
of our habits and worldly judgements
to see the Way of salvation open before us,
the Truth of your abiding love for us,
the Life eternally unfolding around us.
How can we ever thank you? We can’t.
Make us obedient to your will in all things,
as Mary and Elizabeth are obedient,
and may we, like them, be instruments of your sufficient grace,
made perfect in weakness, as your Son is perfect,
our Lord Jesus Christ.